Under the Surface visit Scotland as jazz goes Dutch



                                 Sanne Rambags of Under the Surface


Scotland gets its first extended taste of Going Dutch, a major UK and Ireland-wide celebration of jazz from the Netherlands, when one of Holland’s most intriguing new groups, Under the Surface tours here next week.


A joint initiative by the Jazz Promotion Network, a body comprised of promoters, festival organisers and media workers, and Dutch Performing Arts, Going Dutch has already seen Dutch musicians feature in weekend events in Newcastle and at Glasgow Jazz Festival, where the Slovenian-born, now Amsterdam-based pianist Kaja Draksler appeared last June.


Two pilot tours last autumn also saw the legendary Instant Composers Pool Orchestra play a series of concerts in England and Ireland and the young french horn-guitar-drums group Kapok visit England. Over the next eighteen months there will be further tours and festival appearances and Under the Surface, who were one of the highlights of the Jazz International festival in Rotterdam in October, are an ideal illustration of what the project set out to achieve.


“The Dutch jazz scene is especially vibrant at the moment,” says the Jazz Promotion Network’s Nod Knowles, formerly music director at the Scottish Arts Council. “Dutch musicians have always had a reputation for bringing a touch of theatre or performance art to the music. The veteran drummer with the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra, Han Bennink is the outstanding example, and we wanted to reflect this and introduce audiences over here to more of the same. At the same time, though, we’re looking to make connections so that our own musicians will be able to export themselves to the Netherlands and benefit from the work we’re doing on Dutch musicians’ behalf.”


Although not nearly as flamboyant as Han Bennink, Under the Surface’s drummer and spokesperson, Joost Lijbaart has the experience of working in a ground-breaking group back in the 1990s when the saxophonist Yuri Honing’s trio, popular visitors to Scotland, led the revival of jazz musicians interpreting pop songs of the day. In Honing’s hands songs by Abba, Blondie, the Police, Greenday and others became sketches for jazz adventures.     


Lijbaart, who still works with Honing, was introduced to his colleagues in Under the Surface through Beaux Jazz, a project that offers young musicians an opportunity to collaborate with more experienced players.


“Our singer, Sanne Rambags was selected by Beaux Jazz to be part of its Next Generation strand,” says Lijbaart. “The idea is that the younger musicians are given carte blanche to create something with players who are already established. So Sanne selected the guitarist Bram Stadhouders, who I knew a little bit, and myself, giving us three musicians from different generations.”


Rambags chose her musicians wisely. As well as being an experienced drummer with a willingness to try something new, Lijbaart had the nous and contacts to find gigs for the new group, which he set about with enthusiasm.  In Stadhouser, Rambags has a guitarist who has worked with one of Europe’s most distinctive singers, Norwegian Sidsel Endresen. More significantly for the purposes of Under the Surface, however, is his experience with another Norwegian, the ultra-imaginative drummer and percussionist Terje Isungset.


Isungset is a character. One of his specialisms is performing ice concerts, featuring instruments he has made himself from blocks of ice, including guitar and trumpet, and performed in very low temperatures. Stadhouser won’t be bringing an ice guitar for Under the Surface’s Scottish dates but the atmospheres and sounds he created with Isungset have fed into the trio’s music.


“The minute we started to play I felt we had something special,” says Lijbaart.


Rambags’ singing style is very spontaneous and she often functions like another instrumentalist, although she also uses poetry (John Donne’s No Man is an Island features on the group’s self-titled album and texts by American Modernist poet Wallace Stevens have also acted as source material) to introduce the rhythm of speech. Her approach has been described as calling up ancient spirits and Lijbaart believes that this folk music element, a kind of shamanistic chanting, has opened doors for the group.


“After our first get-together I organised a recording session because I wanted to capture what we were doing while it was still new,” Lijbaart continues. “I’d had an idea for something like this for a long time but with Sanne and Bram it happened very naturally. In the studio we discovered that Sanne has compositions of her own, and that was cool, but we also found that interesting things happened when we just improvised and we were able to move in the same direction.”


Lijbaart has experienced the other side of improvising freely and it was a chastening exercise. In the early days of the Yuri Honing Trio they thought it would be a good idea to bring in the godfather of Dutch improvised music, the late pianist Mischa Mengelberg, a founder of the aforementioned Instant Composers Pool. The plan was to play together in duos and Lijbaart, only too aware of Mengelberg’s duo partnership with Han Bennink, was possibly overawed in Mengelberg’s presence but their duo improvisation didn’t go anywhere.


“I learned an important lesson from that day,” he says. “You need to approach improvisation with a strong idea and stick with it. Two people can have two different ideas that can work together or apart but you need to stay strong. With Under the Surface we don’t play free jazz but we were able to create a language that we communicated in so it was a matter of building up a vocabulary and developing a way of composing together in the moment.”


The music they play changes with every performance, so before the group recorded Under the Surface, its sole album to date, Lijbaart went walking in the forest near where he lives to try and imagine how the finished item would sound. He worked up a series of sketches drawn from atmospheres he encountered and he also spent a lot of time in his practice room working on sounds and rhythms. His percussion kit includes gongs, hand bells and a violin bow, all chosen to create colours that will complement Rambags’ voice and Stadhouders’ guitar and electronics.


“There was a review of our Jazz International Rotterdam gig on the London Jazz News website that picked up on the unspecified or mysterious folk traditions that Sanne appears to be drawing on with her singing,” says Lijbaart. “That actually describes what she does very well and it’s interesting because the first time we were invited to play outside of the Netherlands was in Mali, at this huge world music festival.


“We don’t play African music, certainly not like African musicians play it, but while we were in Mali we got to play with the kora master Toumani Diabate’s brother, Mamadou Sidiki Diabaté, and that worked incredibly well. We were also invited to another big world music festival, this time in Mexico, on the strength of our performance in Mali. So, between Sanne’s interest in Scandinavian traditions, Bram’s background in electronic music and my own history of playing jazz and some African and Indian music, we’ve somehow arrived at this spontaneous world music style.” 


Under the Surface play the Blue Lamp, Aberdeen on Thursday, February 22; Eyemouth Hippodrome, Friday, February 23; and the Blue Arrow, Glasgow, Saturday, February 24. 


From The Herald, February 14, 2018. 


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 presents  Sandwood live at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall’s New Auditorium on Sunday, February 4; Cecil Sharp House, London on April 19; Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, April 28; Eden Court, Inverness, April 29; Perth Concert Hall, May 5; and Orkney Folk Festival, May 24-27.


From The Herald, January 31, 2018



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