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Kevin Mackenzie's Vital Signs Another New Horizon Review

Album. Released 2004.  

BBC Review

Ubiquitous Scottish guitarist with his ambitious jazz/folk crossover nine piece.

Martin Longley 2004

Mackenzie played guitar for the John Rae Collective in the late 1980s, then went on to join Trio AAB, the Scottish Guitar Quartet and form Swirler, his own jazz funk outfit. The nine-piece Vital Signs reflects two sides of Kevin's own guitaring activities. Its front line is divided between a jostling spread of what must be loosely termed jazz saxophones and folk fiddles.

Phil Bancroft (tenor) and Martin Kershaw (alto) are key figures on the ever-strengthening Scottish jazz scene whilst Chris Stout and Aidan O'Rourke have a similarly important position in the highland folk realms. Simon Thoumire's concertina bolsters the Celtic traditional side, and the jazz ranks are completed by Chick Lyall (piano), Tom Lyne (bass) and Caber label director Tom Bancroft (drums).

These folk-jazz delineations are an over-simplification, just to paint a vivid picture of the music's basic ingredients. The reality is that all of the players are constantly crossing over, expressing an affinity for both styles, intermarrying with sympathy and understanding. Mackenzie's pieces have been written as a result of winning the Creative Scotland Award (a feat which now seems to have been achieved by most members of his band). It's administered annually by the Scottish Arts Council, and supports the development of specially-tailored projects.

Mackenzie pens some intricate themes; his opening "Cypriot Skies" arrests its funky-strutting progress with halting break-ups. Phil Bancroft is in bullish mood, beating up against the band's persistently hard riffing. He becomes sleazy on the title track, licking against a burred edge. Then, Bancroft's emotional charge is soon cooled by stringed salve, the fiery mood receding.

The vigour of Vital Signs is immediately apparent. The dogged strings create a swirling sense of urgency, lending a soundtracking atmosphere. "Lost Again" turns towards the free and formless, imparting an agitated aspect. Fiddles squeal and grate, groaning as they bustle onwards. "I Saw U" reverts to the funk feel that ends up being the dominant rhythmic attack of this set. "By Myself" is a restful exception, full of extended drum rumbles, singing fiddles and tenderly-picked guitar. Sometimes, Mackenzie can be surprisingly conventional in terms of his chosen amplifier sound: warm and mellow, with a liquid tone. The leader saves his biggest shot until the end, though, "Winkel's Rose Garden" cranking up to reveal his edgier rock influences.

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