CD REVIEW Scottish National Jazz Orchestra / Bobby Wellins – Culloden Moor Suite
(Spartacus Records STS020 . CD Review by Mark McKergow)
A 25 year-old Bobby Wellins wrote The Culloden Moor Suite in 1961, having been inspired by stories of the 1746 battle which signalled the destruction of the Highland way of life. Now in 2014 the veteran Scottish saxophonist revisits the five-part work with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra in a new orchestration by Florian Ross.
From the atmospheric opening, it is instantly clear that Wellins has lost none of his performing touch, his opening tenor lines utterly distinctive and evocative, establishing the tone for what is to come. The broad arc of the music is clearly set, with the titles Gathering – March – Battle – Aftermath – Epilogue pointing the way to a satisfying musical whole. The moment during Gathering when SNJO leader Tommy Smith takes over the lead is delightful, a new voice on the same instrument which draws the listener to greater attention and appreciation.
March starts as a blues-march, swaggering and bouncing with a Blakey-esque feel, before surprising us with rapid movements from ominous pauses to quick-fire swinging big band licks to complex through-written passages. The searing trumpet of Tom MacNiven follows Wellins with a bright solo turn here, until Alyn Cosker’s drums mark a return to march time in preparation for the battle ahead. Cosker’s is a key voice through the work, leading the way from sparse soundscapes through tight time to ebullient fills and solo passages.
Battle is unsurprisingly the most dissonant and edgy piece, which nonetheless jerks the listener to renewed attention with sudden stops and starts, as if the fight might have been over and then recommences. There is a great deal to enjoy about the SNJO’s ensemble work, both well-performed and well-recorded, with the arrangements always in support of the musical endeavour rather than dominating.
The closing Aftermath and Epilogue have, of course, a large element of lament about them. Wellins sustains his playing very well here, and we can feel his sorrow and despair at the outcome. Epilogue has a twist though – a positive and new theme emerges in the closing moments which looks somehow to the future, the icing on an already enjoyable cake.
At 40 minutes this is not a long work by CD-era standards, but I can see it providing an excellent concert set and a fulfilling home listening experience. I hope we won’t have to wait till the next referendum campaign to see SNJO tackling more of this musical heritage. Indeed this CD pushes the case strongly that Bobby Wellins’ other suite inspired by his Scottish roots, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, with chorus, and which exists in a performing version by Pete Churchill, must also be due for a recording.