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…