by Ian Mann
April 13, 2015
Ian Mann enjoys a triumphant performance by a one off quartet led by pianist and composer Andrew McCormack and featuring guest saxophone soloist Julian Siegel.
Andrew McCormack Trio with Julian Siegel, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 11/04/2015
Andrew McCormack (born 1978) can be considered as one of the most fluent and imaginative British jazz pianists of the last decade although it’s arguable that his talents have been somewhat undervalued, particularly in his homeland.
A former member of Tomorrow’s Warriors McCormack made a big impression with his debut album “Telescope” (Dune Records, 2005), a trio set featuring Polar Bear bassist Tom Herbert plus drummer Tom Skinner. The following year he won the “Rising Star” category at the BBC Jazz Awards.
However for all his talent McCormack is perhaps better known as a sideman, particularly with regard to his long running engagements in the bands of bassist Kyle Eastwood and saxophonist Jean Toussaint. He has also made substantial contributions to the music of saxophonist Denys Baptiste, violinist Christian Garrick and the late and much missed trumpeter Abram Wilson. As a film composer and orchestrator his credits iclude Clint Eastwood’s
“Flags Of Our Fathers”. “Letters From Iwo Jima” and “Changeling” plus the John Cusack film “Grace Is Gone”.
Since 2009 one of McCormack’s chief creative outlets has been his duo with the saxophonist Jason Yarde as documented on the albums “MY Duo” (2010) and “Places and Other Spaces”, the latter released on Edition in 2011 and reviewed elsewhere on this site. The duo have also released a third album, “Juntos”, on Yarde’s own Joy And Ears imprint (see what he just did there), a fruitful and effective collaboration with the strings of the Elysian Quartet.
I can confirm that the McCormack and Yarde Duo is also a thoroughly convincing live act as confirmed by their performance at the 2011 London Jazz Festival.
The success of the duo plus McCormack’s busy sideman schedule prevented him from recording in the conventional piano trio format again until 2013 when “Live In London” appeared, an excellent set recorded at the 606 Club featuring the pianist’s UK trio with bassist Chris Hill and drummer Troy Miller. Reviewed elsewhere on this site the recording was a welcome reminder of McCormack’s substantial abilities in this format but rather curiously Edition took the decision to release it as a digital download only (physical copies were only available at gigs).
At this point McCormack took the decision to move to New York where he took an apartment in Brooklyn and began absorbing himself in the jazz scene of the “Big Apple”. It was here that he formed his “American Trio” featuring bassist Zack Lorber and drummer Colin Stranahan, the latter no stranger to collaborations with British musicians thanks to his connection with bassist Michael Janisch and the latter’s Whirlwind record label. It was this line up that recorded the excellent studio album “First Light” which was given a full release by Edition in the summer of 2014. Both the playing and McCormack’s writing evidenced something of the energy of New York and the album was greeted with unanimous critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. It represented a highly significant recording for McCormack, a mature and convincing artistic statement from a musician who has “arrived”.
McCormack now divides his time between London and New York and is currently touring the UK with a British trio plus a guest saxophone soloist. For most of these dates the saxophonist has been Mark Lockheart but with Lockheart scheduled to perform with Loose Tubes at Gateshead International Jazz Festival on the same weekend the guest slot tonight went to “supersub” Julian Siegel who did an absolutely terrific job in the role. The versatile Siegel whose credits range from the BBC Big Band to the muscular rock infused jazz of the mighty Partisans is a vastly experienced musician with consummate sight reading skills who has the ability to shine in any musical situation. I recently saw him deputise for the unwell Mike Chillingworth in guitarist Ant Law’s quintet at a gig at Dempsey’s in Cardiff. Siegel responded to the challenges of Law’s often complex compositions with his characteristic aplomb, that “supersub” tag is well earned.
There was a palpable air of expectation among the capacity audience at the Hive. McCormack was last at the venue as a member of Jean Toussaint’s quartet in March 2014 and his brilliant playing had made a big impression on the Shrewsbury audience. They were clearly keen to see him play again, especially alongside a player with such a good reputation as Siegel. As at the Toussaint gig an upright acoustic piano had been hired for McCormack’s use and with local musician Casey Greene manning the mixing desk the instrument sounded absolutely wonderful, particularly from my vantage point just a few feet away. Joining McCormack and Siegel were rising star bassist Sam Lasserson, who has worked with saxophonist Martin Speake and drummer Jeff Williams among others, plus Birmingham based drummer Jim Bashford. Bashford was essentially the third choice drummer behind Chris Higginbottom who has played most of the tour and young tyro Moses Boyd who was due to play tonight. I assume it was the first time that Bashford had played this music but he acquitted himself brilliantly, never putting a stick (or brush) wrong and adding greatly to the success of the evening. His cymbal work was particularly impressive as he brought a genuine creativity to his role. Supersub Number Two! Well done Jim.
And so to the music which was mainly sourced from McCormack’s latest album “First Light”. The addition of Siegel’s saxophones added even greater depth and colour to what were already very successful compositions. A brief passage of solo piano introduced “Prospect Park”, also the opening track on the new album and a piece named after the Brooklyn neighbourhood in which McCormack first lived. It’s a lively, energetic tune that epitomises the bustle of New York and the solos by McCormack on piano and Siegel on tenor reflected this with McCormack stamping out time with his foot and sometimes standing up to play as he became increasingly absorbed in the music. The newly short haired Siegel seemed lost in reverie until it was his turn to step up to the mic to solo with his usual power and fluency. Lasserson’s muscular bass lines and Bashford’s crisp, driving drumming provided just the right momentum and there was also a feature for Lasserson, his solo underpinned by McCormack’s comping and Bashford’s deft drumming. The piece ended as it began with McCormack alone at the piano.
The title of the new, and as yet unrecorded, “Second Circle” was inspired by the theories on live performance posited by Patsy Rodenburg, voice coach, author and theatre director and Head of Voice at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, McCormack’s alma mater. The tune itself featured Siegel’s distinctive use of his tenor’s altissimo register on the theme followed by a more conventional and muscular solo. McCormack’s own feature exhibited his usual flair and inventiveness and Bashford and Lasserson turned in typically immaculate performances.
Returning to the “First Light” album “Gotham Soul” revealed a more delicate side of McCormack’s writing. This evocative and slow burning ballad began with a brief passage of solo piano quickly joined by Siegel’s warm toned tenor sax. Siegel continued to smoulder on a lengthy solo and Lasserson’s melodic playing on his bass feature also impressed with McCormack linking nicely with him before embarking on his own solo. The pianist finally brought things full circle by finishing in unaccompanied mode.
Staying with the album the tune “Reluctant Gift” with its rapidly shifting tempos marked a return to the kind of urban urgency and energy that living in New York has brought to McCormack’s writing. Siegel’s solo was fluent and authoritative and McCormack’s positively feverish as he switched back into foot stomping mode. Bashford’s bright and sparky drum feature seemed to suggest the end of the first set but McCormack decided to conclude the proceedings in more lyrical fashion with a performance of his composition “Vista”.
A very different version of “Vista” was played by the Toussaint group last year and the tune also appears on Toussaint’s album “Tate Song”. On his own album McCormack gives greater focus to the lyrical, song like qualities of the piece which develops from a simple two chord vamp. Like may of tonight’s performances the tune began with a passage of solo piano as McCormack pointed the way. Siegel’s lilting soprano brought out the folk like simplicity of the melody before probing more deeply but delicately. McCormack’s own solo was succinct, lyrical and relatively unadorned with Lasserson’s bass and Bashford’s brushed drums offering suitably sympathetic support.
Set two commenced with “First Light” itself, another of McCormack’s most beautiful melodies with expansive but lyrical solos by the leader on piano and Siegel on tenor, the pair linking well on a piece with a strong narrative arc.
“Just In Time”, written by Jules Styne, was the only standard of the evening and was introduced by a duet between Siegel and Bashford subtly supported by bass and piano. The saxophonist then took flight with a garrulous tenor solo before handing over to McCormack who maintained the momentum, his solo propelled by Lasserson’s rapid bass walk. The bassist then enjoyed his own feature, quickly followed by Bashford at the drums. Siegel’s restatement of the theme plus a series of variations took the tune storming out.
The next piece was unannounced but featured spiky, angular rhythms and a loquacious Siegel tenor solo. McCormack’s virtuoso piano solo featured chunky left hand figures over rippling right hand arpeggios. At first I thought it might be a Thelonious Monk piece but having listened back to “First Light” I think it must have been McCormack’s own “The River”.
No such identification problems with the blues based “Tunnel Vision”, a composition that was also performed and recorded by the Toussaint group. Apparently the tune derives its title from the fact that McCormack initially wrote it when sitting on a Piccadilly Line train! In the best blues tradition this was a blowing tune with solos from all four musicians with Lasserson going first followed by Siegel on tenor, McCormack at the piano, and finally Bashford at the drums. McCormack’s solo was quite inspired, probably his best of many impressive offerings on the night.
An ecstatic audience whooped, hollered and whistled for more and once again McCormack decided to let us down gently with a solo performance of “Antibes”, a tune that appears in a trio version on the “Live In London” recording. Tonight the lyrical melody combined with insistent left hand rhythms, including a repeated single note played by McCormick’s left thumb. A more expansive solo was finally resolved by the sound of a single dampened string as McCormack continued to reinvent his own music. The sweat drenched pianist took his final bows before retreating to the foyer to sell and sign albums and meet an adoring Shrewsbury jazz public.
This was yet another gig that qualified as “an EVENT” at this thriving club with the audience giving all four musicians tremendous support and encouragement. McCormack confirmed his status as a world class jazz pianist, Siegel’s playing was as peerless as ever, Lasserson’s powerful bass work was the band’s anchor and Bashford clearly relished the chance to shine in such exalted company. His contribution was superb throughout. A triumph for all concerned, including the hard working committee members of promoters Shrewsbury Jazz Network.
I wrote earlier that McCormack has sometimes been undervalued in his own country. Happily that may not be the case any more if reactions like this are anything to go by.
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