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|HIGHLAND Swing have been working hard on mastering the classic big band charts since the summer and made their public debut in Inverness last month, writes Kenny Mathieson.|
The players, who meet every Tuesday evening at the Crown Primary School for band practice under their musical director, John Sharkey, were invited to play at the Crown Church Fellowship Group's Scottish-American Thanksgiving Dinner in November.
Alto saxophonist and volunteer publicist Campbell McCracken said they were reasonably pleased with the outcome.
"Given that it was the first one, it wasn't too bad," he reflected. "We were a wee bit shaky, partly because John wanted to play, rather than just conduct, and ended up in the second row because of the seating arrangement, and it wasn't easy for some of us to see him.
"People enjoyed it, though, and they asked us if we wanted to do a dance for them as well, but we have had to turn that down for now. We're not really a dance band at the moment. We don't have the repertoire to let people get up and dance - by the time they got going, our number would probably be finished. We're more of a swing concert band, if you like.
"When the opportunity to perform came up, there were no qualms about it, though."
The band - whose next gig is in Elgin in March - first came together at the behest of Brian Dobbs, a Lochaber-based musician who wanted a group to play some arrangements he had - but the situation developed rather differently, Campbell explained.
"It turned out that the arrangements Brian had were a wee bit too hard for the level we were at initially and he didn't have a conductor's score either, so the musical director couldn't really conduct us properly as a band.
"Brian withdrew at that point - but we were enjoying playing together and we decided to continue but using simpler stock arrangements, and then progressing onto the more difficult arrangements we play now."
The band is essentially an amateur organisation, although a number of the players are experienced or semi-professional musicians. Mostly live in or close to Inverness, although others travel from Tain, Cromarty and Elgin.
John Sharkey, who came in as musical director at the outset, has been playing saxophones and wind instruments for 20 years and is an accomplished reader and performer.
Other experienced musicians include tenor saxophonists Alistair Eadie and Ian Wilson. Trumpeter Bob Forsyth, a former conductor of the Highland Community Band, has been playing for 58 years, and another of his section-mates in the trumpets, Gordon Leys, has close on 30 years experience, including a long stint with the Inverness band Tin Pan Alley.
Drummer Harold Hepburn played with the Ness River Rhythm Kings. Self-taught keyboard player Kenny Burnett is another experienced musician who also works in a duo with Ian Wilson. The versatile Liz MacLardy, who has sung with Inverness Opera Company and in classical and jazz settings, has been recruited as vocalist and tenor saxophonist Helen Rowson used to accompany local blues singer Kathy Kershaw.
"We do have some experienced players, but at the other end of the scale, we have someone like alto saxophonist Jennifer Lornie who has only been playing her instrument for three months," Campbell added.
"When the band started up it was made clear that lots of enthusiasm and a basic level of ability was the most important thing. In my own case, this band was a great opportunity to get going again. I played tenor in a band down in Fife but, when I moved up to Cromarty a couple of years ago, I had to leave the tenor down there because it belonged to the band."
Highland Swing draw on the classic swing repertoire of Ellington, Basie, and what Campbell describes as "great American songbook" tunes, and there is still room for prospective members to go along to Crown Primary School on Tuesday nights.
"The band has settled down but we certainly wouldn't be adverse to new people coming along," Campbell declared. "When we come to do gigs, we need to be able to cover people who can't make it, so if anyone is interested, by all means come along to rehearsal and see what we're doing."