by Ian Mann
July 23, 2020
McCormack’s performances with their emphasis on storytelling and stylistic & dynamic variation bring out the ‘orchestral’ qualities of the piano to create a work that consistently engages the listener
(Ubuntu Music – UBU0059)
Andrew McCormack – Steinway & Sons Model D Concert Grand Piano
Pianist and composer Andrew McCormack is a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages, both as a leader of his own projects and as a prolific sideman, most notably with the American bassist and composer, Kyle Eastwood, with whom he has been working since 2007.
McCormack’s long running association with the Eastwood band has brought him an international reputation and the British pianist also spent three years living and working in New York City, a time in his life that he describes as being “a completely transformative experience”.
Born in 1978 McCormack 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.
The excellent “First Light” followed in 2014, also on Edition, and featured McCormack alongside the American rhythm team of Zack Lober (bass) and Colin Stranahan (drums). This represented his most mature statement in the ‘piano trio’ format to date and consolidated his reputation both at home and abroad. Review here;
Following his return from 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 and Phronesis drummer Anton Eger, plus Robin Mullarkey on electric bass. There were also contributions from McCormack’s life partner Noemi 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, with whom McCormack once studied. 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, “The Calling” (2019) saw the pianist moving to the Ubuntu imprint and was centred around McCormack’s regular working band with Nuti assuming the role of vocalist and lyricist. Josh Arcoleo took over on saxophone and Joshua Blackmore at the drums. The majority of the bass parts were handled by Tom Herbert while Mullarkey, who engineered the first Graviton album, took a step back to concentrate on mixing duties, playing bass on only three of the album’s ten tracks. This semi-conceptual album is reviewed here;
McCormack has also pursued a highly 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 the excellent “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.
His association with Kyle Eastwood has also led to work as a film composer and he has written and orchestrated film scores for Kyle’s famous father Clint Eastwood. McCormack’s movie credits include music for Clint’s “Flags Of Our Fathers”, “Letters From Iwo Jima” and “Changeling”, plus the John Cusack film “Grace Is Gone”.
In addition to his richly varied work as a leader and co-leader McCormack has also enjoyed a productive career as an in demand sideman, an inspired piano soloist whose playing has graced the music of groups featuring saxophonists Jean Toussaint, Denys Baptiste and Julian Siegel, violinist Christian Garrick, vocalist Clare Foster and the late trumpeter Abram Wilson. He has also worked as a producer for rising saxophone star, and Ubuntu label mate, Camilla George.
This summary of McCormack’s career to date suggests that he is a restlessly creative soul with a broad range of musical and other interests. “My mission in music is constantly evolving” he explains, “and I might add, not necessarily in a straight line”.
So perhaps it shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise to find him releasing a solo piano recording hot on the heels of the two Graviton albums, McCormack describing that band as “prog-rock, math-jazz project”.
However as the man himself says;
“I’m often experimenting with ways to communicate my ideas to the audience, and solo piano is a very direct and explicit way to do that”. His album notes also describe the thrill, and the fear, of the solo piano live performance, an experience that is “risky, exhausting and lonely”, but which can also be “special” and “transcendent”.
One would imagine that after playing electric keyboards in the crowded and tightly arranged confines of the Graviton group that McCormack would relish the comparative freedom of the solo piano format. Much of this solo album was actually recorded back in 2016 but was put on the back-burner as McCormack decided to concentrate on the Graviton project.
Revisiting the solo recordings in early 2019 McCormack found that “I was really up to something in those sessions and felt that I should round it out with some updated takes in the summer. The final results are a recital of solo piano music that uses composition as a springboard for improvised exploration, with an overarching theme of story telling devices such as contrast within the pieces themselves. These explorations went beyond my own compositions and on to other composers’ music as well”.
“Solo” features seven original pieces by McCormack, three jazz standards, and an interpretation of the Thelonious Monk tune “Wee See”. Monk is a particular touchstone for McCormack, as is the classical composer Igor Stravinsky, whose influence also finds its way into McCormack’s playing.
“Solo” was recorded at Master Chord Studio in North London on a Steinway Model D Concert Grand Piano - “it’s like playing an orchestra” enthuses McCormack. The beauty and clarity of the instrument’s sound can be heard on the opening “Dream Catcher”, a McCormack original that strikes a good balance between left hand rhythm and right hand melody, filtering these qualities through a prism of constantly shifting harmonies.
A second original, “Crystal Glass”, initially takes a more romantic and lyrical approach, before muddying the waters with deep, dark low register figures. A recurring motif links the passages of light and shade together in thoroughly beguiling fashion, as McCormack draws the listener into his sound world, to share in the process of transcendence.
“Nomad” is one of the most fully composed tunes on the album and combines allusions to earlier jazz piano styles like stride with more obviously classically derived flourishes. It offers a good example of McCormack deploying stylistic contrasts within the course of a single composition with the aim of taking the listener on “a little bit of a journey”.
McCormack admires fellow pianist Thelonious Monk for the pure individuality of the man’s compositions. Equally he enjoys the scope that Monk’s tunes offer to improvisers, a freedom that provides the opportunity for individual expression within a framework that remains unmistakably ‘Monk’.
In the August edition of Jazzwise magazine McCormack discusses Monk’s compositions with journalist Peter Quinn;
“They’re very playful”, he explains, “but there’s also this hip kind of weird shape to them that’s just really useful in improvising. There’s a motivic strength to his tunes that you can really work around, there’s a wealth of music to be made within his compositions”.
He also expresses his admiration for the work of Brad Mehldau, Tigran Hamasyan, Marcin Wasilewski and the Venezuelan born pianist Edward Simon.
McCormack’s obvious enthusiasm for Monk’s music finds expression in his sparkling interpretation of “Wee See” that embodies that playfulness, combining a sense of musical mischief making with a pure joyousness.
As its title suggests “Adagio” draws more obviously on classical sources and the mood here is more contemplative and lyrical, almost solemn at times. It’s a performance of great beauty, providing that element of contrast that McCormack seeks, whilst simultaneously signalling his growing maturity as a musician and composer.
In contrast to the meticulously planned “Nomad” McCormack’s performance on “Shaper Maker” represents one of his most spontaneous of the set, as the pianist explains;
“Shaper Maker was one idea, then I set off to new harmonic pastures on the fly whilst keeping the melody in close proximity to hold the whole thing together.” Again there’s a playfulness to the performance, allied to a charming melody and an easy improvisational fluency, that makes for highly engaging and rewarding listening.
McCormack’s version of the standard “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me” smuggles in a reference to the tarantella from Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” and the entire performance sees him exhibiting a classical lightness of touch at the keyboard. There’s also that element of playfulness again as McCormack mixes elements of the jazz and classical traditions to create music that is very much his own.
The title of “Weeds” is said to be a reference to the negative thoughts that get in the way of everyday life. But there’s nothing negative about a performance that again takes the listener on a journey, by just a few seconds the longest one on the album. Again McCormack skilfully combines melodic and rhythmic functions in a composition that passes through a number of distinct phases. These vary substantially in terms of mood and tempo and include a passage where he improvises around a simple single note vamp.
“Prospect Park” features some bravura playing in a lively composition that is rhythmically complex, but which never loses its sense of melody, a characteristic that distinguishes McCormack’s writing and playing overall. For all its stylistic variation “Solo” is a relatively conventional record, McCormack finds everything he needs to say at the keyboard, without resource to prepared piano techniques or other excursions into the instrument’s innards.
McCormack weaves more Stravinsky into his interpretation of the Jerome Kern / Oscar Hammerstein composition “Nobody Else But Me”. This time he incorporates snatches from the ballet “Petrushka” during a performance that again borrows from a variety of jazz and classical piano styles during its six minute duration, whilst also embracing a similarly wide range of moods and tempi.
The album concludes with an unashamedly romantic reading of “For All We Know” with the focus very much on melody and lyricism. It’s one of the less crowded arrangements on the album and features McCormack making effective use of space, but still providing enough interest and inventiveness to maintain the listener’s attention.
The distilled, all acoustic atmosphere of “Solo” makes for a total contrast to the two Graviton albums but overall this is probably the more satisfying release. McCormack’s performances, with their emphasis on storytelling and stylistic and dynamic variation bring out the ‘orchestral’ qualities of the piano to create an album that consistently engages the listener’s attention, not always an easy feat on a totally solo recording, whatever the instrument.
The nuances of McCormack’s playing, and the beautiful acoustic qualities of the Steinway itself are superbly captured by an engineering team including Dougal Lott, Ronan Phelan, Robin Mullarkey and Nick Watson, with McCormack himself acting as producer.
The album has received almost universally positive reviews in the jazz media, the only dissenting voice being The Wire, who didn’t find it risky or radical enough. However it should be remembered that this album only represents one side of McCormack’s music making, and as such it is thoroughly recommended to the majority of jazz listeners.
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