by Ian Mann
February 25, 2020
The level of empathy and maturity from such a young group was little short of astonishing and the success that “Turas”, their debut album, has brought them is thoroughly deserved.
Fergus McCreadie Trio, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 23/02/2020.
Fergus McCreadie – piano, David Bowden – double bass, Stephen Henderson – drums, percussion
This keenly anticipated performance by the Scottish pianist and composer Fergus McCreadie and his trio attracted a near capacity audience to the Melville Centre. It was a crowd that included a number of new faces to Black Mountain Jazz, many of them younger than the usual jazz club demographic. It was highly gratifying to see.
McCreadie and his trio have been making waves on the UK jazz scene as a whole following the release of their début album “Turas”, the recording winning the prize for “Jazz Album of the Year” at the 2019 Parliamentary Jazz Awards.
The trio are no strangers to critical adulation, in 2016 they were the recipients of the Peter Whittingham Jazz Prize, an award that helped to finance the recording of the excellent “Turas”. McCreadie himself subsequently received the accolade for “Best Instrumentalist” at the 2018 Scottish Jazz Awards.
The self released “Turas”, recorded when the young trio were still students, has been a runaway success, at least in jazz terms, and earned the trio another prize at the Scottish Jazz Awards, this time for “Best Album”.
The success of their début recording has led to the trio touring extensively in the UK and also in mainland Europe. I think I’m correct in believing that BMJ’s Debs Hancock saw them playing at the 2019 Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival and was so bowled over by their performance that she immediately approached Fergus about the possibility of bringing the trio Abergavenny.
Meanwhile I’d heard a live performance by the trio on BBC Radio 3 and was also hugely impressed by their music. It represented something of a coup on Debs’ behalf to bring this exciting young trio to Abergavenny and for me this was one of the most keenly anticipated jazz events at BMJ for some time.
Ironically Debs was unable to be at the Melville to see her young protégés perform. She was in Sri Lanka, enjoying the holiday of a lifetime and celebrating the 60th birthday of her husband, Andrew. Nevertheless the indefatigable Debs was still in e-contact with Fergus and with BMJ’s promoter Mike Skilton to check how things were going on!
In Debs’ absence yours truly was asked to introduce the band, in view of my having met Fergus at last year’s Parliamentary Jazz Awards where we were both picking up ‘gongs’, for “Best Media” in my case. BMJ seems to be making a bit of thing of ‘collecting’ Parliamentary Jazz Award winners, first Fergus and then in October “Best Vocalist” Zoe Gilby, who will be performing at the annual jazz dinner at the Angel Hotel during the Wall2Wall Jazz Festival week.
I can’t say that I particularly enjoy public speaking (or indeed public squeaking) and there’s a very good reason I prefer to stay on the audience side of the footlights. Nevertheless I don’t think I did too badly and my brief words seemed to set the trio up nicely as they came on stage to put me out of my misery and to deliver a quite brilliant collective performance, the quality of which was of a standard rarely seen in a provincial jazz club. The McCreadie trio are true rising stars, young musicians who are definitely going places, London’s 606 Jazz Club and the Love Supreme festival in Sussex among them. We were so lucky to be able to enjoy them first in Abergavenny.
The title of “Turas” is the Scots Gaelic word for “Journeys” and many of McCreadie’s compositions are inspired by traditional Scottish folk music and by the Scottish landscape itself. “Turas” is essentially a musical journey around Scotland.
McCreadie studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, where he met his two bandmates. The trio have been playing together for five years and have already developed an extraordinary rapport, reminiscent of Phronesis, E.S.T., the Bobo Stenson and Pablo Held trios and more, but ultimately sounding very different to any of these groups thanks to that essential and distinctive Scottish ingredient.
The McCreadie trio are a highly interactive and democratic unit, preferring to perform as a single entity with the music constantly developing and unfolding. The lead may change hands on several occasions during the course of a single tune but solos are not ‘sign posted’ or ‘highlighted’. Although McCreadie cites American pianists such as Keith Jarrett and Fred Hersch as key influences I’d still suggest that the collective approach that he and his trio adopt towards improvisation is essentially a European one.
Tonight’s performance saw McCreadie playing the Melville’s upright acoustic piano, an instrument with a certain idiosyncratic charm and a surprisingly good sound. McCreadie declared himself perfectly happy with it, despite the occasional stiff key, and far preferred to be playing this instrument rather than an electric keyboard. For this listener the presence of an acoustic piano represented a huge bonus and I’m sure that it inspired the trio as they commenced proceedings with a segue of McCreadie originals, both inspired by locations in the Hebrides.
Gentle, unaccompanied piano introduced “Mull”, a track from the album, with the leader subsequently joined by the melodic sounds of Bowden’s bass and the atmospheric rustle of Henderson’s small percussion, bells, finger cymbals etc. As the piece gradually developed the drummer switched to brushes as the music continued to exhibit an ECM style delicacy, with Bowden making occasional use of the bow and Henderson excelling in his role of colourist at the kit. In a week in which we’d heard the sad news of the death of the great Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen (1943-2020) I found myself jotting down his name as a comparison with Henderson’s playing. An apt parallel as it turns out, the young drummer witnessed Christensen perform at the 2018 Oslo Jazz Festival, an event at which the McCreadie trio also appeared.
Bowden’s bass pulse subsequently signalled a segue into “Across Flatland”, a newer tune that upped the energy levels with McCreadie’s darting melodic motifs underscored by Bowden’s hypnotic bass grooves and Henderson’s busy and colourful drumming, the whole sounding a little like E.S.T. at times.
This opening sequence demonstrated the trio’s command of narrative and dynamics, moving almost seamlessly between the delicate atmospherics of “Mull” to the hard driving rhythms of “Across Flatlands” and making it all sound perfectly natural and organic. Tellingly none of the group were reading manuscript, as McCreadie explained to me later they have played together so often that they know these tunes ‘inside out’ by now and relish in improvising around them. As their collective rapport has developed individual features or solos are no longer restricted to a set number of bars with the group adopting a far more open ended approach that by now almost borders on the telepathic.
Individually the members of the McCreadie group are already virtuosos, despite their youth. But for all their technical expertise they aren’t afraid to keep things simple with McCreadie often basing his compositions on the most basic of building blocks, frequently drawing on the simplicity of folk melodies. This was demonstrated here by “Ardbeg” another tune sourced from the “Turas” album and inspired by a Hebridean island. Here the music developed from Bowden’s simple bass motif, gently embellished by the leader’s lyrical piano melody and Henderson’s atmospheric colourations, achieved via a combination of brushes and mallets. Similarly the trio were not afraid to take their time in developing their melodic ideas as the piece unfolded in quietly hypnotic fashion. Bowden’s melodic pizzicato bass feature was one of the more clearly signalled solos of the evening and presaged a more energetic piano led passage that again demonstrated the trio’s shrewd command of narrative and dynamics.
The first set concluded with a piece that most clearly demonstrated the influence of traditional Scottish folk music on McCreadie’s writing. The pianist played the bagpipes when he was younger and like many Scottish jazz musicians he has close links with the country’s folk scene. Cross fertilisation between the two genres is relatively common in Scotland, in England the two scenes are far more more polarised. “The notes are Scottish, but the approach is jazz” McCreadie has said of his music, and of this composition in particular.
Simply titled “Jig” this lively piece commenced with a dazzling passage of unaccompanied piano from the leader, initially played with the right hand only. As the rest of the band joined in McCreadie continued to solo in feverish fashion, entering into a vigorous debate with drummer Henderson as the pair exchanged ideas, underpinned by Bowden’s highly mobile bass lines. Set up to face each other on stage the ongoing dialogue between McCreadie and Henderson impressed throughout the course of the evening. Their exchanges here eventually led to a dynamic solo feature from the drummer, followed by a reprise of the opening jig sequence. This high energy finale to an excellent first set elicited a tremendous reception from an audience that had bought fully into McCreadie’s vision.
The second half began with Henderson at the drums, his solo drum intro again evoking memories of Christensen, and of Paul Motian too. This freely structured opener also included the sounds of dampened piano strings and percussively bowed double bass, with Bowden moving between arco and pizzicato techniques and deploying the latter for a brief solo. This provided the link into the quietly evocative “Stones of Brodgar”, named for a stone circle in the Orkneys with McCreadie’s thoughtful piano ruminations accompanied by gently resonant double bass and delicately brushed drums. McCreadie subsequently informed us that the first part of this atmospheric performance had been entirely improvised, with the group drawing their inspiration for such spontaneous episodes from the Keith Jarrett Trio.
There was a return to fully composed material with a new tune titled “An Old Friend”, a genuine ballad with a gentle, lyrical quality that felt almost hymnal. This may have been a recent composition, but somehow the tune sounded as if it might have been around forever. McCreadie’s pianistic mediations were accompanied by the Henderson’s carefully detailed colorations, achieved via a combination of mallets, brushes and small percussion. Meanwhile Bowden’s bass solo combined a deep, woody resonance with a well developed melodic sense. The audience were spellbound by this haunting trio performance and I later heard that the person who had donated the piano that McCreadie was playing to the Melville Centre had recently passed away and that many of those in the crowd were indeed thinking of ‘an old friend’. “She would have thoroughly approved of that”, one of the audience members told McCreadie afterwards.
Another new piece, “Cairn”, began with the sounds of dampened piano strings, cello like arco bass and the furtive shuffling of Henderson’s drums. Bowden’s subsequent pizzicato bass solo later evoked comparisons with the great Eberhard Weber from one audience member. The energy levels began to rise as McCreadie took over to solo expansively at the piano, again bouncing ideas back and forth with Henderson and once again evoking those comparisons with Phronesis and E.S.T.
This was actually the last scheduled number of the set but such was the enthusiasm of a highly vociferous crowd that an encore was inevitable, with absolutely zero need for prompting from the organisers.
The trio decided to sign off by cooling things down once more with the new composition “My Home”, another piece with a folk like melody that again sounded timeless and incorporated lyrical solos from Bowden and McCreadie, subtly underscored by Henderson’s sympathetic brushwork. Such was the beauty of this piece that at least one audience member was visibly moved to tears.
Tonight’s performance was a triumph for both the McCreadie Trio and for Black Mountain Jazz, with the success of the event fully vindicating Debs Hancock’s decision to invite the band to the venue. A happy Mike Skilton revealed that the club had even made a modest profit on the evening.
The performance itself was quite remarkable and one of the best things seen at BMJ for years. The level of empathy and maturity from such a young group was little short of astonishing and the success that “Turas” has brought them is thoroughly deserved.
The quality of the newer tunes suggests that the inevitable follow up will be even more successful. The music has already been recorded but the work of finding a label, organising the cover art etc. is still to be done. McCreadie hopes that the new album will be released in early 2021.
In the meantime the trio will continue to tour with forthcoming dates listed at http://www.fergusmccreadie.co.uk
McCreadie himself will return to Abergavenny in October 2020 to perform with rising star Scottish born, London based vocalist Luca Manning at the Wall2Wall Jazz Festival. The many new friends the pianist made tonight will no doubt turn out in force to support him again in this new venture.
My thanks to Fergus for speaking with me after the gig and providing me with valuable insights into his trio’s music – and also for the gift of a “Turas” CD, which has been playing on repeat as I write this review.
I predict even bigger things ahead for this ridiculously talented young group. The quality of tonight’s performance suggests that they have the potential to develop into one of Europe’s leading piano trios.blog comments powered by Disqus