Blue Rose Code is the shape shifting ensemble chosen by Ross Wilson to deliver his songs, the vehicle for “that fusion of folk and jazz and where it intersects with song writing,” as he said in an interview with The Herald. Since coming to prominence in 2014 when his second album, The Ballads Of Peckham Rye, was nominated for the Scottish Album Of The Year Award, Wilson has blazed a trail across the country, constantly touring, the band swelling from three to ten or so members depending on who is available and where that night’s gig is. This musical caravan has picked up many fellow travellers along the way and on The Water Of Leith, the fourth album from Blue Rose Code, Wilson has assembled a fine array of them to assist him on what is probably his most assured piece of work so far, the album an almost transcendental journey into the hinterlands of his Hibernian soul.
An exile from his native Scotland for several years, Wilson returned home in 2015. Despite his years away there was always a “hameland” aspect to his songs while he has always used his mellow Scots burr when singing (a perfect example; True Ways Of Knowing from The Ballads Of Peckham Rye). The Water Of Leith is a culmination of this prodigal son’s return with much of the album rooted in a Celtic twilight vision while elements of two of his musical heroes, Van Morrison and John Martyn, loom large. Morrison, after a six year absence from his native Ireland, recorded his wondrous stream of Irish consciousness, Veedon Fleece, following a rest and recuperation holiday in the south of the island. Martyn, originally a folkie, increasingly immersed himself in improvisation, adding free jazz drummer John Stevens to his live shows for a period of time, the results a spontaneous explosion of musical exploration. Here Wilson follows in their footsteps, the album a hymn to his native land while it is, at the same time, sonically adventurous. His plaintive ballads surrounded by sweeping epics with string arrangements and horn and wind charts. An Odyssey of sorts charting a newfound domestic comfort and the pull of a mystical land of glens and lochs, a land of seers and Kelpies; the sweep of the album is just majestic.
The album opens with just Wilson and piano gently introducing the concept of being home again on Over The Fields, the song gently swelling as female harmonies (from Beth Nielson Chapman and Eliza Wren Payne) join in along with a very delicate band and string arrangement. It’s difficult to describe just how powerful an emotional tug this song is. Suffice to say that Wilson sings wonderfully, the Morrison comparisons, as on his emotive Listen To The Lion, surely fitting here. Dedicated to the late John Wetton who played bass on Peckham Rye, it’s a magnificent song. The warm tones of Bluebell follow, the band inhabiting a fluent mix of jazz and folk as Wilson delivers a belated love song soaked in memories, good and bad, the band soaring towards the end while the vocals again recall Morrison’s Celtic scat murmurings. Ebb & Flow rides on a more formal horn section blowing like a soul band on a jauntier number which, and apologies for bringing up the name again, recalls Morrison’s lighter numbers such as Cleaning Windows.
Wilson absents himself allowing the haunting Gaelic voice of Kathleen MacInnes, astride acoustic guitar, accordion and fiddle, to paint a gentle evocation of the Scottish hinterland on Passing Places which then flows gently into Wilson’s masterful pastoral impression of boat journeys along the west coast islands on Sandaig. Here Wilson breathes new life into an old kailyard tradition, his words transforming stereotypical Scottish scenes into a hopeful new future, a clarion call for a bold new country. Pushing the boat out Wilson offers several songs and instrumentals that are impressionistic. The ten minutes of The Water, another occasion where he absents himself, allows James Lindsay on double bass, John Lowrie on piano and Colin Steele on trumpet full rein to inhabit a fine mixture of Debussy like piano and Miles Davis Lift To The Scaffold jazz noire while To The Shore, the twin song to The Water, aches with Wilson’s hopes for the future, a new life on the way after a tumultuous voyage. An 18 minute song suite combined, the two numbers are an audacious assault on the three minute pop song but the tumultuous Hispanic jazz leanings on the latter song (another nod to Miles Davis?) complement the noirish tones of the former.
Julie Fowlis pops up on the fiddle fuelled folk remedy of Love Is… while On The Hill Remains A Heart is an energetic swirl enlivened by the whistles and pipes of Ross Ainslie as Wilson sings of war widows, both examples of Wilson’s canny ability to write a fine melody with some heft to its heart. He closes the album with the affecting Child. Another straight from the heart song, similar to Pokesdown Waltz, with a heart in the throat like wallop. Here Wilson hunches over his piano like a Scottish version of Randy Newman, a true humanitarian singing from the depths of his soul.