Colin Steele: Stramash (2009)
According to Scottish trumpeter Colin Steele's sleeve notes, a life-threatening quantity of whisky was consumed during the composing process for Stramash, an exuberant bacchanal of jazz and Scottish folk music. Steele took himself away to the island of Islay, off the west coast of Scotland, to focus on the writing and to embrace, frequently and enthusiastically, that special mixture of "magic, madness and witchcraft...that only whisky can bring." In a health warning, Steele observes that he would certainly be dead within a few years had he continued this working practice once he returned to the mainland.
Whisky seeps out of the pores of every tune on Stramash in the most benevolent manner. The titlea Scottish word meaning disturbance, racket or commotionis at least in part ironic, for there is nothing confused or discordant about the music, performed by ten-piece lineup of jazz and folk players, which perfectly captures the vigor and simple beauty of the country's jigs and reels. To listen to the album is to be transported to some night-time pagan revel, illuminated by whisky and firelight, in the wilds of the highlands and islands.
Folk-infused projects are nothing new in jazz, but few of them have taken such a direct and unreconstructed path to the soul of their source material as Steele has taken on Stramash. Typically, in order to lend the "guest" music a degree of seriousness and sophistication, folk forms have been recalibrated and encased in bigger orchestral settings. Michael Gibbs' arrangements for pianist Joachim Kuhn's Europeana (ACT, 2006), first released in 1995, is an unusually successful example of this approach.
For Stramash, Steele took the opposite route, embedding himself in Scottish folk culture during the writing process, and recruiting some of the country's finest folk musicians to interpret the tunes alongside his regular jazz quintet. He comes at the tradition from the inside, not the outside. Fiddlers Aidan O'Rourke, Catriona MacDonald and Mairi Campbell, in whirlwind close-harmony ensembles, are at the heart of many of the tracks, with occasional solos from Steele, rough diamond tenor saxophonist Phil Bancroft, and pianist Dave Milligan (who is credited with the string arrangements), each a strikingly lyrical player. Pipe and whistle player Rory Campbell is also to be relished.
Much of the resultant music sounds exactly like that heard at a traditional ceilidh, but with strands of New Orleans, swing and post-bop hard-wired into the epiphany. Mostly wild and joyful, sometimes wistful and elegiac, only a heart of stone could resist its call.
The first 11 tracks on Stramash are grouped together by Steele as "The Islay Suite," and are followed by interpretations of three previously released tunes including the title track from his second album, The Journey Home (Caber, 2002). Steele's longstanding love affair with Scottish folk music, which has already won him prestigious awards in the UK, has never been so gloriously realized as it is on this heartfelt and stirring disc.
Track Listing: The Recurring Dream; Steele's Reels; Farewell My Love; The Bletherer; Boat To Islay; Shindig At the Lochside; The Girl With The Shiver; Simpson's Jig; Sunset Over Loch Indaal; Steak And Whisky 5a.m.; View From The Round Church; Louis
Personnel: Colin Steele: trumpet; Phil Bancroft: saxophones; Mairi Campbell: fiddle, viola; Catriona MacDonald: fiddle; Aidan O'Rourke: fiddle; Rory Campbell: pipes, whistles; Su-a Lee: cello; Dave Milligan: piano; Aidan O'Donnell: double bass; Stu Ritchie: drums.