by Ian Mann
June 16, 2017
A brave release from McCormack. An interesting and innovative recording that deserves to be widely heard.
(Jazz Village JV550004)
Andrew McCormack (born 1978) is a British pianist and composer who began his jazz career as a member of Tomorrow’s Warriors. In 2005 his recording début as a leader, “Telescope”, released on the Dune record label, attracted considerable critical acclaim and McCormack was subsequently the winner of the “Rising Star” category at the 2006 BBC Jazz Awards.
“Telescope” was a trio album made with bassist Tom Herbert (of Polar Bear fame) and drummer Tom Skinner. However it was to be another eight years before McCormack released another recording in this format, 2013’s “Live In London” (Edition Records) featuring a new British trio with Chris Hill on bass and Troy Miller at the drums.
Part of the reason for the lengthy hiatus was McCormack’s work as an in demand sideman which included a lengthy stint with saxophonist Jean Toussaint’s quartet. McCormack has also worked with saxophonists Denys Baptiste and Julian Siegel, violinist Christian Garrick, vocalist Clare Foster and the late trumpeter Abram Wilson.
However McCormack’s most high profile engagement is his long running, and still ongoing, tenure as a member of Amercian bassist and composer Kyle Eastwood’s band. It’s a gig that has earned him an international reputation and he has composed and orchestrated film scores for Kyle’s famous father Clint Eastwood. McCormack’s movie credits include Clint’s “Flags Of Our Fathers”. “Letters From Iwo Jima” and “Changeling” plus the John Cusack film “Grace Is Gone”.
Away from the Eastwood band McCormack has pursued a creative partnership with the multi-reeds player Jason Yarde under the name MY Duo, which has resulted in the albums “Places And Other Spaces” (Edition, 2011) and “Juntos” (Joy And Ears, 2014), the latter also featuring members of the Elysian String Quartet.
In 2013 McCormack took the decision to move to Brooklyn where he spent a year immersing himself in the New York jazz scene. His excellent 2014 album “First Light” (Edition Records) was made with his ‘American Trio’ of Zack Lober (bass) and Colin Stranahan (drums) was a reflection of his New York experiences.
Now based back in the UK “Graviton” represents his most ambitious recording to date. It’s a record that is informed by his time in the States and one that embraces a variety of musical styles from jazz to soul to prog rock.
For this project McCormack has assembled a stellar international cast with a core quintet featuring Shabaka Hutchings on tenor sax, clarinet and bass clarinet, Robin Mullarkey on electric bass and Anton Eger of Phronesis fame at the drums. It’s also the first band that McCormack has led to feature vocals and lyrics with the line up completed by singer and lyricist Eska Mtungwazi, professionally known as ESKA. This line up is augmented by Noemi Nuti, McCormack’s life partner, on harp and by Ralph Wyld at the vibes.
“Graviton” is both an album title and a band name. Gravitons are particles that carry the gravitational force with McCormack explaining; “ ‘Graviton’ as a title came from the idea of pulling all of these disparate elements together into one cohesive whole”.
He continues; “Part of the vision of the band was to take eclectic voices and musical influences and mix them together. Something I would see in New York were a lot of bands made up of people from all walks of life and all corners of the world that are seamlessly united together on stage. Within that I think there’s a message about the beauty of bringing people together and making music, whoever you are and wherever you’re from.”
McCormack names the influences on this project as including jazz piano giants Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea as well as more recent figures such as Tigran Hamasyan. Classical music has also informed McCormack’s development with Mahler and Stravinsky mentioned alongside contemporary composers such as Steve Reich and McCormack’s tutor and mentor Mark-Anthony Turnage.
Indeed it was Turnage’s “Blood On The Floor” that helped to inspire the Graviton project with McCormack’s album notes stating;
“This project feels almost like the summation of a 16 year long journey, starting back when I first heard Mark-Anthony Turnage’s ‘Blood On The Floor’. My fascination with the cohesiveness and storytelling of composition, alongside the rhythmic feel and language of jazz has been at the heart of what I’m about ever since really, but it was my short stint in New York City that pushed me to discover this more clearly”.
The pianist also admits to listening to a lot of classic prog rock at the time the music for “Graviton” was being written including Bill Bruford, Gentle Giant, Genesis and Led Zeppelin. Contemporary electronic music artists Skrillex and Hudson Mohawke have also been cited by McCormack as influences on the Graviton sound.
Given the diversity of the personnel and the broad range of influences the music to be heard on “Graviton” embraces a variety of musical styles and covers a number of bases. The attention grabbing opener “Breathe” is a case in point as it incorporates soaring wordless vocals and hip hop styled drum grooves while McCormack features on both acoustic piano and electric keyboards, his playing epitomising that prog rock influence.
The title track incorporates elements of minimalism and combines ESKA’s adventurous wordless vocals with a tightly woven tapestry of sounds incorporating piano, vibes and reeds, the whole driven by Eger’s dynamic drumming. The music stops and starts and ebbs and flows and is rich in terms of both vocal and instrumental colour and dynamic contrast. It’s all very different to anything that McCormack has recorded previously and “Graviton” is an album that might surprise listeners who are already familiar with his work. Nevertheless it’s an interesting and innovative recording that deserves to be widely heard.
As McCormack explained in a recent interview with Selwyn Harris for the 2017 edition of Jazzwise Magazine although the compositions are all his the other members of the group have invested much of themselves in the “Graviton” project. Mullarkey, best known for his work with rising star pianist/vocalist Jacob Collier also engineered the album and brought many of his own ideas to the finished sound. Meanwhile ESKA, a successful singer and songwriter in her own right and a former Mercury Music Prize nominee, added lyrics to some of the tunes such as the haunting neo-soul ballad “The Waiting Game”. It’s like Norma Winstone singing to a hip-hop beat.
ESKA’s incisive but intelligent lyrics also feature on the infectious “Kalamata”, a more upbeat blending of minimalism, hip-hop, soul and prog. The addition of lyrics by ESKA to McCormack’s tunes can perhaps be viewed as a particularly contemporary form of ‘vocalese’.
“Look Up” features more conventional vocal scatting but ESKA’s contribution is couched among the rapid shuffle of contemporary drum grooves allied to McCormack’s insistent keyboard motifs. It’s a high energy performance that captures the attention of the listener and which offers the potential for further development at the group’s live performances.
Sonically engineer Mullarkey leaves his mark throughout the album and no more so than on “Andromeda” which features an overdubbed, multi-layered “choir of ESKAs”. McCormack names this atmospheric and arresting track as one of his personal favourites.
“Fellowship” acts as a feature for Hutchings and the combination of his tenor sax with Eger’s contemporary drum grooves been compared to Polar Bear, a band with whom Hutchings has previously ‘depped’. The addition of spacey keyboards and ethereal wordless vocals adds to the trippy, PB like atmosphere.
At a little over seven minutes “Escape Velocity” is the lengthiest piece on the album. Featuring an economic but powerful lyric from ESKA the piece finds Graviton heading for the stars on a swirl of keyboard arpeggios and rapidly bustling drum grooves. McCormack finds time mid-tune to play one of the few piano solos of the set, an urgent, percussive, expansive affair fuelled by Eger’s busy drumming. The latter brings all of the energy and flamboyance of his playing with Phronesis to the Graviton group.
After the breathless urgency of “Escape Velocity” the following piece, “Aurora”, represents a moment of reflection, an oasis of calm. Essentially it’s a solo piano performance from McCormack albeit with some judicious overdubbing, including McCormack himself playing glockenspiel.
The album concludes with “The Time Delay of Light”, a song with lyrics by Nuti that are given voice by ESKA. I’d surmise that this piece was actually written as a song. ESKA gives a typically assured vocal performance, her voice singing both soulful and flexible, as it is throughout the album.
“Graviton” represents a brave release from McCormack in that it’s very different to what he has done before, and yet seen in the light of his work with the Kyle Eastwood Band, a group that also likes to blur musical genres perhaps it’s not so unexpected after all.
The use of vocals has evoked comparisons with the work of Chick Corea’s Return To Forever and Robert Mitchell’s Panacea but Graviton bring a very contemporary edge and a dynamic energy to their music that sets them apart from these two groups and which is very exciting. ESKA’s voice is fully integrated into the Graviton band’s sound, even in the pieces without lyrics. Her contribution is excellent but the standard of the playing from everybody concerned is universally high with Mullarkey also worthy of praise for his work behind the mixing desk. Central to the success of the album is the chemistry between McCormack and the ever ebullient Eger. The way these two combine reminds me of Brad Mehldau and Mark Guiliana in the Mehliana duo project.
It would be interesting to see the Graviton band perform live but opportunities for this during 2017 will be scarce as McCormack will be touring with Kyle Eastwood for much of the rest of the year.
However a Graviton tour of the UK is planned for 2018 which will probably see ESKA and Hutchings replaced by Nuti and Josh Arcoleo respectively. For updates please visit http://www.mccormackmusic.com
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