Review: The National Jazz Trio of Scotland

First published in The Herald on 21 January, 2014

National Jazz Trio of Scotland
The Tron, Glasgow

Reviews of the National Jazz Trio of Scotland tend to open with a pile of contradictions: this isn’t a trio, they don’t play jazz, they’re not an official ‘national’ ensemble. But don’t be fooled by the cheeky misnomers. The music of Bill Wells – the band’s pianist/composer backbone – might be deceptively simple, but his songs are never less than disarmingly sincere in their sweet wistfulness, their dreamlike nostalgia, their shy, poignant confessionals. Wells’s mastery as a composer works on the power of small, strange twists and artful arrangements. He builds tinkly motifs into roaming dream sequences and shrouds the husky, vulnerable vocals of Aby Vulliamy in haunting instrumentals.

Sunday’s Celtic Connections gig was billed as a NJTS headline but was in fact a reunion of six musicians who met at a Burns Supper in Reykjavik last year. If anything the sets from Scots balladeer Alasdair Roberts, piper Barnaby Brown and Icelandic singer-songwriter Benni Hemm Hemm outweighed the short opener from Wells; only the two women on stage, both captivating singers and Vulliamy a rich-toned violist, never took their slice of the limelight.

Aside from the gender imbalance it was a fine night of collaboration. Brown’s set was the most upbeat of the very mellow four; his blast of reedy triple pipes – sourced in Sardinia but apparently a dead ringer for 8th century Scottish equivalents – woke the audience with sheer novelty. Hemm Hemm played quiet, dark-edged songs he recorded in Glasgow three years ago: “they belong here,” he said. But he closed with an Icelandic lullaby from the 1920s, so subtly off-kilter that you’d blink and miss the trick. The quiet subversion summed up the evening nicely.