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Reviews / Reader & jazz orchestra offer serious sax appeal

Eddi Reader showcased a host of traditional Scots songs over two nights at Mareel this weekend. Photo: Chris Brown
Eddi Reader at Mareel in 2015. Photo: Chris Brown

LAST year, Shetland’s relationship with Scotland was examined more closely than ever. That thing…what was it again? The independence referendum? Oh yes, that’s the one.

It’s often been said that these very isles don’t ally themselves too strongly with Scottishness, with our Norse-flecked heritage giving Shetland its own unique identity as it lays marooned over 100 miles away from the country’s mainland in the midst of the cantankerous North Sea.

So perhaps an eyebrow or two were raised when it was announced that Eddi Reader would be performing a set of mainly traditional Scots music in Mareel over two nights, with the tunes reworked by the accompanying Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. Burns here, there and everywhere.

Come stage time at the first of the two JAWS festival gigs on Friday, however, those eyebrows had firmly abseiled back down the brow, with a packed Mareel auditorium enthralled by a beguiling cocktail of succulent vocals and bombastic orchestra trickery.

And it was the latter – a 13-strong army of largely brass and woodwind musicians led by the renowned spider-fingered saxophonist Tommy Smith – that crushed any pre-show doubts about whether the show might have dwelled too keenly on mushy, lilting Scots sentimentality.

First up was Glen of Tranquility, a tune composed by the aforementioned Smith and inspired by the late poet Edwin Morgan, with its smooth jazz vibe later descending into the saxophone man huffing and puffing and blowing the house down with an assured solo – going scarlet in the face as his poor lungs reached breaking point.

The following jazzed-up version of Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonnie Doon, meanwhile, a tune penned around Robert Burns’ 1791 poesy, proved to be one of the highlights of the evening, with a driving rhythm seeing flame-haired Reader – who delivered her lines with genuine quality – thumping her heart with fist-clenched glee.

It was, perhaps, going all too well. John Anderson My Jo saw the singer halt proceedings after a minute; ‘I was cooncil trained, unlike you guys’, Reader quipped to her jazz cats after singing the wrong lyrics. ‘I’m a perfectionist,’ she added, with the track resuming from the top. The mistake was quickly forgotten.

After some more Burns and also an adventurous, progressive rendition of an antiquated version of Auld Lang Syne that Smith had already altered since the start of their tour a few gigs ago, there was Charlie Is My Darling, which flirted with burlesque hues as the jazz orchestra came to life.

Reader performed with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (SNJO) in a Creative Scotland-funded venture. Photo: Chris Brown

An innuendo-tinged ditty about “pleasing a Highland lass”, it saw the musicians exude serious sax appeal as they traded solos with gusto and offered backing throaty backing vocals.

After such as triumphant pre-interval finale, it was a little deflating that the gung-ho momentum was perhaps lost after the break. The lilting, at times a cappella tunes, however, did allow Reader a couple of moments to flourish without the hugely talented, besuited jazz men to her left stealing the show.

Waters of Loch Tay set much of the tone of the second half, with Reader warning the audience that she might need to be “held up at the end because this breaks my heart every time”, whilst a tune sung in more traditional dialect was perhaps a little lost on this crowd. “Are there any Gaelic speakers here?” Reader asked hopefully; “No”, someone in the audience duly retorted.

There were some energy boosts in the second half though; Brose and Butter saw Reader spit some runaway rhymes, whilst Jamie Come Try Me, an ode to a friend of Robert Burns’ who sadly failed to attract the opposite sex, gave light to dextrous, adroit vocal work.

The highlight of set was left to (nearly) last, however, with a penultimate track about Glasgow’s famous Barrowlands venue arousing the senses. Reader said she first heard the mysterious song from a rowdy 1960s tape recording of a somewhat squiffy man singing it in her family’s flat after her father brought home a band of merry men from the pub.

The singer paid tribute to the Barrowland Ballroom’s history by shimmying around the stage, dress floating from her hand, whilst the jazz orchestra delved into bygone decades with an uplifting big band feel. A jaunty, warbling trumpet spotlight, meanwhile ,stretched smiles across the orchestra’s faces – and probably the audience’s too.

“Now listen all you good girls, and take a tip from me…never let a chancer an inch above your knee,” Reader crooned with a wry smile.

It summed up what made this gig great: the exuberant, adventurous jazz stylings, an arm-hair-raising booming bellow of harmonious sound and star-quality vocals atop some sharp humour.

It’s probably a good thing, then, that there was a second night on Saturday for all those who missed out. Even if they weren’t into the whole Scottishness thing…