Blue Rose Code is the musical alias of Edinburgh-born singer-songwriter Ross Wilson. A natural storyteller with a poet’s heart, and possessed of a beautiful Edinburgh burr of a singing voice, Wilson has been developing his song-writing craft and signature sound since the release of his first album, North Ten, in 2013. He has absorbed subtle elements of the music of John Martyn, Van Morrison, Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Marvin Gaye along the way and, in recent years, has also embraced the music and poetry of Scotland to add further richness to his musical palette.
Now, with his fourth album, The Water Of Leith, Ross Wilson has realised his vision of delivering a unique brand of celtic soul, the like of which has not been heard since the heyday of Van Morrison’s Caledonian Soul Orchestra. Once again, Wilson has assembled a stellar cast of musicians who are representative of the cream of Scotland’s folk and jazz talent, and the magnificence of the resulting album is testament to the inspiration he has drawn from them, and vice versa. The incorporation of a horn section and a string quartet on a number of the tracks is a masterstroke, with Seonaid Aitken’s sumptuous strings arrangements worthy of special mention.
What becomes apparent on listening to the album is the change in Ross Wilson’s vocals. The passion and intensity remain but the singing is more controlled than before, reflecting the serenity of a man who has battled his addictions and found peace of mind and the promise of a bright future.
Over graceful piano chords, the album opens with Ross Wilson pouring his heart out elegantly in a moving tribute to his close friend and mentor, John Wetton, who sadly passed away last year after a long illness. Over The Fields (For John) is also notable for guest singer Beth Nielsen Chapman’s gorgeous harmonies and Lyle Watt’s shimmering electric guitar and the poignancy of the lyrics is heightened by the swell of strings and Iain Sloan’s pedal steel guitar. The urgent jazz/soul of Bluebell sees Wilson’s swaggering vocals buoyed along by delicious bursts of sax, courtesy of Konrad Wiszniewski. The freewheeling Ebb And Flow is irresistible, as Wilson urges us all to live in the here and now, his upbeat vocals punctuated by punchy horn riffs and a joyous gospel chorus. The semi-improvised Passing Places, co-written with guitarist Lyle Watt, is a breathtaking fusion of chiming delta blues guitar, sinuous violin and Angus Lyon’s stately accordion, with guest vocalist Kathleen MacInnes’s haunting Gaelic refrain weaving tantalisingly in and out of the mix. This segues seamlessly into Sandaig, Ross Wilson’s poetic evocation and celebration of the stunning landscape and natural features of Scotland’s rugged west coast and the nation’s quest for freedom and social justice. This is a modern folk song which will surely stand the test of time, as Wilson sings in hushed and reverent tones over lilting strings…”I held it in my hand, the dainty buttercup, well I hold it up underneath your chin and, like a shock of Harris sand, the yelly burst, like a sun rising just for us…”.
The sweep of Ross Wilson’s vocal range is showcased fully in the cool and atmospheric jazz/soul ballad Nashville Blue, which features tumbling piano from John Lowrie, Colin Steele’s muted trumpet, sweeping strings and Wilson intoning ruefully…”In spite of all my pretty words, I don’t know how to be in love…”. The modern folk ballad On The Hill Remains A Heart is propelled along by choppy percussion and soaring strings. Ross Ainslie’s driving whistle and pipes riffs provide a bridge between verse and chorus, as Wilson weaves the sad tale of a young woman destined not to love again after losing her beau on a battlefield in a foreign land. This sombre mood is lifted by Love Is…, where the vocals of Ross Wilson and guest chanteuse Julie Fowlis blend delightfully and Seonaid Aitken delivers a swinging Cajun fiddle solo.
Blue Rose Code’s bold and adventurous new direction is perhaps signalled most clearly in the last four tracks, which held this reviewer totally enthralled. Ross Wilson’s credentials as a soul singer are highlighted in the sultry Polaris, where he implores his loved one to leave the light on, as he is coming home to her. Colin Steele’s majestic trumpet sprinkles added stardust to this gem of a song. An expansive, compelling and, again semi-improvised, jazz instrumental, The Water, was co-written with pianist/drummer John Lowrie and features the deftest of interplay between Lowrie’s rippling piano, Steele’s lyrical trumpet and James Lindsay’s fluid double bass. This close on ten minute epic segues beautifully into the album’s pivotal song, To The Shore, which begins with Wilson’s soothing vocals underpinned by gentle strings and builds steadily towards a heady climax of swirling strings and moody trumpet, which nod affectionately in the direction of Miles Davis’s epic composition, Sketches Of Spain. In Child, the album’s poignant closing track, Ross Wilson speaks to his younger self, urging him to let go of his turbulent past and exorcise the painful Ghosts Of Leith which are referenced on the first album. Delicate washes of cello and sax provide counterpoints to Wilson’s quietly passionate vocal and an elegant combination of strings, piano and sax brings this moving song to a satisfying conclusion.
The Water Of Leith was released on 3rd November via Navigator Records. For more on Blue Rose Code, click here.