Live reviews

Seonaid Aitken / Matt Carmichael Quintet at Celtic Connections, Glasgow

Seonaid Aitken / Matt Carmichael Quintet.

(Celtic Connections at The Mackintosh Church, Glasgow. 29 January 2022. Live Review by Patrick Hadfield)

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Glasgow’s Celtic Connections had been able to keep some of its extensive programming going despite uncertainty arising from the Scottish government’s covid prevention measures. This gig in a church in Queens Cross designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh was one such and provided welcome relief from a stormy evening.

Seonaid Aitken. Publicity photo.

Seonaid Aitken‘s suite “Chasing Sakura” opened the evening. Best known for her work with swing bands such as Rose Room, this suite for five strings and saxophone shows a different side to Aitken’s creativity. Commissioned by Edinburgh Jazz Festival last year and borne out of convalescence after a riding accident and time under lockdown during which she literally chased the cherry blossom (“sakura” in Japanese) around Glasgow, Chasing Sakura was an uplifting, optimistic piece.

Much of the work balances Aitken’s violin solos with Helena Kay‘s saxophone. Across eight sections, Aitken created a variety of moods, from the impressionistic opening number, with the tune passing from one instrument to another, through the evocative and emotional Beauty and Wonder to the closing enchanting and ethereal Rebirth. Aitken wrote the suite with these players in mind, and together they conjured a bright, mercurial experience, garnering a standing ovation from a very grateful sell-out audience.

Matt Carmichael. Photo credit Chun-Wei Kang

Aitken’s performance was a hard act to follow; Matt Carmichael‘s quintet was more than up to the task. With his regular pianist Fergus McCreadie being joined in the rhythm section by bassist David Bowden and Stephen Henderson on drums – McCreadie’s long term collaborators in his own trio – and featuring Charlie Stewart on fiddle, Carmichael’s band blew up a storm which saw them earn another standing ovation.

Carmichael’s writing mines a rich seam between jazz and traditional Scottish music. From his opening slow saxophone lines evoking the eery, yearning sound of the Highland pipes, Carmichael’s powerful playing pulls one in. On Firth, the tune slowly built like an answer coming out of the fog. The faster numbers such as The Spey – taken at a cracking pace that Carmichael admitted might even have been a little too fast – or the lyrical Hopeful Morning would be as at home in a ceilidh as a concert hall; Stewart’s fiddle solo that closed The Faraway Ones had the audience hollering with delight.

The slower numbers have an emotional intensity to them. Marram was a bluesy spiritual, the saxophone redolent of love and loss, McCreadie’s sparse accompaniment proving that less really can be more. Horizon, which has been recorded for Carmichael’s second album due out in the autumn, featured another soulful saxophone solo as well as a powerful piano solo from McCreadie.

Carmichael’s blend of folk and jazz forms is full of celtic heart and soul, epitomising what Celtic Connections can achieve. A native of the Highlands, Carmichael is now based in Glasgow where he graduated last year from the jazz programme at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and the reception he received at this gig showed how much the people of his adoptive home have taken him to their hearts.

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