Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

December 10, 2023


An international collaboration capable of transcending geographical and cultural boundaries in the process of creating some terrific music. The standard of the writing and the playing is exceptional.

Atlantic Road Trip


(Calligram Records – Calligram 0005)

Paul Towndrow – alto saxophone, whistles, flute, Chad McCullough – trumpet, flugelhorn, Miro Herak – vibraphone, Conor Murray – double bass, Alyn Cosker – drums, bodhran

Atlantic Road Trip is an international quintet co-led by the Scottish saxophonist Paul Towndrow, American trumpeter Chad McCullough and the Slovakian vibraphonist Miro Herak. The band line up is completed by the Irish bassist Conor Murray and the Scottish drummer Alyn Cosker.

McCullough, based in Chicago, and Herak first met in 2009 at Banff Center for the Arts in the Canadian Rockies, where both were studying under the tutelage of the great American trumpeter Dave Douglas. The pair became great friends and regular collaborators and toured regularly in Europe, performing music from their numerous projects.

Herak had also collaborated with Towndrow and in 2019 the duo of Herak and McCullough approached Towndrow with a view to the three musicians working together.  Herak says of the Atlantic Road Trip project;
“I knew Chad and Paul quite well not only musically but also personally… I had no doubt this would be a very inspiring endeavour and that proved true beyond my expectations.” 

“We stayed in close contact throughout the pandemic and even remotely recorded a set for the 2021 Glasgow Jazz Festival”  McCullough recalls. It was at this time that Murray and Cosker were recruited to create the full band.

Since the easing of Covid restrictions the quintet has toured extensively in the UK, Europe and the US and recorded this, their debut album at GloWorm Recoding in Glasgow in June 2023, with Andrea Gobbi and Keir Long engineering. The album was subsequently mixed by Brian Schwab in Chicago and appears on the Chicago based label Calligram Records. McCullough, Towndrow and Herak are credited as co-producers. All three contribute compositions to an album repertoire that also includes arrangements of traditional folk tunes from both Slovakia and Scotland.

Towndrow says of the finished album;
“Musical projects and endeavours which are truly and successfully collaborative are hard to come by. You need to be on the same page as your co-conspirators, and if not, acceptance and compromise should feel as natural a part of the creative process as anything else. With Atlantic Road Trip, I feel that we’ve found that balance.”

He continues;
 “Music comes to life when cultural ideas are shared, explored, and given the opportunity to evolve and find a place in the hearts and minds of the audience as well as the people who create it. What happens when people are allowed the freedom to move, travel, exchange ideas, adapt and grow? How can we bring our diverse ideas together in a way that cuts to the heart of our shared experience as humans? I hope the music on ‘One’ will invite the listener to reflect on these questions as we have done in creating it.”

The album commences with McCullough’s composition “The Other Fulton Street”, named in honour of both the Glasgow thoroughfare and the Fulton Street Collective, a Chicago based artists’ collective that presents live jazz in addition to supporting contemporary visual art. The piece commences with a kind of fanfare featuring the sounds of vibes, drums and bowed bass. Following this ‘scene setter’ Murray puts down the bow, working with Cosker to establish a groove that underpins the shimmer of Herak’s vibes as McCullough and Towndrow combine with a brief theme statement.  The composer embarks on a fiery trumpet solo, underpinned by busy, roiling bass and drums and the clank of Herak’s vibes. The trumpeter’s molten fluency is followed by a similarly incisive solo from Towndrow on alto sax. Cosker also features strongly on an attention grabbing opener that represents an excellent example of urgent, contemporary post-bop jazz.

Towndrow’s composition “Nightingale Island” is named for “a geographic centerpoint between all our homes”. Introduced by Herak’s vibes the piece features the intertwining melody lines of alto sax and flugelhorn. It’s less frenetic than the opener but still retains a very contemporary edge and energy. McCullough’s flugel solo simmers with a controlled intensity and he’s followed by a flowing solo from Herak, an impressive statement of intent from the vibraphonist on his first featured solo. Towndrow’s alto solo exhibits his customary fluency and incisiveness and the piece resolves itself with an impressive ensemble passage that expounds upon the melodic theme.

“Hore Haj, Dolu Haj”, a title translating as “Up the Meadow, Down the Meadow” is Herak’s arrangement of a traditional Slovak folk melody. Herak says of the piece;  “‘Hore Haj”  “is a Slovak traditional song about inequality between the rich upper class and the common man and calls for an action in the fight against it.” 
A very contemporary jazz makeover commences with the sounds of shimmering vibes, bowed bass and Cosker’s deft drum and cymbal colourations.  Towndrow’s flute introduces an authentic folk flavour, but the music later takes a jazzier turn as Towndrow moves to alto sax and McCullough’s trumpet is added. Herak first performed this tune as part of a solo vibraphone recital at Carnegie Hall so it’s wholly appropriate that he takes the first solo here, another dazzling excursion with the mallets. There’s also some terrific interplay between the horns as jazz harmonies combine with Slovak dance rhythms. The group members view the piece as an “upbeat, optimistic anthem for the common man”.

Released earlier in 2023 Towndrow’s latest solo recording, the excellent “Outwith The Circle” saw him introducing elements of Scottish traditional music to his sound. Review here;

The influence of traditional music has always formed a distinctive component of Scottish jazz and has informed the music of many Scottish jazz musicians, among them trumpeter Colin Steele, pianist Dave Milligan and drummers Ken Hyder and Tom Bancroft.
Towndrow says of the fruitful interaction between the Scottish folk and jazz scenes;
“In Scotland there is an evolving musical tradition built not only around its indigenous music, but also around those who seek to collaborate across styles, genres, and continents.

Towndrow’s track “Pale Ale” combines a set of two original jigs, “Pale Ale” itself and “Dr. Jones Never Saw It Coming”. These first emerge out of the Celtic mists with Towndrow on whistle and Cosker on bodhran, a real celebration of Gaelic roots and culture. But there’s jazz in there too, expressed via a fluent solo from McCullough that may remind some listeners of Colin Steele or Neil Yates. Towndrow’s whistle solo re-introduces the folk element, but it’s underpinned by a fiery performance from Cosker, now at the drum kit, that is more reminiscent of Elvin Jones. Herak’s vibes solo continues the jazz influence before the irresistible sounds of the jig return. 
As the Celtic mists descend once more the music segues into McCullough’s composition “Auburn”, a piece inspired by the writing of the late American science fiction author H. Beam Piper (1904-64).  It’s a lush, elegant ballad featuring the sounds of Towndrow on flute and the velvety tones of the composer on lyrical flugelhorn. Everybody plays with great subtlety and sensitivity, and as on the earlier “Nightingale Island” there appear to be some uncredited string sounds.

Towndrow’s composition “Cacuvela”, named after a village in Mozambique, was the first piece that the band played “together” during the pandemic, and presumably featured in that “virtual” Glasgow Jazz Festival performance. Building from, and centred around, Murray’s bass motif it’s a pleasantly melodic piece featuring the warm blending of the horns on the main theme, with subsequent solo coming from Herak at the vibes, McCullough on trumpet and Towndrow on alto. The arrangement also features the latter doubling on flute / whistle. The energy gathers momentum throughout the solo passages and Cosker gives a particularly dynamic performance behind Towndrow. The piece resolves itself with the ensemble expounding around the opening melodic theme.

“Kopala Studienku, Pozerela Do Nej” is the second Slovakian folk tune to be arranged for the group by Herak, it’s melody forming the basis for the Slovak national anthem. Gently chiming vibes introduce the piece, punctuated by whispering horns and Cosker’s cymbal embellishments. The beauty of the melody is retained throughout a ’free jazz’ arrangement that incorporates a solo from Herak and some increasingly fiery interplay between alto and trumpet. There’s also something of a feature for Cosker on a piece that is essentially the Slovak national anthem as played by Ornette Coleman.

“White Cart Water” combines the tune “Cathcart”, written by the Scottish folk musician Phil Cunningham, with Towndrow’s own “White Cart Water”.  The folk influence predominates on Cunningham’s tune,  with the soft, airy sounds sounds of Towndrow’s whistle floating on a bed of bowed bass, shimmering vibes, low register trumpet and the delicate filigree of Cosker’s cymbal work. “White Cart Water” accelerates the pace, another modern day jig (or possibly reel) with the whistle still the lead instrument. With Herak and Cosker also featuring strongly this spirited section brings this particular segue to an invigorating conclusion.

Herak’s composition “Upside Down” is more obviously rooted in the jazz and bebop traditions than his two arrangements of Slovak folk tunes.. It’s the most bebop influenced item on the album, a lively piece with a tricky ‘head’ that provides the jumping off point for the breezy soloing of McCullough on trumpet and Towndrow on alto -  but there’s an agreeably contemporary element about it too.

The album concludes with McCullough’s “Dreams of Matka”, a composition inspired by the beauty of a canyon in Macedonia. Again it’s a contemporary piece rooted in the jazz tradition, a fast moving tune that sees Murray taking his first featured solo of the set on rapidly plucked double bass. The composer features with a lithe trumpet solo and he’s followed by Towndrow on alto. It all makes for a rousing and very satisfying performance and a great way to round off a truly excellent album.

The way in which the members of Atlantic Road Trip blend the folk traditions of both Slovakia and Scotland with elements of contemporary jazz is truly masterful and the standard of both the writing and the playing is exceptional throughout. The recorded sound is also excellent with the engineering and production team successfully capturing the energy and inventiveness of this brilliant quintet.

As a British jazz listener the playing of Townsend and the always excellent Cosker were already well known to me, but McCullough, Herak and Murray all represent exciting new discoveries. Hopefully the quintet will be able to play some more UK live dates sometime in 2024. On the evidence of this exceptional recording they should make for a dynamic live act.

At over an hour in length and featuring some exceptional music making “One” represents a superb debut album and a real ‘value for money’ recording.

Meanwhile Atlantic Road Trip have been touring again in the US playing music from an ambitious new work titled “Over Mountain, Under Sky,” a newly commissioned work for big band and string orchestra.  Hopefully the New Year will also see the quintet documenting this new music on disc. This is an international collaboration capable of transcending geographical and cultural boundaries in the process of creating some terrific music.


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