“He will charm you, take you on day dreams, impress and take your breath away” (FolkWorld)
As both a player and a composer, James Ross has a truly magical way with a piano. In his hands, this least traditional of instruments – according to conventional wisdom - attains fresh creative communion with Scotland's living folk heritage. Distilling these elements with classical and jazz influences, Ross's music encompasses the whirl of a Highland reel and the woe of a Gaelic lament; the primal grandeur of his native Caithness landscape and the cosmopolitan melting-pot of his adopted Edinburgh home.
“Sublimely lyrical melodic gifts” (Scotsman)
Chasing the Sun, Ross's new recording, is a six-movement suite evoking a day's and a year's westward journey along Scotland's north coast. Originally co-commissioned by the Blas festival and Celtic Connections, it features Ross on piano with renegade string quartet Mr McFall's Chamber, plus Fraser Fifield on soprano saxophone, smallpipes and whistle. Live performances also incorporate atmospheric backdrop images by Scottish photographer Catriona Murray.
“A composer totally in charge of the materials at hand” (Rob Adams, Northings)
After its Highland première in September 2008, Chasing the Sun double-billed with the Michael Nyman Band at Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall the following January, winning an enraptured audience response and fervent critical plaudits on each occasion. Renowned producer Calum Malcolm (The Blue Nile, Lau, Martin Taylor, Scottish Chamber Orchestra) oversaw the recording, while Murray's artwork again graces the CD cover.
“Shifting fluently through tempos, time signatures and moods, adding and subtracting layers of instrumentation, colour and texture. . . the music’s alternating passages of tranquillity and turbulence, sadness and exultation vividly conjured such splendours as a winter storm and a summer sunset; the quickening of spring or the majesty of the Northern Lights” (Northings)
A key factor in Ross's folk-rooted facility on piano – which has twice seen him nominated as Composer of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards - is that he started out on accordion. Born in Wick, just down the coast from John O'Groats, he grew up in a music-loving household, joining his parents from an early age on monthly outings to hear the local accordion and fiddle club. “My Mum, especially, loved Scottish country-dance music,” Ross recalls, “so there were always traditional tunes around the house – that's why I wanted to play the accordion.”
The late great multi-instrumentalist and tune composer Addie Harper is one of Wick's most celebrated musical sons, and it was with his son, accordionist Addie Harper Jr, that Ross began lessons aged 10. He benefited, too, from Harper Sr's vast experience, via get-togethers for young players at the local legend's home.
In 1997, Ross embarked on the Scottish Music BA course at Glasgow's Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Though he'd applied as an accordionist, “the piano pretty much took over while I was there.” At RSAMD James studied piano with Mary McCarthy and Susie Petrov. His core musical affiliations, however, remained unchanged. “I wanted to use the piano as a solo instrument in a traditional context. So I started out reworking tunes I'd played with the Harpers - basically combining the instrument I loved best with the music that most inspired me.” After graduation, Ross studied for a Masters at Limerick University's Irish World Music Centre, with its founding professor and groundbreaking fellow pianist, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin. “I had a lesson with Mícheál every week for the year, which was just fantastic,” Ross says. “I didn't even take the accordion with me, just focused totally on piano.”
Settling in Edinburgh on his return, Ross worked as an accompanist with leading Scottish fiddlers Anna-Wendy Stevenson and Lauren MacColl, and award-winning Gaelic singer James Graham, while continuing to develop his solo repertoire. “I did an awful lot of arranging,” he says, “trying to get the sounds I wanted, and I suppose that started shading into composing.” The real catalyst, though, for writing his own material, was a weekend workshop he attended in 2004 under the Distil programme, aimed at broadening folk musicians' creative horizons by partnering them with artists from other genres – in Ross's case the contemporary classical composer Dave Heath. “Then a few months later I was commissioned by Celtic Connections, for one of their New Voices concerts. Coming up with an hour's worth of music completely freaked me out at first, but once I'd done it, I totally got the bug – I just wanted to write.”
That first fully-fledged composition, An Cuan (The Ocean), featuring Ross with a seven-piece ensemble on strings, saxophone and percussion, premièred to unanimous acclaim in 2005. Scotia Review called it “a sweeping seascape of sound, surging up under rumbling skies and settling down to sparkling tranquillity. . . wave after wave of wonderful music rising from unseen depths to engulf the shores of the imagination.”
The following year saw two more early career milestones: the release of Ross's self-titled debut album, a warmly-received mix of traditional and original material, and a Dewar Arts Award – which he promptly invested in a seven-foot Yamaha concert grand. “It makes renting a flat a bit of a nightmare,” he admits, “but it's great being able to play with that full monster sound at home, and having the whole palette to compose from.”
Further recognition came with an invitation to attend the prestigious St Magnus Composers' Course in 2007, a commission from the Caithness Orchestra for a three-movement suite celebrating Highland 2007, and mentoring grants from Distil and the Scottish Arts Council, to work with composers Alasdair Nicolson, Sally Beamish and Eddie McGuire. It all proved invaluable preparation for Chasing the Sun, not least in developing ideas first explored in An Cuan.
Besides the new recording, plus ongoing work with James Graham and Irish singer Michelle Burke, subsequent projects have included an experimental collaboration with saxophonist Dick Lee and trombonist John Kenny, based on the ancient ballad Tam Lin, and a commission from Highland music tuition project Fèis Rois, in partnership with Drake Music Scotland, involving schoolchildren with learning disabilities alongside professional musicians. Currently in the pipeline is The Boy and the Bunnet, a new words-and-music creation that teams Ross with top Scottish author James Robertson, intended as a children's introduction to traditional folk instruments. In 2010, Ross also undertook an intensive two-week course with double Emmy-winning US film and TV composer Hummie Mann - an interest initially piqued by Chasing the Sun.
While Murray's backdrops unquestionably, and potently, enhance Chasing the Sun's live performances – of which Ross hopes to do more – his music in itself conjures an array of vivid mental images, together with a similarly intense, shifting panoply of associated emotions, from the scintillating jubilance of a sunny, white-capped sea to an elegiac twilight, evoking centuries of lives lost along Scotland's stern north coast. Ross plays and writes as one who truly loves his instrument and his medium, just as he loves the musical traditions that first nurtured his talents, and the rugged, timeless yet mercurial vistas amid which he grew up. Underpinned by omnivorous artistic tastes and formidable technical rigour, Chasing the Sun charts a journey you'll want to retrace again and again.