Jason Wilson – Ashara : Album Review

An extraordinary melange of genres battles a way through to a fruitful renegotiation of stylistic barriers.

Release date : 29th September 2023

Label: Wheel Records

Format: CD / vinyl / digital

Just when the market is getting saturated by Canadian trad-reggae fusion performed by published professors of history, along comes another one. I jest. Clearly, I jest, as I am uncertain whether `I have quite ever come across anything, anyone, quite like this before.

Jason Wilson is that professor of history, with eight books to his name, including a history of Canadian reggae. He was also the Wilson in Wilson & Swarbrick, alongside the late and great Dave of that name, for their pair of albums, Lion Rampant (2014) and Kailyard Tales (2018). As a Canadian of Scottish stock, it is this that had fed his love of traditional music, despite also becoming a protegé of fabled Kingston Studio One keyboard ace, Jackie Mitoo. And few people can have worked, not only with Swarbrick and Scots giant, Dick Gaughan, but also with UB40, Sly & Robbie and Ernest Ranglin. And, for good measure, Ron Sexsmith. That’s eclectic. This album, nominlly at least, tries to bring together all his loves and influences.

Ashara, also the name of his band, as well as being a fusion of musical styles, also brings together musicians from either side the reggae and folk divide. The band, essentially Canadian reggae artists, are joined by the likes of Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton, both giants of the Scottish trad and neo-trad scene, along with Rura fiddle man, Jack Smedley, and box player, John Somerville. That Ainslie, Hutton and Somerville have all been members of the Treacherous Orchestra gives some scope of the pedigree offered. There is also a string quartet for good measure. Of the project, Wilson says: “This album is very personal, in that it is based around stories of my parents, aunts and uncles, all of whom have shaped my life in some way.” Where Roy Harper slots in, well, that’s another story, no doubt. That notwithstanding, this is “where Scotland meets Jamaica in Canada!

Coal Dust Caruso opens the show, with a brass and clavinet led skank, offset by whistles and accordion, the peculiarity further extended by his vocal, and the melody, for that matter, reminiscent of Jackson Browne. So far, so West Coast, if with a few side notes. A Night In Paris In Cumnock extends the sense of schizophrenia, the reggae now somewhat subliminal, and Wilson’s diction now embracing the delivery style, if not tone, of Dick Gaughan. This intrigues, the strings and the bounding acoustic lope of the guitars seeming at a cross-purpose, if a counter-intuitively successful one. A bit of tartan whimsy exudes by a box and whistle interlude, with sweeps in of an orchestra elesehwere to confuse. It’s odd, but why the hell not?

The Shoemaker could be pure trad, until you latch on the clatter of the rhythm, applying a distinctly un-Caledonian reel and skitter. I’m wondering what Hutton and Ainslie might have been saying to each other, but the bassist, Michael Schapinko seems content to plug in a bass line that echoes and shadows the whistles and I’m smiling. Coila then falls into a more typically JA mould, the horns and vocals, with added melodica, now assertively Caribbean, even if Wilson seems uncertain whether he is in Glasgow or whether he is Sting. (OK, that’s unkind, but he is affecting, to be fair, prime white man in Hammersmith Palais patois.) It’s a decent song, and the drift from melodica to melodeon is effective.

WTF, as some Weegie playhouse piano spars with some sprightly whistle for Collier Gemmes, an instrumental, gradually drawing in a sense of ceilidh. It is so bonkers as to make sense and it is a definite highlight, however one might try, and fail, to describe it, even as it veers suddenly off into a Middle Eastern Rasta/whirling dervish fusion. Loving this one! The title, My Love Sings Like A Lintie, sounds as if it should be pre-war favourite of Sir Harry Lauder. Clanging and chiming instrumentation tries to detract from that, as brass segues in behind, but it is a lovely tune. When the contrasting instruments come together in unison, over the loping rhythm, it is a triumph.

Which takes us to Roy Harper’s When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease, presumably to denote the Scottish love for the English game. I confess, as it has always been a favourite song of mine, this was the primary draw to review this album. I’ll bet you can’t quite contemplate the song as a piece of prime lover’s rock, with swirling strings, no? But, OK, ignore the lyric, it so nearly works as to make no difference. When an old folkie turns in his grave, be damned, Harper is still alive and won’t be complaining. Uncertain if a flute or a whistle solo, but it is top notch.

Low Tide is a maritime number that plies an additional element of stage and screen to my ears, and would be the lead song, were this ever made into musical theatre. Which, given the myriad leaps of faith taken thus far, is probably not beyond Wilson’s imagination, mindful I may have fed his fevered imagination. The oboe is wonderful. The Night Is Near Gone is based on a 16th century poem by Alexander Montgomerie, the tune, by Wilson, sounding of a similar vintage, assuming a ready supply of ganga to the Ayrshire of that time. Can you imagine Gryphon augmented by Sly and Robbie? It is really that weird. But I’m sucked in and who cares?

The strangest concoction I have heard in a long time, and I have heard a lot of strange concoctions, I think Wilson deserves due credit and no small praise for the courage of putting this altogether and putting it out there. Whether it is ‘good’ actually matters little. Lord knows what meds he is on, but this is a keeper, for bringing out, for whenever the mainstream seems to be too confining.

Try My Love Is Like A Lintie for size:

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