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Bobby Wellins and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra: Culloden Moor Suite

Bruce Lindsay By

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It's over 268 years since the Battle of Culloden and yet the event continues to resonate in contemporary Scotland (which votes on independence just a few days after this album is released). Tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins wrote his Culloden Moor Suite in 1961, inspired by John Prebble's book, Culloden, released in the same year. The composition gets a new lease of life with this big band recording, from May 2013, which brings Wellins together with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. The SNJO has carved out a reputation as a top quality big band, with albums such as American Adventure (Spartacus Records, 2014)—the Culloden Moor Suite enhances that reputation still further.

Wellins is blessed with one of the loveliest tones on his chosen instrument: his sound takes center-stage through much of this work. He also has a talent for composition, his five-part suite taking the story of the fateful battle from the gathering of the clans in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie to the impact of the Jacobite rebellion's suppression. His perspective in this work is that of the Jacobites—history written by the losing side, as it were—so the beauty of his writing is tempered by the sadness and sense of failure felt by those who had hoped for victory.

This romantic nostalgia may well live large in Scotland—often presented as the Scotland versus England conflict that it never was—but most jazz fans aren't likely to feel such a personal connection to the Jacobite cause. Culloden Moor Suite needs to stand alone as a musical work if it's going to have broad appeal. It does so, both in terms of Wellins' composition and the quality of the performances by the saxophonist and his colleagues in the SNJO.

"Gathering" is beautiful, Steve Hamilton's gentle piano taking a central role in establishing the mood of quiet optimism. "March" opens with equal optimism, the 12/8 rhythm suggesting the army's strength and positivity as it makes its way south (it reached Derby, in the English midlands, before turning back). Drummer Alyn Cosker drives the beat and there's some excellent section playing from trumpets, saxophones and trombones—sadly the preview CD doesn't identify the creator of the fiery trumpet solo. The piece ends with Cosker's militaristic solo before the 12/8 rhythm re-emerges briefly.

"Battle" is darker, optimism replaced by confusion and eventually defeat. It's the least successful of the five pieces, however, never quite reflecting the turmoil of the moor on that day despite the best efforts of Cosker and the horn sections. "Aftermath," by contrast, is another beautiful piece: its melancholy mood reflecting the loss of Highlanders' lives and Highland culture that followed the battle. Wellins closes the suite with "Epilogue." It's another melancholy piece, its sense of longing and regret a very human response to the events which inspired this moving, elegiac, recording.

Track Listing: Gathering; March; Battle; Aftermath; Epilogue.

Personnel: Bobby Wellins: tenor saxophone; Martin Kershaw: saxophone; Paul Towndrow: saxophone; Tommy Smith: saxophone; Konrad Wiszniewski: saxophone; Bill Fleming: saxophone; Ryan Quigley: trumpet; Cameron Jay: trumpet; Lorne Cowieson: trumpet; Tom MacNiven: trumpet; Chris Grieve: trombone; Kieran McLeod: trombone; Michael Owers: trombone; Lorna McDonald: trombone; Steve Hamilton: piano; Brodie Jarvie: bass; Alyn Cosker: drums.

Title: Culloden Moor Suite | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Spartacus Records


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