By Chris Searle in Britain:
Meditation on a fateful slaughter at Culloden
Tuesday 2nd December 2014
Culloden Moor Suite, by Bobby Wellins and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (Spartacus Records)
From Drogheda in Ireland to Morant Bay in Jamaica, from the Kitchener-led bloodshed in the Sudan to the massacre at Amritsar, what cruelties and ferocity have British armies wrought on the people they sought to colonise and oppress?
None so close as the Scots at Culloden Moor in 1746. “One Englishman is better than three of them!” declared the “Butcher” Duke of Cumberland, commanding the British forces, and up to 2,000 Scots supporting the restoration of the Stuart monarchy were killed or maimed during the battle, with the Scottish wounded given no quarter on the battlefield.
This video is the film Culloden (1964), by Peter Watkins.
Now the Glaswegian septuagenarian tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins has combined with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra to record the Culloden Moor Suite. It was composed by Wellins some 50 years ago around the time he was recording the landmark Under Milk Wood suite as part of the Stan Tracey Quartet, based on the work by Dylan Thomas.
The Culloden Suite is comparable to two other masterworks of a sustained anti-war theme in jazz. The first is the Mike Westbrook Orchestra‘s Marching Song of 1969, written, performed and recorded to provoke deep reflection of the 50th anniversary of the final acts of World War I. The other is Sing Me a Song of Songmy, Freddie Hubbard’s 1971 album to set into memory the massacre unleashed by the US Army on the people of My Lai village in Vietnam in March 1968.
Wellins’ powerful melodism begins the suite movement, Gathering, the mournful preface drawn by the ominous notes and pianist Steve Hamilton’s elegaic sound as the Scots rally, family by family, clan by clan, to the backward Jacobean cause. Wellins’ horn gives a narrative of the blues-as-premonition, a forewarning of a disastrous encounter.
As the Scottish armies move into England in the second movement, March, it is Alyn Cosker’s ironic drums and Brodie Jarvie’s springing bass that give the undertow to an illusory sense of optimism running through Wellins’s solo, that the Scottish armies’ southern movement will bring victory.
As they withdraw and march northwards to the highlands, with Cosker’s drums still signalling the route after Tom McNiven’s searing trumpet solo peals out like a grim soothsayer, as if the naked edge of his auguring horn is ringing out its message of calamity. Cosker’s battle-promising snares are everywhere in the music, rattling a harbinger of agony.
The third movement tells the story of the slaughter on the moor, when the Highlanders charged disastrously and directly into the cannons, muskets, grapeshot and lines of British bayonets, with the survivors pursued and slain by Cumberland’s dragoons in a barbarous ritual of chauvinist hatred.
It begins with an orchestral onslaught, the collective horns ablaze before Wellins’s saxophone tells its tragic story with a howling timbre, brief stop-time phrases and notes in piles, unaccompanied except for Cosker’s comradely drums.
Then the ensemble bleeds back into life behind Wellins in a call and response motif, an onrush of horns and a wild charge of sound. There is a pause, and Hamilton’s piano carries the narrative onwards, forlorn and naked.
Cumberland’s retributive savagery heralded an era of violent military and cultural repression of the Highland peoples, leading to forced land removals, of raw poverty and an age of almost compulsory migration.
Strangely ironic too that a form of music born in the streets of New Orleans a century and a half later, in a continent that became the eventual home of thousands of these migrants, should become the medium to express the pain and truth of that history.
For the profound grief of a Scottish blues radiates from the Aftermath and Epilogue movements, with Wellins’s wavering notes over Hamilton’s repeated scales and the full orchestra’s summative sound.
Wellins’s solo lament for the fateful, misled rebellion at the end of the Aftermath is deeply moving and the return to the suite’s opening melody in Epilogue first by Wellins, then the four trombones is both beautiful and engrossing.
History compellingly told in music – its lessons ingrained in our ears, in our brains.