Shores is the debut album from Scottish composer Fergus Hall. The album is a suite of four tracks based on settings of poems from Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean, along with two interludes. These poems, taken from MacLean’s collection Dàin do Eimhir, explore love, longing, landscape, and the coastline of Skye. Despite being rooted in Gaelic culture, the album itself is a fusion of Scottish traditions with much more apparent jazz influences and improvisations.
Featuring Fergus McCreadie on piano, Matt Carmichael on tenor saxophone, Mark Hendry on double bass, Dominykas Snarskis on drums, and vocals by Cameron Nixon, the playing is virtuosic throughout. The instrumental combinations intertwine the genres of folk and jazz, whilst the sweeping strings allow cinematic moments.
Shores is aptly named, as throughout we are taken on a journey through a shifting sea – with the mercurial tides becoming more metaphoric during emotional sections of longing and love. Hall very adeptly creates soundscapes which sympathetically support the poetry – from the eerie mist-like undulations of the glistening string harmonics as the opening of the album, to the piano motif opening of title track ‘Shores’.
The atmospheres often shift imperceptibly to form the melodic content. On ‘Dawn’, a 7/8 pseudo-jig emerges from a delicate piano pedal note – a cleverly-written take on a traditional Scottish tune structure which feels incredibly natural in the context of the album.
These melodies themselves are catchy – with the vocal line of ‘Shores’ having the infectious quality of a contemporary slow reel, and Snarskis’ driving kit playing keeping the energy high throughout the final track.
In contrast, ‘But For You’ is much darker, with the string drone providing a moment of space and stillness, creating an almost plain-song, Gaelic psalm texture. Carmichael’s frenetic saxophone brings us on a heightened emotional journey over three minutes, before releasing us back to the original texture.
This subversion of expected and well-known traditional Scottish song structures and textures is what makes this album so special. Care and respect has been taken with MacLean’s source material to create a work of art rooted in traditional Gaelic culture, which allows the overtly jazz ownership of this album to feel authentic. Nixon’s soulful Scottish voice acts as a signpost guiding us in and out of the more musically complex and improvisatory middle sections within the movements, and helps blend the traditional Scottish and jazz elements seamlessly.
Yet throughout, the rooting of the soundscape in the Skye coastland gives the album an inherent consistency. The listener is always firmly surrounded by a dramatic Scottish landscape – with an immediate understanding of what Hall has set out to do and how to react to it. It’s testament to his skills as a composer that an album so intrinsically complicated is so immediately listenable.