Fiddler launches new album at Celtic Connections 


photo by Archie MacFarlane


Jenna Reid is enthusing about having an ally from home by her side as she prepares to launch her latest album, Working Hands, at Celtic Connections this weekend.


Featuring music the Shetland-born fiddler composed specially for the leading and fearlessly adventurous string ensemble, Mr McFall’s Chamber, Working Hands represents a significant step forward for Reid in career that has produced many notable highs since she began playing in a band, Filska, with her sister, Bethany when they were still in their mid-teens.


Writing for Mr McFall’s Chamber, whose repertoire extends from chamber pieces to adaptations of music by Frank Zappa and Weather Report, says Reid, was both inspiring and slightly daunting but any nerves that might have arisen in the recording process were assuaged by the presence, on piano, of fellow Shetlander Harris Playfair.


“Harris and I grew up in the same small village, Quarff – he lived just round the corner from us – and I’d see him at sessions back home but we never really got to know each other until after I’d moved to Glasgow to study,” she says.


Reid was in her final year on the then Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama’s Scottish music course when she decided to enter the BBC Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year competition. She reached the final and although she didn’t win – Gaelic singer James Graham became the first male winner that year, 2004 – she had the best consolation prize she could have imagined. Her accompanist turned out to be Harris Playfair.


“The way things worked – and I think it’s still the same – is that Simon Thoumire, who initiated the competition and has come up with all sorts of schemes to promote traditional music, selected an in-house group of musicians to rehearse with and accompany all the finalists,” she says. “So I turned up and was introduced to the pianist, and it was Harris. He had become a music teacher and was living in the Borders but the minute we started to play the first set of tunes, it was like we’d been playing together for years. He just seemed to know exactly where I needed him to be on the keyboard at any given moment.”


Playfair had been doing great work in the Borders, where he still lives. His big band, Junction Pool, which comprised pupils and former pupils from Kelso High School (he’s since moved to Berwickshire High in Duns), received rave reviews in the national press for an album it released in the mid-noughties and it seemed that he was an inspiring figure to everyone who came into contact with him.


After hearing the musical rapport between Reid and Playfair in rehearsals and on the night of the ‘Young Trad’ final, Simon Thoumire suggested that the fiddler should make the album she would have been entitled to make as part of the prize, had she won the competition. Albums by young traditional musicians weren’t quite appearing with the blizzard-like regularity that would become the case not long afterwards. So Reid accepted and went into Castlesound Studios in Pencaitland (where she also recorded Working Hands) with a group of musicians including Playfair and guitarist Kevin Mackenzie. The resulting album, With Silver and All, was followed by two more for Thoumire’s Footstompin’ label and a further, live recording – from Shetland’s new Mareel venue – in 2014 that captured Reid and Playfair’s knife-edge understanding particularly well.   


“The Live in Shetland album, which had duets between myself and Bethany and with Kevin Mackenzie too, was a great example of what Harris brings to our partnership,” says Reid. “We don’t actually play together all that often, because he has his teaching commitments and I’m away with the fiddle quartet Rant and Blazin’ Fiddles quite a lot, but when we do get the chance to play, we pick up where we left off every time, even if there’s been a year or maybe longer between meetings. It’s fantastically reassuring to see him sitting at the piano, knowing that he’ll immediately know the appropriate chord or fall in with whatever melody I want to play.”


Working Hands has its roots in a short series of lessons that Reid took with Robert McFall back in 2012. Looking to expand her arranging knowledge and develop further her already impressive ability in playing slow airs, she sought advice from McFall, who encouraged her to think about writing for his group.


“I’d go to him with a two-violins idea and ask him to pick apart what I’d written, so that I could get further into the mechanics of arranging,” she says. “I also loved his violin playing because in a way it reminded me of my teacher back in Shetland, Willie Hunter, who died in 1995 but who studied with an Italian violinist, Geoffrey di Mercado. Willie always said that the classical influence was an important element in the way he expressed himself on slow airs and I think Robert helped me with that.”


It was Reid’s husband, percussionist Iain Sandilands, whose presence on a Mr McFall’s Chamber album persuaded her to follow up McFall’s suggestion that she compose something for the group.


“Iain took away the fear factor,” she says. “There was also the fact that at the point I started working on the music I was expecting my second child. That was quite a spur because I realised that I wouldn’t have the time to work on music again for quite a while and it turned out that there was about eighteen months between the recording and the album’s release.”


Writing for a chamber quartet, she says, has similarities to writing for Rant, the Herald Angel award-winning fiddle quartet who have a third album and tour due later in the year.


“The thing about Rant is that we’re all old pals – that’s how we got together in the first place – and we tend to work up arrangements together from basic ideas,” says Reid. “With the McFalls, they’ll read anything you put in front of them but I was very aware that the parts I wrote had to be exactly right. At the same time, they’re great people and they make your music sound as good as it can possibly sound, so I really enjoyed writing specifically for the four of them. Su-a [Lee] on cello, for example, is a marvellously expressive player and I was really, really lifted by hearing her play the song I wrote for her.”


As with many traditional musicians, Celtic Connections is a busy time for Reid. As well as launching Working Hands (she, Playfair and McFall’s Chamber take the music on tour in April), she is taking part in 1990s folk whirlwind Deaf Shepherd’s 25th anniversary concert (on January 19) and will be with Blazin’ Fiddles as they reprise their 20th anniversary show with singer Karen Matheson (January 31).


“I’m really lucky to get to play with both of these bands, and Karen of course, because they were quite well established when they asked me to join them,” she says. “I still get a buzz when I turn up to play with people whose albums I listened to a lot – and when it turns out that they’ve listened to my music too, that’s a great feeling.”


Jenna Reid & Harris Playfair and Mr McFall’s Chamber play Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Sunday, January 20.  


From The Herald, January 16, 2019



LoLanders go Dutch at Celtic Connections


Fraser Fifield (left) with Graeme Stephen


Fraser Fifield is untangling the web of lines that has brought LoLanders, a band that makes its debut at Celtic Connections, together. The late artist and writer Pete Frame became the go-to guy for rock family trees that traced every connection leading up to the birth - and what came after their lifespan - of bands both famous and not so well known, and his assiduousness would have been useful here.


Fifield and his nominal co-leader, the Dutch violist Oene van Geel, have worked together before, as have van Geel and LoLanders guitarist, Graeme Stephen, and Fifield and Stephen have history as a duo and in Fifield’s on-and-off trio with various drummers. Then there’s van Geel’s duo with LoLanders’ bass guitarist Mark Haanstra and other situations that have involved one or other of the above with Glasgow-based tablas player Hardeep Deerhe and Dutch percussionist Udo Demandt.


“What’s most exciting for me, and I think for all the other musicians too, is that we’ve never all played together before and we won’t know what LoLanders sounds like until the first day of rehearsals,” says Fifield, who prefers to be thought of as the catalyst who caused the sextet to form rather than a bandleader. “We have six very experienced musicians who’ll all have an input and although the composers among us will all be bringing new pieces to rehearsals, there’s no pre-thought direction for us to follow. We really will see what happens.”


LoLanders is the latest project in the Going Dutch programme that has been bringing musicians from the Netherlands to the UK and Ireland over the past eighteen months or so. The difference here, though, is that, rather than a one-way visit, plans are in hand for LoLanders to play concerts in the Netherlands, including a gig at Amesterdam’s long-established Bimhuis, as well as the upcoming Celtic Connections gig and further UK appearances in the summer.


“It’s actually quite unusual to know before we play the first concert that there will be others six months or so down the line,” says Fifield, a multi-instrumentalist whose versatility has taken him across the world, touring internationally with Indian percussion master Zakir Hussain and recording in Buenos Aires with leading contemporary exponents of tango music as well as featuring with musicians from closer to home including Capercaillie and Aly Bain. “Lots of bands have come together for an initial project that has turned into a one-off, never to be heard from again, so knowing that we have a possibility of developing a LoLanders repertoire and identity makes this all the more interesting.”


The idea behind LoLanders was that Fifield and Oene van Geel should each invite two musicians they enjoyed working with to create the sextet. Fifield and van Geel first met in 2012 when they were selected for the London-based organisation Serious’s first international Take Five, an initiative aimed at giving composer-performers aged twenty-five to thirty-five with a background in jazz and improvising music the opportunity to take time out to develop their craft, build their careers and get their music out into the world. 


“We got on really well from the start and understood each other musically,” says Fifield. The fact that their first instruments – Fifield plays bagpipes and saxophone but for some time has majored on the low whistle – aren’t immediately associated with jazz probably helped with the bonding process. Following on from the Take Five retreat van Geel invited Fifield over to Amsterdam to work with his trio Nordanians, a group that marries international influences with jazz and raga approaches, on concerts marking his receipt of the prestigious Boy Edgar award, which over the past fifty years and more has acknowledged musicians who have made a significant contribution to the Dutch music scene.


“Playing with the Nordanians was really liberating,” says Fifield, who made quite an impression on Dutch promoters and festival organisers at that time. “Up to then I’d come through the experience of learning the pipes but not feeling completely at ease because of my Scots-English background and then coming at the saxophone from a slightly odd perspective and not having the full grounding in jazz. With the Nordanians I played whistle more or less exclusively and I felt, here’s a situation where I can be completely myself. I feel I’ve progressed as a player since then and developed a technique where I can play chromatically. The low whistle especially is a very versatile instrument and I’ve worked really hard to try and chip away at its perceived limitations. I’ll probably have the pipes and saxophone with me for LoLanders but playing the low whistle is where I feel I’ll make the most natural contribution.”


It was shortly after Fifield’s experience with the Nordanians that he put his long-time associate Stephen in touch with Oene van Geel. The guitarist was working on music that featured himself with a string quartet who would have to be fairly elastic in their approach. And it turned out that van Geel had just such a group, Zapp4.


Van Geel takes up the story: “Fraser told me about Graeme and I thought, if Graeme has the same sense of adventure and the same expression in his playing as Fraser does, then this could be really interesting. So Graeme and I set up a Skype call. I loved Graeme’s ideas, especially his compositions for silent movie soundtracks, which have become a specialism of his. In fact, one of my compositions – a double cello concerto – was quite heavily influenced by Graeme’s writing and Distances, the suite we recorded and toured with Graeme and Zapp4 turned out really well. After we’d recorded that, in 2015, Stephen composed a soundtrack for the 1927 classic film Metropolis for himself, Zapp4 and the drummer/percussionist Tom Bancroft, which we premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016. We later took that to the Xintiandi Festival in Shanghai, China. So we have quite a history together now and I’m really looking forward to working with him in LoLanders.”


For Fifield, it’s the strength of personalities that all of the musicians bring to LoLanders that gives him confidence that this untried combination will produce something interesting.


“We actually chose the musicians first and considered the instrumentation, not exactly as an afterthought but as of secondary importance,” he says. “As it happens we have a combination of melody and harmony instruments with quite a strong emphasis on rhythm, between guitar, bass guitar and two percussionists, so we have the three main elements covered. I have no idea of what it might sound like but I’ve every faith in the musicians concerned and I’m confident that what they produce together will be of good quality.”


LoLanders is just one entry in Fifield’s diary during Celtic Connections. On January 19, the day his Dutch colleagues arrive to begin rehearsing for LoLanders, he is part of the band performing the score for the computer-animated fantasy adventure film, Brave, in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. He also features with Aberdeenshire ballad singer Frieda Morrison and Gaelic singer (and Outlander favourite) Gillebride MacMillan later in the month.


Lolanders appear at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Tuesday, January 22. 


From The Herald, January 2, 2019 



Singer explores Gaelic's Icelandic connections




Kathleen MacInnes brings a new collaboration with the Icelandic string ensemble amiina to Celtic Connections next month knowing that one of its central themes has already worked its magic on a select audience.


The Gaelic singer from South Uist with the distinctive smoky tone has been researching the common threads in the Icelandic and Gaelic traditions and has found that the lullabies from her own culture that she sang to her three sons as infants have echoes in Icelandic songs.   


 “I sang all my boys to sleep when they were babies,” she recalls. “I’d mostly sing Gaelic lullabies, just rolling one into another, and they worked really well. Now the boys are past the lullaby stage I no longer needed these songs for that purpose so I decided to share them with parents who might appreciate them.” 


MacInnes never set out to become a professional singer. Growing up with Gaelic as her first language  in the Hebrides in the 1970s, she sang at school and joined in the ceilidhs that were at the centre of the local social life. Her native language proved handy as, when she arrived in Glasgow to take up a job at the BBC, Gaelic television was just beginning to take off and she was chosen for acting roles – she’s appeared in Gaelic soap Machair and comedy shows including Ran Dan and PC Alasdair Stewart - and offered work as a presenter.


It was while she was presenting the music programme Tacsi that MacInnes met Donald Shaw, the founder of Gaelic band Capercaillie and Celtic Connections’ artistic director for the past decade, who was the programme’s musical director. Shaw encouraged her to sing and she has gone on to win admirers including film producer Ridley Scott, who described her voice as “beautiful” and chose her to sing in his 2010 film of Robin Hood, and to perform in a variety of musical situations.  


As well as singing with musicians from the Gaelic world, including the piping brothers Iain and Allan MacDonald, and the Scottish tradition such as singer Fiona Hunter and multi-instrumentalist Mike Vass, she has sung with Transatlantic Sessions stalwarts Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas, bluegrass sweetheart Alison Krauss and banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck. She has also embraced music technology, appearing on Gaelic electro-experimenters Niteworks’ Maraiche, and music from wider cultures, singing with Malian singer Oumou Sangare and kora player Toumani Diabate. Then, at Celtic Connections 2018, she showed another example of her willingness to try something different by joining jazz duo Tommy Smith & Brian Kellock onstage.


“That was terrifying and yet at the same time, exhilarating,” she says. “We did an improvised fifteen minutes during their set and I’d only met them for the first time and spent fifteen minutes with them just before the concert.” She’s now looking forward to exploring this musical collaboration further in June in one of two appearances she’s making as part of the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh’s fortieth anniversary celebrations, the other one being on a folk music concert with John McCusker, Heidi Talbot, Phil Cunningham and others.


Her project with amiina came about when she decided to record some of the lullabies and melodies she’d sung to her sons. She spoke to Donald Shaw, who has continued to champion her singing (he it was who suggested she sing with Tommy Smith & Brian Kellock and with Oumou Sangare and Toumani Diabate), about working with Icelandic musicians. Having heard a number of Icelanders whose music she enjoyed, she felt they might help to produce the sound she was after. She’d also felt a connection with Iceland for some time, not unnaturally as the Hebrides and Iceland have links going back centuries.


“In the late 1990s I lived in New York on and off for three or four years and the way we travelled back and forth was always via Iceland,” she says. “When I'd get off the plane for the connecting flight I’d feel at home because the light there was exactly the same as it was in the Hebrides.”


The Norse, or Viking, influence on the Hebrides has been well documented. MacInnes reels off place names such as Stornoway (from the old Norse for steering bay), Laxdale (salmon valley) and Lingashader (a farm or shieling) and says that many Lewis place names can be matched to locations in south-west Iceland around Reykjavik. There’s also research suggesting that Hebridean women were taken to Iceland by Vikings who realised they had a problem when they settled in Iceland in the 9th century – no women. 


“Leif Erikson, the great Icelandic explorer and son of Erik the Red, visited Lewis and while wintering in Uig, fathered a child with a noble young woman, Thorgunna,” adds MacInnes. “The boy was named Thorgils, which is now used frequently in Lewis as Torcuil, and other Viking names, such as Tormod and Ruairidh, are still commonly used in the islands.”


It was the common use of fairies – or huldufolk (elves in Icelandic and Faorese folklore)-  in both Gaelic and Icelandic lullabies that particularly intrigued her. When she was singing to her sons she used to think it was just as well as that they hadn’t yet learned Gaelic as a lot of the Gaelic lullabies, as with other cultures across the world, are quite dark. Children frequently get carried off by these fairies and huldufolk.


“When I spoke with Donald about exploring the musical connections between the Hebrides and Iceland I mentioned artists I had heard producing quite gentle and magical sounds that I thought would work really well,” she says “Donald did some research and approached amiina, who worked with the Icelandic avant-rock band Sigur Ros for a long time. They use a lot of instruments to make their sound and when playing live they swap instruments during a piece to create dreamy soundscapes.”


The collaboration with amiina is just one of the shows at Celtic Connections that MacInnes is involved in. As part of a large cast of traditional singers and musicians, she has been working with former Danny Wilson and current Simple Minds bass guitarist Ged Grimes on a Gaelic soundtrack for the computer game The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep, which gets its live premiere at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on January 31. She will also be singing backing vocals for fellow South Uist singer Sineag MacIntyre, who launches her debut album at St Andrew’s in the Square on January 26.


In the meantime she’s been enjoying sitting in for BBC Radio Scotland presenter Iain Anderson and readying herself for her project with amiina, in the process no doubt fielding questions about whether she believes in fairies and huldufolk.


“A few years ago I was in Slieve Mór, Teelin in south west Donegal with the brilliant harp player from County Mayo, Laoise Kelly,” she says. “We met Cití Sean Cunningham, a beautiful old Irish lady who was in her nineties at the time. We got talking about na daoine beaga - the small people - and she said, ‘It doesn’t matter if you believe in the fairies or not, they are there anyway’ – and that’s good enough for me.”


Kathleen MacInnes and amiina appear at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on January 19.


From The Herald, December 18, 2018




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