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William Jackson


Composing Within the Tradition
PLUS: Biography (Courtesy of Mill Records site, 2005)

Billy Jackson's life in music can be marked by the instruments he has played at various points. In the early 1970s, with the folk/rock band Contraband, he played double bass and bass guitar.

Then, with Ossian, both the original, return to tradition's acoustic roots line-up of the mid 1970s-late 1980s and in its current reconstituted form, he played and plays Scottish harp, uilleann pipes and whistle. And for his larger scale projects from 1985 onwards, he has "played" virtually the entire music shop, enlisting friends from folk groups and sometimes whole orchestras to interpret compositions such as his brilliantly conceived Wellpark and Scottish Island suites.

Jackson was just seventeen when he and his late brother George, singer Mae McKenna, fiddler John Martin, guitarist Peter Cairney and drummer Alec Baird (onstage speciality: playing the William Tell Overture on his head) formed Contraband. Heavily influenced by Fairport Convention's Liege and Lief and Full House periods, their exuberant, electric jiggery folkery soon acquired an enthusiastic following on the folk club and college circuit in Scotland and the band was whisked off to London, where fame, fortune and a cold, damp flat awaited.

Returning to Scotland having had only the cold, damp flat part of the bargain delivered and their singer nicked, sidetracked into a solo career that would later find her singing back-up on Kylie Minogue sessions, the Jacksons and John Martin formed Ossian with singer-guitarist Billy Ross in 1976.

Inspired to take up the instrument by hearing Finbar Furey on numerous concerts that Contraband shared with Finbar and his brother Eddie, Billy had bought a set of uilleann pipes ("an impossible instrument with a most amazing sound") in London and on his return to Scotland, while working for a year in a children's home, he began practising the pipes and his other new interest, the Scottish harp.

Much to their surprise, Ossian's back to basics instrumental approach and their considered readings of both lowland Scots and Gaelic songs caught on immediately, and so began an odyssey that was take the group, in various forms, back and forth across America and Europe until 1989.

Their albums, including Light on a Distant Shore and St Kilda Wedding, and the group's clear, always beautifully measured sound became benchmarks for Scottish groups following in their footsteps and there was no little rejoicing when the Billies Jackson and Ross, with fiddler Stuart Morison and piper Iain MacInnes brought the Ossian name and sound back to translucent life in 1997.

In the meantime, Jackson had been far from idle. In 1985, the Glasgow-based brewers Tennents approached him and commissioned him to compose a suite to celebrate their centenary. The acclaimed and fondly remembered Wellpark Suite was born. Put together in twos and threes with mostly friends and acquaintances from the folk scene and a few classical players, with Jackson inviting all and sundry to "play around with it, embellish it a bit", the results were remarkable, forming a coherent, emotionally involving whole which has had various of its themes absorbed into the tradition.

St Mungo, a Celtic suite written for Glasgow's year as European City of Culture and featuring Mae McKenna's magisterial singing, in Gaelic, of the city's motto, followed in 1990. Jackson's reputation as a composer was growing and was further enhanced by his album Inchcolm. Released in 1994, this marked a change from his previous modus operandi. Where Wellpark and to a lesser extent St Mungo, which had more classical input, had been worked up "orally", pieces such as the eddying Corryvreckan and the gorgeous Columcille featured Jackson scoring formally for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Strings.

For this writer, these and Scottish Island, a full folk-classical commission which followed on CD in 1998, represent the most convincing marriage of the two musical forms outside, perhaps, of the work of Irish "folk composers" Shaun Davey and Micheal O Suilleabhain.

Also in 1998, Jackson's song Land of Light won the Song for Scotland competition organised by leading newspaper, The Herald, to find an anthem for the new era in Scotland. Sung by Mairi MacInnes from the island of South Uist, the song reached Jackson's largest live audience when Mairi MacInnes was invited to include it in the programme for the duration of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, held at Edinburgh Castle each August, in the year 2000.

Thirty years on from Contraband, Jackson is a man of many parts. As well as working with Ossian, he is a qualified music therapist, has been a regular judge on the American harp competition circuit and runs his own record label, Mill Records, from his home near Forfar, in Angus.

A quietly spoken, modest man, he did once think, however, that his talents had been recognised by big business and that he might be transported into the big time.

Being a movie fan, he often sends samples of his work to producers on the off chance of getting a commission. One day George Lucas, of Star Wars fame, got in touch. Lucas was working on a new film, which turned out to be Willow, and wanted Jackson to .... play along with the orchestra. Oh well, maybe one day.

� Liz More May 2001

William Jackson � Biography (Courtesy of Mill Records site, 2005)

Internationally known composer, harpist and multi-instrumentalist William Jackson has been at the forefront of Scottish music for many years. In 1976 he was a founding member of the top Scottish band Ossian, described by the Boston Globe as "a gem in the same league as Ireland's Chieftains," and has toured and recorded with Ossian extensively throughout Europe and North America.

On stage William joyfully shares personal anecdotes, stories and old Celtic tales with a dry wit. As a solo, performer his music is truly transporting. William's primary instrument is the Scottish harp, or clarsach, which he also teaches. He also plays wire strung harp, flute, whistle, uillean pipes and piano. In the words of Alastair Clark of the Scotsman " ... the great thing about Jackson - the skill and artistry of the man - lies in his lightness of touch. William Jackson will leave you asking for more."

In addition to performing, William has gained a substantial reputation as a composer, known for combining traditional and classical music, with such major works as The Wellpark Suite, St. Mungo, Inchcolm, and A Scottish Island to his credit. In 1999 his composition 'Corryvreckan' from the album Inchcolm was included on Fiona Ritchie's favourites collection, "The Best of The Thistle & Shamrock, Volume 1."

William's music is featured on many BBC and other Television productions; he is in demand as a composer of sensitive music, and increasingly as a producer. He directed and performed the music for "Battle of the Clans" for The History Channel, and produced and recorded the music for a new six part series about Scottish National Trust properties for Scottish Television. In addition, he has jointly produced the exciting Gaelic Women CD, and has produced recordings by Billy Ross and Iain MacInnes - both for the Greentrax label - and the band Calluna for Mill Records.William's performance on harp, whistle and bodhran is featured on the soundtrack of the motion picture starring Robert Duval and Michael Keaton, which was filmed in Scotland. Iain MacInnes of the BBC�s �Pipeline� program has said, "He�s got the best ear of anyone I�ve ever come across, and he has total command of the Scottish traditional idiom." (Sounding Strings)

On Burns Day (January 25) 1999, William was announced as the winner of the popular "Song for Scotland" competition, which was organized to find an anthem for the new era in Scotland. In the words of Michael Tumelty, one of the three judges of the competition, �...William Jackson has produced a noble and beautiful song, one which captures the atmosphere of our heritage and landscape, and which, at the same time, looks forward to the new Scotland that is, hopefully, around the corner... it deserves to find a place in the heart and consciousness of the country... It has the pulse of the era. It deserves to become common currency.�

His winning composition, �Land of Light,' was released on CD in March 1999 to much acclaim: "This is a must for Scots all over the globe, I'd say, and possibly the first tartan platinum of the 21st century. No not possibly --make that surely." "Pipers and Pipe Bands around the world will do well to add this tune to their repertoire." 'Land of Light' was performed at Edinburgh Castle on July 27th, 2000 at a special performance to mark the 100th birthday of the Queen Mother, and was featured in the Edinburgh Tattoo 50th Anniversary in August 2000. William has also performed on the harp for HRH The Prince of Wales at The Palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh.

January 2002 saw the premiere of William�s newest suite, �Duan �lbanach,� commissioned for the opening of the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow. Said Rob Adams of The Herald, �Jackson is renowned as a melodist, and his Duan �lbanach, inspired by the ancient poem of the same name, continued his history of fine tunes. ...in describing the Bannock Burn and the marching cellos of Nechtansmere it had the sense of place that Jackson always brings to these larger pieces. ...blood-stirring momentum...�

Another field of major interest to William is Music Therapy. He trained as a music therapist at the London Guildhall School of Music, and specializes in working with children with cerebral palsy and autism. He has worked in this field in both the UK and the US.

You can listen to short samples from some of the tracks from this artist using the player below.




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