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Seonaid Aitken Ensemble – ‘Chasing Sakura’

Seonaid Aitken Ensemble – Chasing Sakura

(Self-released. SMA03. Review by Fiona Mactaggart)

If a blast of spring sunshine is what you’re looking for, here it is. Glasgow-based violinist and vocalist Seonaid Aitken has created one of the most uplifting albums of this season.

While recovering from a serious accident last spring, Aitken found a degree of relief in strolling through Glasgow parks at a time when cherry blossoms (in Japanese, ‘sakura’) were bursting forth. This is when the idea for this album first occurred to her, and following an Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival commission, Aitken composed the music for this jazz-folk cross-genre album. The premiere was at the 2021 festival.

Ten tracks trace the life-span of cherry blossom, from a brief tremolo then opening out like a flower in Awakening, to final track Hanami (Reprise), a reference to the Japanese tradition of picnicking underneath the cherry blossoms. This song is a final gentle reminder to ‘seize the day’.

The eight tracks in between also showcase the talents of this fine string ensemble, Aitken’s fiddle style in particular repeatedly recalling Stephane Grappelli. Helena Kay’s tenor sax and flute add further colour and improvisational interest.

Melodious Chasing Sakura breezes along, Emma Smith’s bass providing much of the momentum. Swinging waltz Beauty and Wonder showcase Patsy Reid’s viola and Aitken’s violin, while Hanami feels like the musicians are having a joyous party, with Scottish folk musicians cellist Alice Allen and Reid taking the lead, then with Kay’s sax joining in the fun.

By contrast, fifth track Spring Song has Aitken’s soothing, wordless vocalisations over pizzicato strings. This song, inspired by Sarah Vaughan’s Pinky, is coloured lightly by Kay’s sax and represents a point of calm in the album. The Walk has more luminous sax from Kay and Grappelli-evoking violin from Aitken, it’s hobbling gait Aitken’s humorous reference to her own predicament while she was slowly recovering from her injuries.

Mid-tempo Sakura Snowstorm is followed by swooping and soaring Impermanence – an allusion to the Japanese concept of ‘mono no aware’. Rebirth looks forward to the next Spring, and featuring Katrina Lee’s sweeping violin it somehow manages at moments to sound simultaneously both rasping and louche.

The album cover has a beautiful and evocative piece of art by bass player, synesthete and artist Kirsty Matheson. Its sinuous blue ribbons embellished with colourful blossoms against a dark background feel entirely apt as a visual representation of this generous and sunny album. Sound engineer Stuart Hamilton has done a top job in ensuring all the instruments sound beautiful.

Fiona Mactaggart lives in Edinburgh and writes about music on Scottishjazzspace.co.uk

Ensemble line-up: Seonaid Aitken (violin and vocals), Katrina Lee (violin), Patsy Reid (viola), Alice Allen (cello), Emma Smith (bass), Helena Kay (tenor sax and flute).

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