Arches, 253 Argyle Street, Glasgow
When Savourna Stevenson forsook classical piano studies for the Scottish harp in a fit of teenage rebellion, even she couldn’t have imagined that the instrument, almost forgotten at the time, would be the key to such varied musical adventures.
Whatever music she’s since heard in her head – be it jazz, blues, bluegrass banjo, African kora or Mexican mariachi band – Stevenson has translated it onto the harp without hint of novelty value or gimmickry. The result has been a body of work as individually expressive as it is unpredictably eclectic and that retains her Scottish roots while considering the next horizon.
Although not always the most visible of performers, she invariably breaks out of her Borders retreat with renewed passion and her latest work, settings of Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran’s texts for harp and Iranian percussion ensemble The Chemiranis, promises another eventful chapter in her continuing travelogue.
TO all but the most dedicated traditional music fan, a concert by a solo harp player is of restricted appeal, no matter the level of technical expertise on display.
There is no doubting Stevenson’s musical gifts, but Thursday night’s show was a resounding affirmation of the work she has done in the past 16 years to bring this most maligned and marginalised instrument into a more popular arena. Indeed, Stevenson even goes as far as to admit that she aims at times to make her harp “not sound like a harp”.
By the time the show ends and all her special guests are assembled together, it is self-evident how highly regarded she is amid the British Isles’ foremost folk musicians of the past 30 years. On stage are Danny Thompson ( double bass ), Capercaillie’s Charlie McKerron on fiddle, Davy Spillane on whistle and uillean pipes, Phamie Gow on second harp, and singers June Tabor and Eddi Reader.
Each is used sparingly, but to good effect, Thompson and McKerron underpinning the often maudlin music, their natural empathy all the more surprising considering the hastily assembled nature of such a performance. Spillane complements her Iona My Heart, and has a short solo slot, while Gow, the winner of last year’s Danny Kyle award, enters for a rare airing of Cutting The Chord.
Tabor and Reader sing beautifully – the mournful The Baker, and the marginally more upbeat Touch Me Like The Sun, respectively. The Former is heart breaking, the later reassuringly soulful, Stevenson’s unaccompanied pieces, Emily’s Calling and Blue Orchid, are evocative and beautiful.
With its sheer depth of talent and breadth of styles embraced, this show came closer than any other did this year to epitomising the aims and strengths of Celtic Connections….
Calman the Dove
Cooking Vinyl, *****
Specially commissioned, for performance in Iona Abbey, to commemorate the St Columba anniversary, Savourna Stevenson has delivered a musical gem that features not only her fluent, jazz-tinged harp but also the moody whistle and stunning uillean pipes of Davy Spillane and the edgy, gipsy-like fiddle of Anne Wood.
The thrilling bustle of the opening track, Calman the Wolf, with Spillane pouring out notes, gives way to the slow mesmeric beauty of The White Swan – a lovely track – and then some sparkling solo harp in An Buachaille before the three musicians settle into a sustained exploration of Stevenson’s varied themes, spattered with spicy Charlie Parkerish chord changes. Delightful stuff.
TIMES ( Canada )
Some subtle, mature work by top performers
Singing The Storm
Savourna Stevenson / June Tabor / Danny Thompson
On this exquisite collaboration, British folk diva June Tabor joins forces with harpist-composer Savourna Stevenson and legendary bassist Danny Thompson.
Stevenson has produced a collection of dreamy landscapes for Tabor’s husky haunting vocals. Grounded by Thompson’s jazz-influenced, understated bass – besides co-founding Pentangle and performing regularly with Richard Thompson, the bassist has also worked with jazz great Sonny Rollins – the songs on Singing the Storm flow suite-like through poetic tales of funeral bakers, enchanted landscapes, witches, and gypsy queens, Stevenson’s glorious, romantic music is matched with elegant, finely wrought narratives and brought to life by Tabor’s dark, spooky readings as she inhabits the songs with a smouldering passion.
This CD will move and inspire you. Brilliant, beautiful new folk music. My highest recommendation.
Tusitala, teller of tales
Savourna Stevenson’s new CD, Tusitala ( Eclectic Records ) features Savourna’s music for Stevenson’s Travels, the BBC production on the Life of Robert Louis Stevenson, and serves as confirmation that in compiling and arranging these beguiling themes she rose triumphantly to what must have been a fairly daunting challenge. It’s a lovely album, full of delightful, bobbing, swaying tunes that appropriately bridge the Atlantic gap by the skilful melding of jazz and Scots motifs. The Clyde to California sequence, originally commissioned by the River Tweed Festival, finds Aly Bain gusting in splendid style – the thrilling fiddle dash in Silverado Squatters and his legato calm above the rhythmic storm of Clyde to Sandy Hook surely capture the essence of the composer’s compulsive juggling with the elements of tension and release.
Anne wood, also on fiddle, has a marvellous time in Jekll and Hyde, her jaggy, slithery contrasts giving a clear sighting of Dr J’s little secret. Steve Kettley’s grumpy, Archie Shepp-ish tenor sax in Treasure Island and his sumptuous soprano sax work in La Solitude are other highlights in a sparkling album.
Oh, and Savourna’s harp is as captivating as ever!
Savourna Stevenson & Aly Bain
Midland Arts Centre, Birmingham
HOISTED UP ON HER HIGH STOOL, precariously perched beside her Celtic Harp, Stevenson begins her quipping, informative talk-through, adopting just the right balance between concert formality and pisstake. She’s at the forefront of the current harping revival, playing with the expected Swarbrick, Carthy and Tabor as well as the unexpected Toumani Diabate and The Bhundu Boys, displaying a keenness for fusing worldwide ethnic traditions. Playing solo at first, Stevenson shows off her dextrous technique, flipping and tweaking the semitone levers on her amplified harp, changing key and making mystery alterations to her impressive sound.
She’s joined by double bassist Brian Shiels and drummer Mike Travis, effectively becoming a jazz harp trio, their sensitive backing sympathetic to the ethereal quality of Stevenson’s compositions, Shiels lyrically bowing or velvet-thumbing precise lines, Travis having a subtle touch, playing quietly when needed, but hinting at reserve power when tunes reach a climax. Stevenson’s verbal confidence is matched by her assured playing: detailed, shimmering and glacial, she always seems to know exactly what’s going to happen next, never straying off too far into the more improvisational reaches of jazz.
So, along comes Aly Bain … A Boy from the Lough for 20 years, he’s become soothing of an authority on world fiddling styles, as well as being a master proponent. Bain peeks out from stage right and scampers on to his seat, immediately disrupting any attempts at order: fine-tuning has fiddle, bantering with Stevenson, forgetting the names of tunes and concluding: what the hell, what do names matter anyway? Frazzling under the relentless stage lighting, his electric fan proceeds to underpin the rest of the set with intermittent speedboat noises. This stick-through-the-spokes approach lends a more informal bearing, but doesn’t detract from the rich complexity of the compositions or their spirited execution.
In celebration of the Robert Louis Stevenson centenary, the duo have been working on Clyde to California, a suite of pieces that corral bluegrass and Cherokee elements into an already diverse palette. This is the piece with which they seem most familiar, during which the more disparate elements of folk fiddle plus jazz harp trio achieve their most satisfying and exhilarating blend..
by Keith Hudson
Cutting the Chord
Eclectic ECL CD 9308
Any lingering doubts about the role of the harp in modern music must, surely, be dispelled by this magnificent piece of work. Scotland’s Savourna Stevenson has always been an adventurous boundary-breaker, but with this performance of her own compositions, written to commemorate the bi-centenary of the Belfast Harp Gathering on 1792, she establishes entirely new parameters for the instrument, while still maintaining a healthy respect for age-old traditions.
Adding their own touches of genius are Irish harpist Aine Ni Dhuill, ubiquitous double bass guru, Danny Thompson, and percussion expert, Jim Sutherland. The latter is also responsible for eerie, and enormously affective, wind sounds ( how he does it is open to speculation ) notably on the aptly titled Aeolian.
It’s one of two pieces that owe a big debt to the Scots/Irish baroque harping tradition, the other being Harplands in which O’Carolan and Rory Dall Morrision are transported into the minimalist realms of the West African kora, before adopting the characteristic decorative devices of South American. Basse Breton Rhapsody is a freer, jazz improvised piece, the title track is sublimely atmospheric and, rounding things off, is a quirky 10/8 blues.
If you think Scotland’s strongest intoxicant is a good highland malt, try this. Sip it slowly and savour every drop!
The Sunday Times
Glasgow Jazz Festival
At the Society of Musician’s Club, harpist Savourna Stevenson once more demonstrated a talent which deserves to be shouted from the rooftops.
Stevenson Draws together strands of ragtime, funk, Scots folk traditions, blues and even African influence with invention, virtuosity and joy. Solo she can fully underscore a melody with her own bass and chord accompaniment. In trio she makes such effective use of the harp as an ensemble instrument that you wonder there is not a legion of jazz harpists taking over the world.
Here is one of the rare few talents to be charting new ground in the 1990’s, and we must hope her gifts as a composer enable her to fulfil its rich promise.
Plucking suite themes from the river
Alastair Clark swings along the Tweed on a musical journey made memorable by a Borders harpist
Savourna Stevenson’s Tweed Journey is a jazz-folk hybrid that really should be reviewed somewhere between Tony Troon’s jazz page and me. But, as you can see, there’s not much space there – certainly not enough for someone who can make the harp sing and swing in the way that Savourna does. So, she has got my space, and that suits me fine.
Tweed Journey is an original suite commissioned from the Border harpist by a formidable team that includes Judy Steel, the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Borders Council. It made it’s first appearance at the end of last year in a novel series of concerts at seven venues that followed the full course of the river from source to sea.
Just as the river itself swells as the tributaries make their contributions, so the suite demands a steadily increasing flow of instrumentation. While the opening concert, at Tweedsmuir, had Savourna playing solo, by the time the suite had reached Berwick she had six musicians with her.
The opening track of Tweed Journey should be enough to persuade the most wary listener that a treat is in store. This section, The Source, is a delicious, bubbling harp solo that sets the scene for what is in my view the finest track of all – ‘Fording the Tweed’, where Savourna is joined by Neil Hay on fretless bass for a fast, tinkling run through a delightful jazz theme which is full of sparkling freshness and buoyancy.
Savourna Stevenson, like the American harp player, Deborah Henson-Conant, tends to look for her jazz-waves in the ebb and flow of modal themes, and as the suite builds up through the bluesy ‘Waulk’, the enchanting ‘Lost Bells’ and the spritely ‘Trows’, where the saxophonist, Dick Lee, in commanding form, makes his first appearance, the themes become more insistent.
‘Forest Flowers’ is greatly enlivened by a tremendous, pummelling hand-drum solo by Jim Sutherland, and the introduction of a variation on the ‘Flowers o’ the Forest’ lament ( like the suggestions of ‘Broom of Cowdenknowes’ earlier ) is superbly fashioned. The suites closing piece is worth waiting for too. There’s some interesting, grumpy doodling on the bass clarinet by Dick Lee and an assertive, sweeping guitar solo by Graham Muir.
But the dominant instrumental contribution throughout comes from the harp of Savourna Stevenson. She seems to develop into a more adventurous and more skilful performer with each hearing, and here shows how she can be comfortable, persuasive and interesting in a musical territory that few rivals have explored…
By Neil Hedgeland
THE SAVOURNA STEVENSON BAND
Assembly Rooms Edinburgh Festival Fringe
On first reading in the programme for this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe that Savourna Stevenson, one of the most prominent of today’s harp players in Scotland, was playing with a bunch of rock and jazz musicians, I was uncertain what to expect, although the Harp Nouveau concerts were listed under “Folk/Ceilidh/Scottish”, and the Scotsman described Harp Nouveau as “exploding your preconceptions and pulsating with jazzy, rocky, funky music you never imagined possible from a harp”.
Harp Nouveau’s music did turn out to be very far removed from the traditional material generally associated with the harp, and although, being myself a lover of traditional Celtic harp music, I found the strong jazzy flavour of the performance I attended highly enjoyable, stimulating and quite unique. Savourna’s harp blended perfectly with the percussion of Dave Hasswell, the fretless bass of Neil Hay, and the keyboards of Rab Handleigh to provide an extraordinarily rich mixture of melodies, harmonies and rhythms which proved so mesmerising that the concert was alas too soon over.
This was only their forth gig together, so there was no encore prepared, though the reception would certainly have merited on – however it was apparent that confidence was growing with each performance. The material consisted mostly of material composed by Savourna, the opening number being an interpretation by the complete band of Tickled Pink, the title track of Savourna’s solo album. This was followed by a new composition, Soapy Water, and then her only solo performance, a piece called Borders On The Insane. Various other striking new compositions followed, such as Nadir, a spine-tinglingly beautiful slow melody, then the aptly named Caught in the Web, an intricate and complex piece involving remarkably dextrous harp playing, along with another track from the Tickled Pink album with the mysteriously titled Djalan. The final number was named after the group, or could it have been the other way round – anyway, it was called Harp Nouveau and was a fitting end to an extremely interesting and innovative mixture of music.
Apparently, although the band is at an early stage of existence as yet, they have already attracted the attentions of a record company, and they hope to tour more widely eventually. Certainly if they do come to your part of the world, Harp Nouveau is well worth checking out if you’re interested in modern forms of music. Alongside Sileas’s experiments with syncopation and the electroharp in a more traditional folk idiom, Savourna Stevenson’s playing of the harp within a jazz/rock context underlines the healthy prospects for the harp in today’s musical climate.