by Ian Mann
January 02, 2023
Confirms McCormack’s abilities as an acoustic jazz pianist and it’s good to hear him again in the classic piano / bass / drums format. It also demonstrates his skills as a composer and arranger.
(Ubuntu Music UBU123)
Andrew McCormack – piano, Joe Downard – bass, Rod Youngs – drums
Released in October 2022 “Terra Firma” is Andrew McCormack’s first recording in the piano trio format since 2014.
McCormack has been 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.
His 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 has described 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. McCormack describes Graviton as his “prog-jazz outfit” and it represented the focus of his attention in the years leading up to the pandemic.
The first Graviton album saw McCormack playing electric keyboards in addition to piano and also featured the voice and lyrics of Eska Mtungwazi, professionally known as ESKA. The personnel also included 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. Album review here;
The second Graviton album, the conceptual “The Calling” was released in 2019 with the band now featuring Nuti on lead vocals. The line up was completed by saxophonist Josh Arcoleo and drummer Josh Blackmore, with bass duties shared between Herbert and Mullarkey. Album review here;
In addition to his own projects McCormack has also been the co-leader of a duo with saxophonist Jason Yarde. Their releases include the duo recording “Places and Other Spaces, Edition,2011) and the excellent “Juntos”, a collaboration with the members of the Elysian String Quartet released on Yarde’s own Joy and Ears label in 2015. Reviews here;
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, bassist Gary Crosby and the late trumpeter Abram Wilson. He has also worked as a producer for rising saxophone star, and Ubuntu label mate, Camilla George.
Shortly after recording the two albums with Graviton McCormack issued “Solo” (Ubuntu Music, 2020), an all acoustic collection of unaccompanied piano pieces. It was perhaps appropriate that this solo recording came out during the early days of lockdown but in truth much of it had recorded in 2016 then placed on the back burner as McCormack concentrated on the Graviton project. He the revisited the solo piano project in 2019, bringing it to full fruition for a 2020 release. It’s an excellent recording and is reviewed in full here;
At last moving on to “Terra Firma”, itself, an album that can, in part be considered a product of lockdown as McCormack explains;
“When the lockdowns came upon us I found myself working on skills based around the acoustic jazz piano genre again, even though for the past few years I’d been focussing on Graviton”.
Of the piano trio format he expounds;
“Musically this is my home, it’s where I started. Perhaps there was even some comfort in doing that. My instincts tell me that audiences may need the same”.
When restrictions began to ease McCormack began to work with drummer Rod Youngs and bassist Joe Downard, two other musicians living in his London neighbourhood of Camberwell.
McCormack had previously worked with Youngs in projects led by Gary Crosby and Denys Baptiste. Ex NYJO member Downard is from a younger generation of jazz musicians but has already developed an impressive reputation thanks to his work as a solo artist and as a member of the band Waaju and also as a sideman with saxophonists Phil Meadows, Alex Hitchcock and Rachael Cohen.
The album title reflects McCormack’s return to the “home turf” of the piano trio. The programme features eight McCormack originals, many of them written during lockdown and reflecting the events of that period. The four covers are Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” and Thelonious Monk’s “Work”, the Sting song “Fragile” and an arrangement of the jazz standard “Dear Old Stockholm”, itself an adaptation of a traditional Swedish folk tune.
The album gets off to a rousing start with “Brooklyn Memoir”. McCormack’s homage to the heady days of him living in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, “where all my neighbours were musicians”. Reviewing the album for Jazzwise magazine Selwyn Harris described the piece as “an earworm of a tune” and it certainly captures one’s attention, summoning up the vibrancy and energy of New York City, albeit from a European perspective and inviting the comparison to the melodicism of Esbjorn Svensson combined with the drive and urgency of the Neil Cowley Trio.
The jazz waltz “Clementine Dream” is another McCormack original, and a piece with something of the feel of a jazz standard about it. It’s less frenetic than the opener and allows McCormack the opportunity to develop his melodic ideas more gradually. It’s a performance that demonstrates that the trio has already developed an impressive rapport with new boy Downard slotting in seamlessly alongside long time collaborators McCormack and Youngs. The young bassist also delivers an impressive solo, combining a strong melodic sense with an admirable dexterity and a deep and resonant tone.
“Second Circle” (the title a Metheny nod, perhaps?) boasts another strong melodic theme, which is gradually broadened and embellished by the trio as McCormack stretches out in expansive fashion, supported and prompted by Downard and Youngs as the music gathers an impressive momentum. The pianist’s virtuoso solo adds audacious baroque flourishes and there’s something of a feature for Youngs as the energy levels build to a peak. Subsequently there’s a more reflective coda with Downard’s bass providing a melodic foil to the leader’s piano.
“Somebody Else’s Song” is a genuine ballad and elicits a beautiful performance from the trio, with Youngs specialising on brushes. McCormack is expansively lyrical and there’s a delightfully melodic double bass solo from Downard. The piece then concludes with a beautiful passage of largely unaccompanied piano.
Solo piano also introduces the trio’s interpretation of Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation”, with bass and drums subsequently kicking in to infuse the piece with an additional bebop inspired energy.
A surprisingly robust take on Sting’s “Fragile” follows, the trio improvising around the melody with Downard’s bass playing a prominent role in the proceedings and with Youngs displaying a light and inventive touch at the drum kit. McCormack’s solo is adventurous and expansive, drawing similar responses from his colleagues.
“Dear Old Stockholm” completes a trilogy of outside material and is a solo piano piece, with McCormack, perhaps harking back to his excellent “Solo” album from 2020 (referenced above). The pianist’s classically honed technique informs a virtuoso performance that explores a range of dynamics and piano styles.
“Fake News” is one of the pieces specifically inspired by world events with McCormack stating;
“Fake News is truly the scourge of our times as we all seem susceptible given the algorithms of the internet”.
With Downard and Youngs back on board the piece gathers an impressive momentum with darting, riff based melodic phrases backed by propulsive rhythms, these providing the springboard for McCormack to stretch out more expansively. He’s followed by an extended solo drum feature from the consistently impressive Youngs.
“Better To Have Loved” is more lyrical and adds a subtle tango flavour to the proceedings. It begins with an arpeggiated passage of solo piano, before expanding to accommodate bass and drums, with Young sounding as if he’s playing with bare hands.
Composed in the spring of 2021 “Cherry Blossom” was written as a celebration of the slackening of lockdown restrictions. McCormack describes it as “hopeful”, his optimism stemming from a time “where things were starting to look up after a terrible winter and there were finally glimpses of normality on the horizon”.
It’s a second solo piano performance, less ornate than the version of “Dear Old Stockholm”, but one infused with joy and hope, sometimes reminiscent of Keith Jarrett at his most exuberant.
The trio members return for an arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Work”, the leader sounding appropriately ‘Monk-ish’ on a vigorous bebop style workout that demonstrates the timelessness of Monk’s material.
The album concludes with “Prayer For Atonement”, originally written as response to the killing of George Floyd but now equally applicable to the war in Ukraine. This masterful piece of contemporary piano jazz builds from sombre beginnings to embrace a kind of anthemic optimism, with McCormack soloing expansively above an undulating groove. Along the way there’s space for another fluent Downard bass solo and room for a passage embracing the righteous anger of dissonance, with Youngs’ drums coming to the fore. Finally some kind of peace is attained with a final passage featuring lyrical solo piano.
“Terra Firma” confirms McCormack’s abilities as an acoustic jazz pianist and it’s good to hear him again in the classic piano / bass / drums format. It also demonstrates his skills as a composer and arranger and must surely represent one of his most accomplished recordings to date. In Downard and Youngs he has found collaborators who complement his playing perfectly, both highly supportive while still having plenty to say on their own account. It’s a particularly well calibrated trio.
The musicians are well served by a production that brings out all the subtleties and nuances of the music, with the leader’s piano particularly well recorded. Well done to an engineering / production team that includes Damon Sawyer, Pedro Velasco, Robin Mullarkey and Nick Watson, with McCormack himself in the producer’s chair.
“Terra Firma” emphasises McCormack’s roots in the piano trio tradition and ranks as one of the best releases in this format of 2022.
I’m now looking forward to seeing this music played live when the trio visit Cheltenham Jazz Club on Monday 20th February 2023.
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