The first time I went to Ullapool, sometime around midsummer in 1988, I was fortunate enough to catch a concert by Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Ullapool village hall (though I’d say it is more of a town than a village, even thirty years ago). I wasn’t very well informed about classical music back then, but it was a remarkable concert. I have no recollection what was played, but the way the audience reacted the music, and the way the musicians reacted to the audience, was memorable. The hall was packed, the audience and the orchestra pushed close together. I was in the front row, and I was close enough to turn one violinist’s music. The atmosphere was amazing, the locals excited that one of Scotland’s major ensembles was playing for them, the orchestra excited to be playing for such a grateful audience in the long summer evening amongst the tall mountains (though less pleased by the midges). The partying went on long into the night.
So when I saw that SNJO were going to be playing one of their gigs on their tour of the Highlands and Islands, performing with Eddi Reader singing “Alba: Songs of Scotland” when I was (relatively) nearby, it seemed obvious to extend my stay by a day to catch the gig. If those sings work anywhere, it would be here.
Things have changed a bit. Instead of the village hall (which itself seems to have undergone at least one modernisation in the interim), SNJO were performing in a well equipped theatre, part of a school complex.
Like my previous musical experience in Ullapool (though I have visited the town many times since, just not for any concerts!), it was full, people grateful of the opportunity to hear a big band on their doorstep. The guy behind me hadn’t been to a jazz gig before; others clearly knew their stuff. (I think SNJO regularly play in Inverness, a ninety minute drive away.)
Whilst not as intimate as the SCO decades before, and a bit more formal, this was a very enjoyable gig. Reader released an album of Robert Burns’ songs several years ago, and the repertoire in this gig was heavy on the Burns – but they’re good songs, and deeply engrained in Scottish culture. If you’d asked me if we really needed another arrangement of Auld Lang Syne, I’d probably have said “of course not!” Hearing Pino Jodice’s arrangement, it would be a resounding “YES!”
Good songs coupled with SNJO’s knack for working with great arrangers continues to pay off. Florian Ross contributed several of the tunes – Ye Jacobites was particularly moving, and Charlie Is My Darling was rousing. Martin Kershaw’s fun adaptation of Brose and Butter, sung lasciviously by Reader, had the as ever excellent Alyn Cosker stomping away on drums.
Amongst the non-Burns titles were two arranged by Paul Harrison, the gentle opening number of Tommy Smiths’ setting of Edwin Morgan’s poem “Glen of Tranquility”, and a traditional piece that Reader remembered from childhood, which she called Glasgow Barrowlands. As well as a great singer – she has a powerful voice, a fair match for the thirteen piece band – she is a good storyteller, and her introduction to this number aptly described Glasgow’s (in)famous dancehall. Her description of growing up in Ayrshire – “there was sectarianism, some people had a picture of the pope on the wall, some people a picture of the queen. My parents had a picture of the king: we were Presleyarians!” – explained where she was coming from.
Burns was from Ayrshire, too, and Reader’s empathy with the material was evident. Her pleasure at singing with the orchestra was also clear, as she high-fived band members and danced behind soloists. It all worked really well, the musicians seeming to have as good a time as the audience. Which was very good indeed.
And then it was out into the bright evening light of the longest day in the far, far north. I’m sure they were partying long into the deepening twilight, late into the night.