‘Tales of the Tribe’ (New project from SNJO – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, 12-14 May)

Orchestral manoeuvres in the dark…myths…legends… These are the mysterious places to which SNJO’s new project, also involving Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, actor Blythe Duff and a selection of Scottish traditional musicians, wants to take listeners. Preview feature by Rob Adams.

Julie Fowlis
Julie Fowlis. Photo credit: Wild Soul Photography

Harry Potter, Hogmanay, the Disney-Pixar animated adventure Brave and the TV police drama Taggart are just some of the cultural references presented by the cast of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s latest project, Tales of the Tribe.

Conveyed in specially commissioned, graphically detailed poetry and music that draws on the Scottish tradition while featuring jazz harmony, composition and improvisation, Tales of the Tribe aims to bring the characters and tales of Scotland’s ancient myths and legends to vibrant aural life.

From the Baobhan Sith – the beautiful Highland women who seduced their prey before attacking and killing them – to the redcap of the Borders, who allegedly soaked his hat in the blood of his victims, down the centuries Scotland’s storytellers have perpetuated the myths of more scary characters than the Hammer House of Horrors.

“These are fascinating stories and they capture the imaginations of people of all ages,” says SNJO founder-director Tommy Smith, who has worked closely on the project with the popular Gaelic singer and musician Julie Fowlis, who featured on the soundtrack to the Disney Pixar adventure and multi-million-dollar-grossing Brave.

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Tommy Smith
Tommy Smith. Photo credit: Derek Clark

“I wanted to present these tales in a way that made strong use of Scotland’s musical heritage as well as the narratives to present the characters and creatures realistically while appealing to families and lovers of traditional music and big band jazz alike,” Smith adds.

As well as Julie Fowlis, Smith has engaged the actor Blythe Duff, who played DI Jackie Reid in the long-running TV series Taggart and portrayed Minerva McGonagall onstage in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Duff, who has performed a similar role for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Scottish Opera Orchestra, will narrate poems by four of Scotland’s foremost poets, Meg Bateman, Christine De Luca, Peter MacKay, and Tom Pow.

The traditional music element will be boosted by the inclusion of accordionist Phil Cunningham, for many years the musical director of BBC TV’s Hogmanay show and a prolific composer and prominent musician since the 1970s, along with flautist-piper Michael McGoldrick, of Gaelic-world groove band Capercaillie, and fiddler Megan Henderson from the Highland folk band Braebach.

Smith sees Tales of the Tribe as a companion piece to his 1996 album Beasts of Scotland, a collaboration with the late Scottish poet Edwin Morgan that began life as one of Glasgow Jazz Festival’s most acclaimed commissions and was successfully reprised in 2019 in a series of concerts looking at different aspects of the saxophonist’s career.

“I like working with poets and find their words inspiring as a composer, although their work obviously stands proudly by itself,” says Smith. “My role in this piece is as much arranger as composer though, because the traditional musicians have all contributed their own ideas and melodies and I’ve spent a lot of time weaving it all together. They’re incredibly skilful musicians and we’ll be highlighting their skills and spontaneity at the heart of the orchestra in trying to create a natural bond between traditional music and jazz.”

Tales of the Tribe tours to Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Thursday May 12, Aberdeen Music Hall on Friday May 13 and Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on Saturday May 14.

LINK: SNJO website

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