Musicians pay tribute to sax master Bobby Wellins
To saxophonist Tommy Smith, he was a grandmaster of the saxophone. To trumpeter Tom MacNiven, he was the famous guest who – much to the trumpeter’s surprise - agreed to appear on MacNiven’s first album. And to guitarist Nigel Clark, he was the initially irascible saxophone teacher who was unimpressed at having to merge the guitar students with the saxophone players’ class but who subsequently offered Clark a gig with his band.
Ask most jazz musicians in Scotland and the UK generally and they’ll have something to say about Bobby Wellins, the Glasgow-born saxophonist who is forever associated with pianist Stan Tracey’s 1965 album, Under Milk Wood, although that was by no means the first or last significant piece of music Wellins helped to create. Mostly it’s the sound he made on the tenor saxophone that stands out, a unique, beautiful sound, as Tommy Smith, for whom Wellins was an inspiration, describes it.
Tom MacNiven, who will mark the twentieth anniversary of recording his album Guess What? with Wellins in Glasgow Jazz Festival’s Bobby Wellins celebration concert, agrees with Smith’s assessment.
“Some saxophone players’ music is beautiful but their sound can be ugly,” he says. “Bobby’s sound was never ugly and he had an amazing way of moving smoothly from note to note. That might sound trivial but the flow he achieved was really special. It was like listening to someone singing on a musical instrument.”
MacNiven and Clark, who is opening the tribute concert, were of a similar age – early twenties – when they had their first experience of Wellins. For the former, the saxophonist was suggested by drummer, promoter and record producer Iain Copeland, as the special guest on the album Copeland was producing to launch MacNiven’s career.
“When Iain said he could get Bobby Wellins to play on the album, my first response was, Are you serious?” says MacNiven, who has gone on to establish himself with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and later featured with Wellins on SNJO’s recording of Wellins’ Culloden Moor Suite. “I’d always loved his playing and thought he’d be too big time to play with an unknown like me. But Bobby came in to do the album and although I was obviously a lot less experienced than he was, he never made me feel in any way inferior. In fact, we went on to do a few more gigs together, as well as the Culloden Moor concerts and recording, and he was always a pleasure to work with.”
If Clark’s initial impression was a less than happy one, his overall experience of Wellins was career-shaping. Having served his time as a rock guitarist around Glasgow, Clark moved to Brighton at the age of twenty-three and formed a band that played Charlie Parker bebop tunes. The band’s first gig – and Clark’s first-ever jazz gig – was at a sold-out Brighton Jazz Club, playing support to the late Mark Murphy, the ultra-hip singer and subject of a recent biography.
One of the organisers, hearing Clark, suggested that should go along the coast the next day to Bognor Regis, where Bobby Wellins’ annual jazz tuition weekend was taking place. The great Irish guitarist Louis Stewart was scheduled to be the guitar tutor but when Clark arrived, he was told that Stewart hadn’t shown up. As the oldest of the three guitar students, Clark was put in charge of the guitar class until the first coffee break, when Wellins decided to bring the guitarists into his saxophone class.
“Bobby was very grumpy with me in class for the entire first day, to such an extent that I was determined not to resume the second day,” says Clark. “But Trevor Kaye, a sax player I knew in Brighton, was very persuasive and I went back. Bobby was in a very different frame of mind next day and was more than encouraging, finishing off the afternoon by asking me to come and play with his band on their regular Sunday gig in Bognor, a prospect I found quite terrifying at the time.”
Clark remembers being bowled over by Wellins’ playing at the tutors’ concert that closed the weekend and although quite in awe of this musician who had achieved legendary status, as well as having lost a decade or so to what’s euphemistically described as the jazz life, he accepted Wellins’ offer to play with his band.
“That was probably my first real big confidence boost,” he says. “And the ensuing, frenzied practice regime that I adopted from that time was certainly pivotal to my setting a course to becoming a jazz musician. I remember Bobby asking how I had learned to play jazz as I was able to put together very nice little solos, as he put it, and he lamented the fact that young up and coming players like myself would have no access to the education he’d had, which was all- night jam sessions at places like Ronnie Scott's.”
The London jazz scene that nurtured Wellins as a musician after he’d moved from Glasgow in the mid-1950s also made temptations available that almost led to his destruction. Although he could tell entertaining stories about his exploits during what he described as his affair with heroin, if it hadn’t been for his wife, Isobel, getting him out of London, Wellins might not have seen his fortieth birthday, let alone his eightieth, which he celebrated a few months before he died in 2016.
Fortunately, after a ten-year absence, he was able to resume his career in 1978 and the albums he released back then, including Dreams Are Free and the Primrose Path, which he recorded with former Charles Mingus trombonist Jimmy Knepper, stand up as representing a completely individual stylist whose playing could convey every human emotion, often in the same saxophone solo.
For Tommy Smith, who befriended Wellins after looking up to him as the first great Scottish tenor saxophonist, Wellins was “a composer of profound integrity as well as a very serious musician” and it was with no little pleasure that, as the director of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, he was able to bring Wellins’ Culloden Moor Suite to the stage and record it for posterity.
“Bobby was a beautiful guy, one of the greatest, and I miss him,” says Smith, who carries Wellins’ influence into his own concerts.
Tom MacNiven will find it impossible not to think of Wellins as he recreates Guess What? specially for the Glasgow Jazz Festival concert.
“We’re going to play it pretty much in its entirety,” he says. “Bobby didn’t play on the whole album as some tracks were designed to showcase me in a quartet, but we’ll probably adapt the quartet tunes for the quintet. I’m really excited to be playing these tunes and having Konrad [Wiszniewski] and Brian [Kellock], who also played with Bobby, either on the Culloden Moor Suite or on other gigs, in the band with Calum Gourlay and Doug Hough will make it all the more special.”
Tom MacNiven Quintet & Nigel Clark Celebrate Bobby Wellins at Drygate, Glasgow on Saturday, June 23.
You can read more about Tom MacNiven's Guess What here
Inspired by the mermaids, ghosts and magic of Sandwood Bay
Duncan Chisholm is not a mind-reader but there are times when the Inverness-based fiddler is playing a melody that he would love to know what his audience are picturing in their imaginations as they listen.
Over the past ten years or so Chisholm has become increasingly inspired by places and the desire to communicate a sense of these places in his music. His multi-media project Kin, which he premiered at the Blas festival of highland culture in 2007 and for which he subsequently won a Herald Angel award during the Edinburgh Fringe, took him deep into the Highland landscapes of his forebears. This led on to his Strathglass Trilogy, which actually became four albums as he followed his musical representations of the ancient clan Chisholm lands, Farrar, Canaich and Affric, with a live album recorded in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum during Celtic Connections in 2013.
It was during the process of conceiving, composing and recording the Strathglass Trilogy that Chisholm realised that he’d caught the theme bug. So when it came to following it up he needed a project and one presented itself as he read a magazine article about Sandwood Bay. Located on the far north-west coast of Sutherland, this natural phenomenon with its mile-long beach of pink sand and 240-feet high sea stack requires determination to visit as it’s down a six-mile path from the nearest car park.
“I’d known about Sandwood for about thirty years and although I knew the area quite well, I’d never been to the bay,” says Chisholm between rehearsals and sound checks for the various concerts he’s involved in at this year’s Celtic Connections. “Reading that article, about two years ago now, made me think, I have to go. I’d no thoughts about making an album dedicated to it but on that first trip I immediately felt that I belonged there. Getting there really felt like making a pilgrimage, which is what I eventually called the first track on the album, and being there, miles from so-called civilization and feeling as if you could be living at any time in the past, present or future, made me start imagining melodies to describe this extraordinary place of beauty.”
Over the next eighteen months Chisholm made that pilgrimage another seven times, seeing Sandwood in all seasons and all weather. He read up about it and learned about the Viking longship that, legend has it, is buried beneath those pink sands and the many ships that foundered at nearby Cape Wrath and were washed up on the shoreline.
“There are lots of stories, about sailors haunting the beach and mermaids crying out in the sea,” he says. “It’s also reputed to be the site of the first Pictish settlement in what became known as Scotland. Nobody lives there now but so much has happened there over time and the topography is fascinating. Some of the most ancient rocks in the world are situated there and of course, the sea stack, Am Buachaille is beautiful.”
Each time Chisholm visited Sandwood he took his camera and returned home with images that fed into the tunes that make up Sandwood, the album.
Appropriately for a fiddle player whose style is very close to singing, when he is composing Chisholm absorbs scenes and gets to know images in the way that a traditional singer might learn the narrative of a ballad.
“I don’t actually look at the images as I’m writing,” he says. “I would look at what I’d captured on film for pleasure and then try to come up with phrases that describe the scene from memory. For me, playing the fiddle is very much like singing. I want the notes to be accurate but there has to be a human element and I find when I’m learning new music I tend to sing the melodies first to get to know the nuances.”
As with the Strathglass Trilogy, not all of the tunes on Sandwood were composed by Chisholm and his co-writer on this project, pianist-flautist Hamish Napier. The aptly titled A Precious Place comes from the pen of Celtic Connections director Donald Shaw and is given glorious “voice” by Chisholm, whose fiddle tone and technique, in an ideal world, would be, he says, a combination of Maria Callas’ perfection and the warm, golden sound of Gaelic singer Roddy Campbell from Barra. Shaw also provided Islands on the Edge and other tracks come from the writing of piper-saxophonist-whistle virtuoso Fraser Fifield, Irish singer and keyboard-player Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill in her Nightnoise era and Hamish Napier flying solo.
For Chisholm, using someone else’s composition is all part of the process of conceiving an album. He organises melodies into a linear form so that before he goes into the studio the album is planned with a beginning, a middle and an ending.
“I absolutely love playing live,” he says. “It’s the ultimate form of communication, a kind of one-to-one conversation with the audience where, especially in an intimate venue, you’re making the equivalent of eye contact to see if people are understanding what you’re saying musically. At the same time, though, and in a different way, recording is also a wonderful process, a joy. It’s like sculpting. You take in ideas and if you have the right people with you, magic can happen as the music takes on a subtly different shape to what you originally had in mind.”
Helping Chisholm to bring his ideas to fruition on Sandwood were musicians including uilleann pipes and whistle player Jarlath Henderson and guitarist-bass guitarist Ross Hamilton, both trusted studio allies from the Strathglass Trilogy. Hamilton, whose “day job” involves studio work with rock and pop bands, gives Chisholm’s music a current edge, with a canny use of electronica, that the fiddler himself wouldn’t necessarily find for himself.
“Ross has a great ear for sounds,” says Chisholm. “I often go into the studio with an arrangement idea where I’ll think, the pipes should come in here or this part needs a whistle line – and I know Jarlath will come up with a great harmony, for example – but Ross is the master at blending in something quite unexpected that enhances the atmosphere of a composition. It’s really inspiring and fascinating to hear phrases that might have started as something I hummed to myself on the beach or sitting on a rock come together into a whole album.”
The next phase in Sandwood’s life as a collection of music is to be performed live and following its premiere at Celtic Connections Chisholm takes it out on the road in late April. Beyond that, there will be more musical impressionism as, just as he says, Scotland offers limitless possibilities for a composer who likes to create a sense of place in his music.
“I’m not going to say too much,” he says, “but there is somewhere I have in mind that would be perfect for the next project.”
Sandwood is released on Copperfish Records.
Duncan Chisholm plays Anstruther Town Hall on June 30.
From The Herald, January 31, 2018
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