Mike Vass – Decemberwell Decade: Album Review

A mid winter offering that is neither bleak nor shortbread tin, Vass delivers a (largely) non denominational Winter Solstice celebration fit for all tastes.

Release Date: 18th November 2022

Label: Unroofed

Format: CD/digital

To my eternal, I didn’t know that much about this fella ahead of hearing this. Sure, I’d heard the name, it always crops up when doing a quick scour around what’s new and what’s shifting on Bandcamp, a most pleasant way to spend some time. But the Boss here at ATB knows my taste and, you know, it is really my bad. If your bad too, this should be a real treat, as it proved to me, a provoking and precision-honed mix of folk traditions with some distinct chamber jazz timbres to add value. Throw in a familiar tune, sung in Gaelic and it is the perfect stocking filler.

So is Decemberwell Decade a Christmas record? Well, no, not really, beyond that feast day, and others, appearing in the month of December. But first some background. Flashback to 2011, finding the peripatetic fiddle teacher, Vass, stranded at home in a snowbound Glasgow, unable to ply his trade. With all manner of stringed instruments to hand and a battered old upright piano, he set himself the challenge of writing a December diary, in tune. That was Decemberwell, written, performed and recorded, on his tod, at home. Received rather well, it awarded him the Scots Trad Awards Best Composer for that year, the first of many awards he couped, with a further couple of instrumental albums. In 2018 he showed another side, revealing himself to have a distinctive and appealing singing voice, not that you will hear it here, but, nonetheless, worth a check of his, that’s right, Bandcamp page.

In a further handbrake turn, managing to look both back and forward, a decade on, he decided to revisit and renew the concept of Decemberwell, writing some entirely new music over last December, another difficult month of restrictions and restraint. But, rather than a DIY job, he elected to do none of it, enrolling instead a class body of his peers, to play it out on his behalf. So we get David Foley, from Rura, on flute, sometime Martyn Bennett and Roddy Woomble guitarist, Sorren MacLean, Donald Grant on fiddle, amongst others, topped up by a pair of top-notch Gaelic divas, Kathleen MacInnes and Mairi MacLennan. Perhaps the most striking parts, however, come from one Philip Cardwell, a best-kept secret of the Scottish folk, roots and jazz circuits, on trumpet. A presence on Vass’s previous works, he also has played for Kris Drever and Eliza Carthy, as well as being a regular in Joe Acheson’s Hidden Orchestra project, alongside notables such as Fraser Fifield and Poppy Ackroyd.

Starting with a pastoral piano, from Joseph Peach, and fiddle interplay, Two Decker, it develops into a delicate meander, with double bass and what sounds like glockenspiel emerging as a backdrop. All too soon Cardwell breezes in, the drums of Abbot kicking in to give some welly to the melody. A fusion of the instrumentation, at times it echoes a frosty Peaches en Regalia, and it swirls, like snowflakes, delightfully around the main theme. A journey more than an arrival, it is a promising start. With strident bass and and shimmery percussive pizzicato, Prisms On The Dark Sea starts beguilingly, ahead of repetition allowing the mood to build. When Grant adds some fiddle and Abbott some drums, together it all rises, the mood decidedly chilly. Back to the pizzicato, it skips, and trumpet joins, hovering on the edge of leaping off. That sense of anticipation lingers over three-plus minutes. And then it ends, the sense being of watching ice freeze. Emma Smith and Signy Jakobsdottir, on bass and various xylophones, are integral and perfect to the whole, as they are throughout.

Getting Colder is a more sombre piece, reminiscent, at times of the music from Christmas TV perennial, The Snowman, but with a little more intent and a little less whimsy, Cardwell’s trumpet an ominous rumble in the shadows. It is then MacLean’s guitar that takes pride of place for Suspension In The Air, over skittering percussion, his rippling notes drawing in Foley’s flute. By the time Abbott gets into cruise mode, the melody is steaming along, ensemble playing at its finest. Whether looking outside the windows of a train, or at home, this is music for snowgazing, tucked up inside and toasty. This is then followed by the first vocal interlude, with Mairi MacLennan’s rendition of Siud Ma Chir Mi N Geamhrash Tharam, slowing things back to a seasonal standstill, breath freezing visibly in the air. Translating as That’s How I Spent The Winter, you need not the language to gauge the sentiment.

Levity, as the name suggests, is a jollier affair, evocative of toddies having been taken, the fire roaring and girths swelling. When Cardwell joins, it is all very Sally Army in mood, brassy good tidings to all. The midpoint of the album, it uplifts any earlier sense of solemnity. Jacobsdottir is again central, a true catalyst to the elevation of this project from more generic festive fare. Her self-affirmed speciality is to add “unusual atmosphere, texture and rhythm,” and she supplies that here in sleighloads.

Still Below The Hills might mean the absence of movement or the permanence of location. Either way, it is another gentler piece, of tinkling piano and percussion, over which Grant bows a graceful air, with Foley dropping in alongside him. A post-prandial reverie is evoked, looking back on the year before. With picked guitar, The Great Well offers then almost a call and response, the wind instruments and strings playing together, over Abbott’s hypnotic beat. With the response slow to arrive, when it does, it is with Cardwell breaking ranks from the main melody, in turn triggering a cascade from the rhythm section. Is this the thaw? Regardless, the theme becomes one of no small majesty, opening the doors for Even The Stars Sleep, a tune of celebration and being ready to turn the page, I guess, into a new year. Cardwell has that slightly husky pitch to his horn that hits a happy spot, particularly as he takes the centre spot for a near solo. That accomplished, it is down to MacInnes to draw an epilogue, with a simply gorgeous Silent Night. In the Gaelic, any sense of mawkishness is extinguished, the sense of silver band creeping back into the arrangement. Goosebumps and close.

I don’t quite know where to file this recording. It isn’t really folk, it isn’t really jazz and, even if it has that feel, to simply file under festive would be a disservice. File under good is probably best.

Album opener, Two Decker:

Mike Vass online: website / facebook / twitter / instagram / bandcamp

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