by Ian Mann
May 24, 2021
This may still be a young band but they have already established a phenomenal level of rapport that demands that they should already be regarded as one of Europe’s premier piano trios.
Fergus McCreadie Trio
(Edition Records EDN 1165)
Fergus McCreadie – piano, David Bowden – double bass, Stephen Henderson – drums
The young Scottish pianist, composer and improviser Fergus McCreadie is one of the undisputed rising stars of the UK jazz scene, and a musician who is also steadily building an international reputation.
McCreadie studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, where he met his two bandmates. The trio have been playing together for more than five years and have 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 an essential and very distinctive Scottish ingredient.
McCreadie’s compositions, which are subsequently developed and arranged collaboratively by the trio, are strongly influenced by Scottish traditional music and also draw inspiration from Scottish landscape and folklore. Other Scottish musicians such as trumpeter Colin Steele and drummer Tom Bancroft have drawn on similar sources, as has pianist Dave Milligan, but nobody has integrated these into the format of the jazz piano trio quite as convincingly and successfully as McCreadie.
In 2016 the trio were the recipients of the Peter Whittingham Jazz Prize, an award that helped to finance the recording of their excellent début album, the self released “Turas”, the title a Gaelic word meaning “journeys”.
McCreadie has also twice won the Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year Under-17s Prize and is the winner of the Guy Jones Prize, the Joe Temperley Prize from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and the Linda Trahan Memorial Prize from St Andrews University.
He was a finalist in the BBC’s Young Jazz Musician of the Year competition in 2018, narrowly losing out to Birmingham based saxophonist Xhosa Cole.
“Turas”, recorded in 2018 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”. McCreadie himself subsequently received the accolade for “Best Instrumentalist” at the 2018 Scottish Jazz Awards.
“Turas” was also short-listed for the cross-genre Scottish Album of the Year Award in 2019, reaching the final ten from 290-plus candidates, a rare feat for a jazz album.
In 2019 “Turas” won the Award for “Album of the Year” at the 2019 Parliamentary Jazz Awards. This was the same year that the Jazzmann site won the equivalent award for “Best Media”. I met Fergus for the first time at the Awards Ceremony and was delighted to learn that the trio would be visiting one of my local jazz clubs, Black Mountain in Jazz in Abergavenny, to perform a show in early 2020.
That keenly anticipated event took place on February 23rd 2020, just a month before the first Covid lockdown. The McCreadie trio delivered a brilliant performance in front of a packed house in one of the best shows ever seen at BMJ’s Melville Centre venue. Review here;
McCreadie has remained active during lockdown, presenting a variety of livestream performances with the trio, as a duo with vocalist Luca Manning and as a solo artist. His regular Tuesday night solo piano performances from his family home in Dollar, Clackmannanshire typically consisted of an extended solo piano improvisation in the style of Keith Jarrett, followed by shorter ‘encores’ featuring compositions from the trio repertoire or interpretations of well loved jazz standards. The levels of inventiveness and sheer musicality that McCreadie demonstrated in his compelling solo improvisations were worthy of Jarrett himself and suggested that the young Scot has the potential to be a global star in the world of jazz piano, a theory backed up by the release of the excellent “Cairn”, his début release for the influential UK based Edition record label with its international distribution network.
The Abergavenny gig offered the lucky audience on that evening a sneak preview of some of the material to be heard on “Cairn”, among them the tunes “Across Flatlands”, “Jig” “The Stones of Brodgar” “An Old Friend” and “Cairn” itself.
Such was the quality of the Abergavenny performance that during lockdown McCreadie decided to release the limited edition ‘official bootleg’ “Live at Black Mountain”, which was made available via his Bandcamp page but has now sold out.
“We didn’t intend to release any of the music from the recording,” said McCreadie at the time of its release, “but given the strange circumstances we all find ourselves in, it gives us a chance to keep in touch with our audience. David, Stephen and I are also really pleased with the concert and feel it’s one of the best we’ve played so far, so it makes sense to share it with the people who have supported us.”
All the CDs and sleeves were specially made by McCreadie for each order, a labour intensive process, and the album was made available for three months. It even got a mention in Jazzwise magazine and must surely be destined to become a ‘collectors item’.
Of course I just had to buy one, and the quality of the music on the CD, recorded by BMJ sound engineer Tony Konteczny, confirmed just what a brilliant performance the Abergavenny show had been. The track selection studiously avoided any of the tunes that had been recorded under contract to Edition in January 2020 for the then forthcoming “Cairn” album, but there was still much to enjoy with “Mull” and “Ardberg” from the “Turas” album, an extended collective “Improvisation” and the otherwise undocumented new composition “My Home”.
Away from the trio McCreadie continues to work with vocalist Luca Manning, is a member of the co-operative group corto.alto and of drummer Graham Costello’s high octane sextet Strata. He also appears on saxophonist Matt Carmichael’s excellent début release “Where Will The River Flow”, another album that combines the influences of jazz and Scottish folk music. Review here;
Meanwhile Bowden leads his own world jazz group Mezcla and both Bowden and Henderson are members of the Celtic band Dosca. Like McCreadie both have been frequent youth jazz award winners.
The new album commences with the slowly unfolding “North”, and the sound of McCreadie’s unaccompanied piano, eventually joined by economical double bass and the evocative sounds of Henderson’s mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers. McCreadie’s folk inspired melodies conjure up images of swirling Celtic mist in this atmospheric and subtly dramatic opener, a blend of Scottish folk influences with the gospel inspired vamps of Keith Jarrett.
Bassist Bowden occupies a more upfront role on the buoyant title track, his introductory motif setting the scene for this upbeat celebration of the Scottish landscape. This time the music is reminiscent of dappled sunshine breaking on the cairn topped mountains. Bowden’s bass groove and Henderson’s deft drumming drive the piece along as McCreadie’s piano scurries nimbly across the hillsides. Bowden is also featured as a soloist, his dexterous offering followed by a joyous and expansive excursion from McCreadie, the trajectory of his solo gathering pace like a stream hurtling down the mountainside as he bounces ideas off Henderson. These exciting and energetic piano and drum exchanges have invited comparisons with Ivo Neame and Anton Eger of Phronesis, and rightly so, and also with E.S.T. and The Bad Plus too. But with an unshakable sense of Scottishness at its core this is music that is very much the McCreadie Trio’s own.
As if to emphasise the democratic nature of the trio it’s the patter of Henderson’s hand drumming that introduces “Across Flatlands”, another piece with a Celtic flavoured melodic ear-worm that forms the basis for the tune. The music gradually gathers momentum as the piece progresses, becoming more hard driving and with Henderson taking up the sticks for a further series of vigorous exchanges with McCreadie.
Named for a stone circle in the Orkneys “The Stones of Brodgar” brings about a change of pace, beginning as a Celtic flavoured ballad featuring a melodic and lyrical double bass solo from Bowden and the delicate sound of Henderson’s brushed drums. McCreadie’s own contribution is gentle and ruminative at first, before the music takes a more turbulent turn, indicative perhaps of the rough hewn durability of the stones in the title. The piece then comes full circle to conclude more quietly.
“The notes are Scottish, but the approach is jazz” McCreadie has said of his music. This statement is perhaps best illustrated by the composition simply titled “Jig”. A huge audience favourite at Abergavenny the piece is introduced by a dazzling passage of solo piano from McCreadie that sets the tone for the pell-mell energy that follows. The appropriately jig like theme gives way to a more freely structured passage that again provides the opportunity for a series of vigorous piano and drum exchanges, grounded by Bowden’s flexible bass lines. McCreadie later solos more expansively, the power and intensity of his playing prompting John Fordham, writing for Jazzwise Magazine, to make comparisons with the late, great McCoy Tyner. Henderson enjoys a dynamic drum feature before the piece concludes with a reprise of the rousing ‘jig’ theme.
“Tide” is more impressionistic, with McCreadie’s piano rippling like gentle surf across a deserted strand, while Henderson’s beautifully nuanced work behind the kit evokes that of great drum colourists such as Paul Motian and Jon Christensen. Appropriately the music ebbs and flows in terms of intensity, steadily rising before gently subsiding once more.
“Tree Climbing” is more upbeat, with McCreadie presumably reminiscing about his childhood. There’s a joyousness about the playing here that is instantly appealing, with the upbeat grooves punctuated by an agile double bass solo from Bowden. McCreadie’s own playing becomes increasingly mercurial as the piece progresses, again matched by Henderson’s flamboyant performance behind the kit.
“An Old Friend” offers a total contrast. This lovely ballad was another hugely popular item at Black Mountain Jazz, where both the title and the beauty of the music itself struck a deep emotional chord with the audience. This is McCreadie at his most emotionally direct, and the comparative simplicity of the piece actually signifies an impressive compositional and emotional maturity. Bowden’s melodic and lyrical bass solo is a stand out, as is Henderson’s delicate brushwork, shades of Motian and Christensen again. The piece grows in intensity towards the close, with melodic allusions to “Old Man River” helping to bring the tune to an emotional peak, prior to a gentle fade.
The album concludes with the insistent grooves of “Cliffside” which teams snatches of Celtic inspired melody matched with hard driving minimalist influenced grooves. Bowden’s bass lines swim in an out of melodic focus as the piece unfolds in inexorably mesmeric fashion, McCreadie’s piano dancing lithely above the insistent and compelling rhythms.
“Cairn” represents a very impressive follow up to the acclaimed “Turas” and sees McCreadie continuing to hone his distinctive ‘Scottish Jazz’ approach, while continuing to absorb influences from other music genres.
Edition like to emphasise the influence of label mates Phronesis and the Bad Plus plus that of McCreadie’s fellow pianists Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau, and also guitarist Pat Metheny. E.S.T. represent another obvious reference point, too.
All these represent perfectly valid comparisons and McCreadie certainly shares something of Jarrett’s and Metheny’s gift for melody, but already he has carved out a niche that is very much his own.
In Bowden and Henderson he has two empathic and highly skilled band mates who share his love of traditional Scottish music. This may still be a young band but they have already established a phenomenal level of rapport that demands that they should already be regarded as one of Europe’s, if not the world’s, premier piano trios. From what I’ve seen and heard of McCreadie he really is that good.
As life hopefully returns towards something more like normal it will be interesting to see what happens next for this exciting young trio.
blog comments powered by Disqus