Louise Dodds/Elchin Shirinov: ‘Two Hours After Midnight’

Traditional Scottish folk songs of love, heartbreak and friendship are at the heart of ‘Two Hours After Midnight’, the new album from Scottish singer Louise Dodds and Azerbaijani pianist Elchin Shirinov. It will be launched on Friday 19 May at St. Vincent’s in Edinburgh, followed by a gig on 23 May at the PizzaExpress Jazz Club in Soho. Feature by Martin Chilton.

Louise Dodds and Elchin Shirinov. Composite publicity photo supplied

Louise Dodds and Elchin Shirinov were socialising in London when the Scottish singer broke into a version of Robert Burns’s song “Ae Fond Kiss”. Shirinov was entranced. He remembers jumping up to the keyboard and playing an impromptu accompaniment. “I soon said, ‘hey, we have to record an album of Scottish folk songs’, and Louise said she was totally up for it,” he recalls. The happy result is the beguiling album Two Hours After Midnight, featuring four Burns songs in all, including “Ae Fond Kiss”.

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Album cover

Dodds, a 2022 Scottish Jazz Awards best vocalist nominee, had originally reached out to Shirinov, a former member of bassist Avishai Cohen’s trio, during lockdown, when they collaborated on one of her own songs. After subsequently deciding to concentrate on interpreting different Scottish folk songs, Dodds researched the stories and old tunes that eventually made up the eight tracks. “The title came about by chance when I was researching dozens of songs and the stories behind them,” Dodds tells London Jazz, in a joint zoom call with Shirinov. “I wanted to get deeper into Scottish history and I found a book in the library called Scotland: Her Story: The Nation’s History by the Women Who Lived It [edited by Rosemary Goring], and the first one was this letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, the last letter she ever wrote, and it was signed off, ‘This Wednesday, two hours after midnight’. In those few words, there is just so much in them that it almost carries this whole sad story in six words. I marvelled at her strength to be so poetic just before she was executed.”

By the time the musicians began working closely on preparing the tunes, in January, Shirinov admits he had fallen in love with Scottish music; with jigs, storytelling and folklore that is “just so beautiful and honest and full of love”. They whittled down 25 or so songs to the eight on the album, compositions that include Burns’s “Coming Thro’ The Rye”, “Ye Banks and Braes” and “Auld Lang Syne”, along with the traditional “Night Visiting Song”, Charles Gray’s “Oh True Love is a Bonnie Flower” and Harold Boulton’s “Loch Tay Boat Song”.

One of the standout tracks is “Lass o’ Gowrie”, composed by Lady Nairne [1766-1845], a contemporary of Burns who was known as Carolina Oliphant. “Carolina never let anyone know what she was up to in her lifetime,” explains Dodds. “It is hard to know if she wanted to keep her work secret because it was something for herself or whether she thought she would not be taken seriously. Some of her songs are mistaken for Burns, but it feels right that she should be acclaimed too. Also, as artists, it is important for us to contribute to any positive movement in society and there is so much momentum now towards equality in society. We wanted to add our voice and support.”

What makes the album even more interesting is that both singer and pianist bring a jazz sensitivity to their reimagining of such historic tunes. Dodds, who says her parents used to play Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra records when she was growing up, says her eclectic influences range from Betty Carter and Anita O’Day to Joni Mitchell. She is also a huge fan of Norma Winstone and had the thrill of opening for her at the 2020 Edinburgh Jazz Festival.

Shirinov, born in Baku, cites a host of keyboard inspirations, including Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. The man who first sparked his interest in jazz, however, was the peerless pianist Bill Evans. “My first influence, the one who really decided for me unconsciously that I wanted to be a jazz musician, was Bill Evans,” says Shirinov. “When I heard his beautiful composition “We Will Meet Again (For Harry), from his amazing album You Must Believe in Spring, I just froze. I didn’t know who was playing, or what it was, but I remember thinking, ‘my god, what is that? I want to get into it.”

Shirinov, who originally learned folk music because his older brothers were also folk musicians, believes there are lots of similarities between the music of his homeland and traditional Scottish folk. “Even the time signature, 6/8, is similar, and I just loved it,” he adds.

Both collaborators insist that location was an important factor in deciding where the album was created. “We wanted to record it in Scotland, and we made it in Edinburgh because of Castlesounds Studio,” explains Dodds. “We brought in a Steinway and that was somewhere good that could accommodate the piano. It was so important to be on Scottish soil. There is just something in me when I am back. I feel I am home here. To be able to relate properly to those sounds and lyrics I needed to be in Scotland.”

Edinburgh’s St Vincent’s Chapel is a venue in which Shirinov has enjoyed practising in the build-up to their opening gig. “It’s a beautiful church with a beautiful piano and then we have the contrast of a gig in London at the PizzaExpress in Soho, a venue we both love,” he says. The pair are also working on plans for a tour of the UK and Europe and have booked in playing two nights at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival. “It is important for us to play in Scotland,” says Shirinov.

Dodds firmly believes that, in a post-lockdown world, people are “really looking for an authentic connection in music” when they go to gigs. She is sure that folk music, “especially old folk music” can provide that sense of connection because “there is so much honesty and truth to these memorable stories that have been passed down”.

Both are rightly proud of Two Hours After Midnight, which is full of potent songs about love, heartbreak and friendship, and they are looking forward to receiving an emotional response from audiences and listeners. “Basically, when musicians feel a deep connection with music, they just want to share that beauty with people,” remarks Shirinov. “It is so rewarding after concerts when people come with tears in their eyes and say, ‘you changed my day. I was feeling so bad and after this concert I am feeling amazing, thank you.’ That is special, the feeling that we are serving people in a nice way by bringing them beautiful music.”

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Two Hours After Midnight by Louise Dodds and Elchin Shirinov is released (CD & digital) on 26 May 2023 (Loch Tay Records – LT001).

The duo appear at St Vincent’s Chapel, Edinburgh (19 May- BOOKINGS) and PizzaExpress Jazz Club, Dean Street, London (23 May – BOOKINGS).

LINKS: Louise Dodds website

Elchin Shirinov website

Two Hours after Midnight from Proper Music

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