by Ian Mann
June 21, 2019
McCormack again blends his numerous sources together skilfully to create a sound that is wide ranging and inclusive, yet simultaneously intensely personal.
“Graviton; The Calling”
(Ubuntu Music UBU0025)
Andrew McCormack – piano, Noemi Nuti – vocals, Josh Arcoleo – tenor sax, Joshua Blackmore- drums, Tom Herbert / Robin Mullarkey – electric bass
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 subsequently became 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 American 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.
McCormack’s classical leanings have also found expression in the 2009 composition “Incentive”, a commission from the London Symphony Orchestra that was premièred at London’s Barbican Centre as part of the LSO’s Panufnik Young Composers Scheme.
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.
Following his return to the US McCormack assembled a new group that became known as Graviton, after the title of its 2017 début on the Jazz Village label. This represented McCormack’s most ambitious recording to date and featured the voice and lyrics of Eska Mtungwazi, professionally known as ESKA. The first Graviton album also featured the talents of multi-reed player Shabaka Hutchings, Phronesis drummer Anton Eger plus Mullarkey on electric bass. There were also contributions from Nuti, here playing harp, and vibraphonist Ralph Wyld.
“Graviton” drew on many influences ranging through jazz. soul, hip hop and prog rock plus the contemporary classical stylings of composer Mark-Anthony Turnage. Successfully drawing together a diverse range of interests the album was generally well received and McCormack set about assembling a touring band to take the music out on the road.
This second Graviton album is centred around McCormack’s regular working band with his life partner, Noemi Nuti, taking over the role of vocalist and lyricist. Josh Arcoleo takes over on saxophone and Joshua Blackmore at the drums. The majority of the bass parts are handled by Tom Herbert while Mullarkey, who engineered the first Graviton album, takes a step back to concentrate on mixing duties, playing bass on only three of the album’s ten tracks.
On the release of the first Graviton album McCormack was at pains to emphasise the story telling quality of the music. With “The Calling” he takes this aspect a stage further. This second album is a conceptual affair that details what McCormack’s liner notes describe as “the classic hero’s journey”. In this aspect it is similar to bassist Shez Raja’s recent “Journey to Shambhala” album, but whereas Raja’s story was self written McCormack’s is based on the writings of the psychologist/philosophers Erich Neuman and Jordan B Peterson.
Loosely based on the creation myth the album is “a story of the known world, The Walled Garden, and the unknown forces outside that threaten its very existence, The Dragon. The hero voluntarily goes out to face the danger head on”.
The album commences with the brief “Uroboros”, the very first stage of the creation myth, often represented in mythology as a serpent biting its own tail, an image that informs the album cover. Suitably cosmic sounding noises are combined with McCormack’s glacial acoustic piano to evoke images of a world emerging out of the void.
“I’ve presented Uroboros as a musical circle of fifths, spelling out a chord of all twelve tones of the chromatic scale” explains McCormack. “Out of this static sound of pan-possibility the individual is first formed and must differentiate itself. This is what will become our hero and the music intervallic motif of the fifth becomes a characteristic throughout the whole album. This serves as a prologue to the following adventure”.
“Walled Garden” is more conventional with Blackmore establishing a hip hop style groove which underpins McCormack’s gently rippling piano arpeggios and Nuti’s soaring wordless vocals. Herbert’s electric bass hints at the danger coming to the gates and the following track, “The Calling”, finds the hero responding to the threat and embarking on his quest. Nuti’s lyrics sketch the scene as the music becomes busy and fractious, paced by Blackmore’s bustling drum grooves and with Arcoleo’s hard edged tenor sax playing a greater role in the proceedings.
Although Graviton is primarily an acoustic band Mullarkey’s judicious use of electronic effects also plays its part in the music, the multi-tracked vocals at the start of “Magic Mentor” being a case in point. This is a more reflective affair with McCormack’s lyrical piano augmented by Nuti’s gently soaring wordless vocals and Blackmore’s subtle but colourfully inventive drumming.
“Crossing The Threshold” commences with shimmering piano arpeggios that recall the minimalism of Steve Reich, the music building in steadily accreting layers with the addition of saxophone and wordless vocals. Blackmore then lays down an insistent drum groove above which Nuti’s voice floats in ethereal fashion, seemingly oblivious to the ongoing rhythmic ferment bubbling beneath.
“The King Is Blind” features strident rock rhythms as Nuti delivers a declamatory reading of her own lyrics. Arcoleo cuts loose with some raunchy tenor sax on a powerful and dynamic group performance that features some incendiary drumming from Blackmore and a final barnstorming piano solo from the leader.
Nuti’s lyrics also feature on the more lugubrious “Fork In The Road”, her sultry vocal seeming to allude to the Adam and Eve myth, among other things. Blackmore lays down further contemporary style grooves as McCormack and Arcoleo lend a contrasting sweetness to the arrangement.
“Belly Of The Whale” incorporates some suitably doomy sounding deep sea soundscapes, these suggesting the further influence of Mullarkey, who also plays electric bass on this piece. Although McCormack is credited solely with ‘piano’ there are several moments throughout the album when it sounds as if he’s playing electric keyboards. This track is a case in point, but it also contains some fluent acoustic piano soloing amongst the dark hued textures.
At a little under nine minutes in duration “Dragon” is the lengthiest track on the album, and arguably its centre piece. Rhythmically complex and consistently unfolding it incorporates a powerfully probing tenor solo from Arcoleo, wordless vocal gymnastics from Nuti and a feverish acoustic piano solo from McCormack. There’s also something of a feature for the consistently inventive Blackmore.
The album concludes with “Returning”, an elegiac valedictory featuring Nuti’s celebratory delivery of her own lyrics, the music ultimately fading into the distance with a closing passage of unaccompanied piano. It’s a suitably filmic ending to an album that is almost cinematic in its scope and ambition.
“The Calling” isn’t a jazz album in the conventional sense, although jazz is very much at the heart of these performances, together with many other musical elements. It won’t appeal to all listeners and the overall concept is a little overbearing, but nevertheless there is plenty of fine music to enjoy here. McCormack again blends his numerous sources together skilfully to create a sound that is wide ranging and inclusive yet simultaneously intensely personal. The singing and playing is excellent throughout, but ultimately less distinctive than on the first Graviton album. Comparisons have been made with the first version of Chick Corea’s group Return Forever, the line up that included vocalist Flora Purim and saxophonist/flautist Joe Farrell. Nuti’s wordless singing is often reminiscent of that of Purim. Closer to home I’m reminded of the 60s and 70s ensembles of Michael Garrick, Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor, all of which featured the stunning vocalising of Norma Winstone.
Despite some minor reservations one suspects that Graviton should prove to be a highly exciting prospect in the live environment and audiences will get the chance to check them out at the following dates;
01/07/2019 - NQ Jazz Manchester
02/072019 – The Flute and Tankard, Cardiff
01/08/2019 – 606 Jazz Club, Chelsea, London
More details at
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