Islay Jazz Festival

Trygve Seim and Frode Haltli / Laura Macdonald and Tom Bancroft, Islay Jazz Festival, Finlaggan, Isle of Islay, 11 September 2009

Islay Jazz Festival’s opening concert brought ‘suffering for one’s art’ to a new level: Those who know Scotland’s west coast and the Hebridean Islands, of which Islay is the southernmost, will also be familiar with the area’s most tyrannical native: the midge. These beasts were out in force here.

Islay, best known for its malt whiskies such as Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin, was once home to the Lords of the Isles. This concert took place within the ruins of Finlaggan, an island within an island from where these MacDonald chiefs ruled the Atlantic seaboard from Kintyre to Lewis. 

The MacDonald clan, like many others, was founded by a Viking, in this case Somerled. So the festival had commissioned a Macdonald, alto saxophonist Laura, and a Norseman, fellow saxophonist Trygve Seim, to write and perform new music in a celebration that was in keeping with the Scottish government’s ‘Year of Homecoming’ theme.

Whatever reward the clan chiefs gave for heroism, Macdonald, who is six months pregnant, and her accompanist, Tom Bancroft on bodhrán, earned multifold. The audience, too, deserved medals – or at least a free weekend supply of insect repellent – as they managed to combine energetic swatting with the patient humming of drone notes on Macdonald’s cue, giving a choir-like backdrop to the saxophonist’s keening themes and folk melody-inspired improvising.

Macdonald and Bancroft’s contribution was relatively short, with a supplementary bebop tune and a call and response sequence, building a bridge between the kind of scales heard in Finlaggan in centuries past and a more conventional jazz approach. 

Trygve Seim, on the other hand, had prepared a suite in three movements for his own soprano and tenor saxophones and Frode Haltli’s accordion. This proved of sterner stuff, unlike his audience, who by this time were fleeing the midge-trap in numbers. 

Seim is one of the ECM Records’ younger set being primed as heirs to the label’s Keith Jarrett-Jan Garbarek-led hierarchy; his sound and musical style are already as instantly recognisable as his elders’. His gliding, deeply personal playing over Haltli’s guttural accordion chords and figures was tremendously affecting on the aptly titled opening movement, ‘Longing’. Both ‘Travelling’ and the hymn-like ‘Homecoming’ gave a real sense of someone who, although he’d never visited it before, had somehow managed to form a spiritual connection with this place. 

Even allowing for our winged attackers, with the twin Paps of Jura commanding the background and an appreciative fish or five jumping in the surrounding loch, this was an occasion to be remembered, not least for Seim’s final note: a midge slapped fatally onto his cheek on the down beat to signal the end.

Published on 1 October 2009

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