The SAY Awards Eligible Albums List: Folk, Jazz, Classical, Underground
In the first of a series celebrating this years SAY Awards Stewart Smith looks at the eligible albums from the less commercial genres of this years list and uncovers some hidden gems.
The winner of the ninth Scottish Album of the Year Award will be announced on October 29. Since its inception in 2012, the SAY Award has championed emergent artists from Young Fathers and Kathryn Joseph, to Sacred Paws and Anna Meredith. As a publicly funded award that’s as it should be, and the £20,000 prize money undoubtedly helps artists develop their careers. Beyond the winners, SAY does a good job of highlighting the wider Scottish music scene, finding room for folk, jazz and classical artists alongside indie and electronic acts.
Due to a chronic lack of space for the arts in the Scottish media, SAY has never quite cut through in the way it deserves. This series aims to remedy that by offering in depth discussion of the nominated artists and placing them in the wider context of a music scene ravaged by the pandemic and years of austerity. This first piece surveys the list of eligible albums, highlighting some gems from less commercially favoured genres.
If you’re unfamiliar with the SAY Awards process, here’s how it works. Unlike the UK-wide Mercury Music Prize, SAY is free to enter and anyone can submit an album for consideration. Fifty independent nominators (to declare an interest, I’m one of them) then choose their top five from the 362 strong list of eligible albums. Out of that comes the longlist of 20 albums, which the judging panel subsequently whittles down to a shortlist of ten.
It’s an admirably transparent and equitable approach, and to their credit, the organisers have been responsive to criticisms that past long and shortlists have been too male, pale and stale. There’s clearly been an effort to widen the range of genres that come through, and this year there’s a 50:50 gender split amongst nominators and judges for the first time.
I’d love to see a folk artist win SAY – small pipes innovator Brìghde Chaimbeul was robbed in 2019 – and this year’s eligible list has some real contenders. Hebridean singer-songwriter Iain Morrison made the 2016 longlist with Eas, and he continues to impress with SÀL. Commemorating the 200 lives lost in the sinking of the Iolaire in 1919, it’s a deeply moving and atmospheric album, combining empathetic songwriting with artful guitar and grainy electronics.
Will 2020 be the year when Alasdair Roberts finally makes the longlist? His esoteric take on folk traditions is a remarkable achievement, and The Fiery Margin finds him at his most confident, singing of medieval mystics and Holocaust survivors over inventive arrangements that touch on early music, country, jazz and psychedelia.
The Scottish jazz sector has responded to the new jazz phenomenon down south by pushing young artists like Fergus McCreadie and Graham Costello, SAY alumni both. Mezcla are this year’s industry tip, but their spirited take on jazz/world fusion feels a little too technical. Equally dexterous, but rather more out, Taupe mangle your senses with astringent alto sax, fidgety math-rock, and demented structural gambits on Not Blue Light.
Taupe guitarist Mike Parr-Burman is also a member of Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, whose album with the great Maggie Nicols is sadly not on the eligible list. However, two of that long-running collective’s founding members are. George Burt and Raymond MacDonald’s Seas In Cities is a lovely album of guitar and saxophone duos, augmented by Latin percussion and Italian goat bells. Bill Wells’ National Jazz Trio Of Scotland is neither jazz nor a trio, but their Standards Vol. 5 is a gorgeous pop set from Scotland’s finest melodicist.
One of the most impressive pieces I heard by a young Scottish composer last year was Genevieve Murphy’s commission for the peerless Tectonics festival. Such performances rarely make it onto record, meaning that the SAY classical selections tend to be by established composers and ensembles. This year’s big hitters are James MacMillan’s Symphony No. 5 and the Hebrides Ensemble’s magical survey of Judith Weir’s chamber music and songs, Airs From Another Planet. I’d be delighted to see the latter make the shortlist.
Another strong entry is Hannah Tuulikki’s Away With The Birds, which presents the vocal composition at the heart of her multi-media work. Inspired by the mimesis of birds in traditional Gaelic song, this suite for female vocal ensemble and sampled birdsong is a powerful invocation of the more-than-human world.
Awards seldom favour the underground, but the absence of widely acclaimed albums by Heather Leigh, Richard Youngs and Kapil Seshasayee from past longlists has been genuinely disappointing. If they can’t make it, what hope do self-released artists and tiny tape labels have? For whatever reason, several splendid artists are missing from this year’s eligible list: Cucina Povera, soft tissue, Stable, Ego Depletion, Beth Gripps, Mark Vernon, Klaysstarr, Audrey Bizouerne & Neil Davidson, Tony Bevan & Ashley Wales.
As with electronic music, the underground is an area in which the album feels increasingly less central. Tapes and digital EPs are often where the most exciting music is at. Due to their brevity, several brilliant releases are ineligible, including the melancholy cyborg poetry of Mercuro-Chrome and the brash instrumental hip-hop of S-Type. That’s not to say that fine albums aren’t being made. It’s great to see Kay Logan, aka Helena Celle, on the list under her Otherworld alias. Constructed from tape loops, reverb and delay, I Had Forgotten How Much Light There Is In The World, Till You Gave It Back To Me is deeply impressionistic, with piano and mallet tones glimmering through a pale golden fog, buoyed by airy flutes.
If there’s any justice in this world, Comfort’s debut Not Passing will not only make the longlist, but win outright. It’s unapologetically queer, with Natalie McGhee eviscerating transphobes and Just-Asking-Questions Liberals. The music is exhilarating: punk electronics over hip-hop inspired drumming. It’s an angry record, full of deal-with-it defiance and sarcastic barbs, but it’s uplifting too: an instant Scottish underground classic.
The SAY Awards 2020 longlist will be announced at a special online event on September 17 featuring SAY alumni Free Love, Kinnaris Quintet and Sacred Paws.
Image credit: Alex Boyd