CD review

John Rae – ‘Uncouth And Without Form’

John Rae – Uncouth And Without Form 
(Thick Records. Download only. Review by Patrick Hadfield)

John Rae was central to the resurgence of the Scottish Jazz scene around the turn of the century, before he moved to New Zealand a few years ago; his band Celtic Feet deployed fun and musicianship in equal measure with a couple of excellent albums and a series of memorable gigs, proving with one that he could actually organise a ceilidh in a distillery (though not, I must, emphasise a piss up) and on another occasion, with an expanded version of band he renamed Big Feet, filling the stage of the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh with bagpipers in full Highland dress.

No pipers feature on Uncouth and Without Form, although the album takes it name from a reference by Duke Ellington about bagpipes in an interview with the (Scottish) Sunday Post on his first visit to Britain in 1933: “Some people say my music is uncouth and without form—a weird conglomeration of blatant discords which never will mean anything at all. What, may I ask you as a Scotsman, do the same people think about bagpipe music? It is quite as weird, quite as ‘tuneless.’ But it is recognized as the music of a nation, a folk music.”

As if to prove Ellington wrong in his views of Scottish music and right in Ellington’s faith in his own composing, Rae has taken the structures and traditions of bagpiping and Scottish traditional musics and produced a modern jazz record, with a nod or two in Duke’s direction, too.

The record opens not with Duke but The Earl of Seaforth. A take on pibroch – a repeated theme and variations – Rae reworks a traditional melody in a haunting arrangement for piano, played by Ben Wilcock. Rae’s drums and Patrick Bleakley‘s bass add a touch of freedom as Wilcock elaborates the theme. It sets up the album well, blending the traditional Scottish and jazz roots seamlessly and movingly.

There’s a raw, bluesy feel to I’m Waulking (the title referring to a practice in traditional cloth-making but with fine resonance jazz walking and working traditions!). Featuring grungey guitar work by Aleister Campbell, it’s a hard tune to sit still to – it makes one want to move. Campbell is also central to Ye Banks and Braes, a reworking of a traditional tune by Robert Burns. A slow ballad, it is full of romance and remorse.

Psalm (Peerie Cruicky) has wailing saxes by Dan Yeabsley and Oscar Laven over slow piano from Wilcock: cries of freedom from the reeds are balanced by the rest of the band.

The title track also has the jazz and folk elements poised in equilibrium, with a section of swing bookending more complex themes which develop as the tune progresses. There’s a tension between the ensemble playing and Rae’s patterns on the snare drum which propel the piece at a pace.

The closing number, Mo rùn geal òg, epitomises the album’s mixing of styles in an appropriately Ellingtonian fashion: a gaelic ballad conjures an emotional pleading from the saxophone. It gives credence to the theory that one input into the spirituals that gave rise to the blues and thence to jazz was the songs sung in churches in the Western Isles. Uncouth And Without Form makes it seem most possible.

Uncouth and Without Form is available for download on Thick Records here

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