Fraser Fifield is untangling the web of lines that has brought LoLanders, a band that makes its debut at Celtic Connections, together. The late artist and writer Pete Frame became the go-to guy for rock family trees that traced every connection leading up to the birth – and what came after their lifespan – of bands both famous and not so well known, and his assiduousness would have been useful here.
Fifield and his nominal co-leader, the Dutch violist Oene van Geel, have worked together before, as have van Geel and LoLanders guitarist, Graeme Stephen, and Fifield and Stephen have history as a duo and in Fifield’s on-and-off trio with various drummers. Then there’s van Geel’s duo with LoLanders’ bass guitarist Mark Haanstra and other situations that have involved one or other of the above with Glasgow-based tablas player Hardeep Deerhe and Dutch percussionist Udo Demandt.
“What’s most exciting for me, and I think for all the other musicians too, is that we’ve never all played together before and we won’t know what LoLanders sounds like until the first day of rehearsals,” says Fifield, who prefers to be thought of as the catalyst who caused the sextet to form rather than a bandleader. “We have six very experienced musicians who’ll all have an input and although the composers among us will all be bringing new pieces to rehearsals, there’s no pre-thought direction for us to follow. We really will see what happens.”
LoLanders is the latest project in the Going Dutch programme that has been bringing musicians from the Netherlands to the UK and Ireland over the past eighteen months or so. The difference here, though, is that, rather than a one-way visit, plans are in hand for LoLanders to play concerts in the Netherlands, including a gig at Amesterdam’s long-established Bimhuis, as well as the upcoming Celtic Connections gig and further UK appearances in the summer.
“It’s actually quite unusual to know before we play the first concert that there will be others six months or so down the line,” says Fifield, a multi-instrumentalist whose versatility has taken him across the world, touring internationally with Indian percussion master Zakir Hussain and recording in Buenos Aires with leading contemporary exponents of tango music as well as featuring with musicians from closer to home including Capercaillie and Aly Bain. “Lots of bands have come together for an initial project that has turned into a one-off, never to be heard from again, so knowing that we have a possibility of developing a LoLanders repertoire and identity makes this all the more interesting.”
The idea behind LoLanders was that Fifield and Oene van Geel should each invite two musicians they enjoyed working with to create the sextet. Fifield and van Geel first met in 2012 when they were selected for the London-based organisation Serious’s first international Take Five, an initiative aimed at giving composer-performers aged twenty-five to thirty-five with a background in jazz and improvising music the opportunity to take time out to develop their craft, build their careers and get their music out into the world.
“We got on really well from the start and understood each other musically,” says Fifield. The fact that their first instruments – Fifield plays bagpipes and saxophone but for some time has majored on the low whistle – aren’t immediately associated with jazz probably helped with the bonding process. Following on from the Take Five retreat van Geel invited Fifield over to Amsterdam to work with his trio Nordanians, a group that marries international influences with jazz and raga approaches, on concerts marking his receipt of the prestigious Boy Edgar award, which over the past fifty years and more has acknowledged musicians who have made a significant contribution to the Dutch music scene.
“Playing with the Nordanians was really liberating,” says Fifield, who made quite an impression on Dutch promoters and festival organisers at that time. “Up to then I’d come through the experience of learning the pipes but not feeling completely at ease because of my Scots-English background and then coming at the saxophone from a slightly odd perspective and not having the full grounding in jazz. With the Nordanians I played whistle more or less exclusively and I felt, here’s a situation where I can be completely myself. I feel I’ve progressed as a player since then and developed a technique where I can play chromatically. The low whistle especially is a very versatile instrument and I’ve worked really hard to try and chip away at its perceived limitations. I’ll probably have the pipes and saxophone with me for LoLanders but playing the low whistle is where I feel I’ll make the most natural contribution.”
It was shortly after Fifield’s experience with the Nordanians that he put his long-time associate Stephen in touch with Oene van Geel. The guitarist was working on music that featured himself with a string quartet who would have to be fairly elastic in their approach. And it turned out that van Geel had just such a group, Zapp4.
Van Geel takes up the story: “Fraser told me about Graeme and I thought, if Graeme has the same sense of adventure and the same expression in his playing as Fraser does, then this could be really interesting. So Graeme and I set up a Skype call. I loved Graeme’s ideas, especially his compositions for silent movie soundtracks, which have become a specialism of his. In fact, one of my compositions – a double cello concerto – was quite heavily influenced by Graeme’s writing and Distances, the suite we recorded and toured with Graeme and Zapp4 turned out really well. After we’d recorded that, in 2015, Stephen composed a soundtrack for the 1927 classic film Metropolis for himself, Zapp4 and the drummer/percussionist Tom Bancroft, which we premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016. We later took that to the Xintiandi Festival in Shanghai, China. So we have quite a history together now and I’m really looking forward to working with him in LoLanders.”
For Fifield, it’s the strength of personalities that all of the musicians bring to LoLanders that gives him confidence that this untried combination will produce something interesting.
“We actually chose the musicians first and considered the instrumentation, not exactly as an afterthought but as of secondary importance,” he says. “As it happens we have a combination of melody and harmony instruments with quite a strong emphasis on rhythm, between guitar, bass guitar and two percussionists, so we have the three main elements covered. I have no idea of what it might sound like but I’ve every faith in the musicians concerned and I’m confident that what they produce together will be of good quality.”
LoLanders is just one entry in Fifield’s diary during Celtic Connections. On January 19, the day his Dutch colleagues arrive to begin rehearsing for LoLanders, he is part of the band performing the score for the computer-animated fantasy adventure film, Brave, in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. He also features with Aberdeenshire ballad singer Frieda Morrison and Gaelic singer (and Outlander favourite) Gillebride MacMillan later in the month.
Lolanders appear at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Tuesday, January 22.
ROB ADAMS – From The Herald, January 2, 2019