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WILLIAM JACKSON - Composition 

WILLIAM JACKSON - Composition 
Mill Records MRCD021

William Jackson has written several suites of new music in the traditional idiom, using excellent traditional musicians and classical players to very good effect, and this massive collection gathers together six bodies of his work as a composer. Hence the title, I suppose. From his early days with Scottish and Irish traditional bands, culminating in the hugely successful group, Ossian, Billy Jackson was an outstanding harpist, writer and arranger. Since the mid eighties he has moved more into composition, producing numerous albums which blend old and new music successfully, and also continuing his work as a solo harpist which is not much represented in these four CDs.

I have reviewed two of these discs previously - the powerful Inchcolm from 1995, and the two suites on A Scottish Island which was released a couple of years later. Both are fine examples of all the ingredients of Scottish music: pipes, fiddle, Gaelic, and the sound of the natural elements of wind and water. Inchcolm ranges across Scotland and beyond, with a more modern feel to some tracks, and is perhaps less of a coherent whole, especially the final meditative track. A Scottish Island concentrates more on the Western Isles and includes a small suite of pieces named after islands of the Inner Hebrides. The tradition is handled with respect and sensitivity on both albums, and the results are truly original and inspiring.

The Wellpark Suite and St Mungo are earlier works, both commissioned by Tennents in the eighties if I remember correctly. This release has very few notes, referring you to the website where a 14-page PDF file is available. There are a few tuning and dynamic issues between the folk and classical musicians involved on this CD, perhaps due to the warmth of the Glasgow audience or the hospitality of the sponsoring brewers. Jackson weaves traditional melodies into these compositions, but the overall feel is of a parlour concert rather than a pub session.

The final piece of this four-part release is new to me - Duan Àlbanach, inspired by an epic poem telling the history of the Scots Gaels led by Lorne, Angus and Fergus. As well as bringing a love of sausage, steak and accordion music to Caledonia's shores, this trio apparently founded the kingdom which became Scotland. Not so much a suite as an assortment, this 2002 CD starts with a quartet of tracks focused on the harp and whistle which William Jackson plays beautifully, before a dramatic cut to the brassy notes of the recreated carnyx, or Celtic battle horn, which has only been recorded a few times since its appearance around the turn of the millenium. Mons Graupius evokes the din and discipline of an epic battle between the Romans and Caledonians. Dalriada and Dunnichen, at over 11 minutes each, are big atmospheric works, one gentle, one savage. The Bannock Burn and Lia Fail are surprisingly calm given their names which raise the complex and heated matter of Scottish nationhood and its relation to the British monarchy, but the finale is fittingly strident and powerful.

William Jackson has not only composed a mammoth body of work in these CDs, he has also gathered a cast of the finest musicians from Scotland and elsewhere to perform it. Some names which may be familiar are Alasdair Fraser, John McCusker, Jerry O'Sullivan, Iain and Mairi MacInnes, Ron Shaw, Wendy Weatherby, Fred Morrison, Jim Sutherland, Tony McManus, and the entire core of Ossian from those early days. There's no lack of quantity or quality here, and the price is good too! 

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 114 of The Living Tradition magazine.