by Ian Mann
May 31, 2022
McCreadie brings a uniquely Scottish voice to contemporary jazz. His sense of melody remains undimmed but the interaction between the members of the trio is even more vigorous and vibrant than before.
Fergus McCreadie Trio
Edition Records EDN1197)
Fergus McCreadie – piano, David Bowden – double bass, Stephen Henderson – drums
“Forest Floor” is the third official album release from the Scottish pianist and composer Fergus McCreadie and his second recording to be issued on the prestigious British label, Edition.
McCreadie studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, where he met his two bandmates, bassist David Bowden and drummer Stephen Henderson. The trio have been playing together for more than six years and in 2016 were the recipients of the Peter Whittingham Jazz Prize. This award helped to finance the recording of their excellent début album, the self released “Turas”, the title a Gaelic word meaning “journeys”.
The critical reaction to “Turas”, recorded in 2018 while the members of the band were still students, was overwhelmingly positive and the young trio were quickly catapulted to the forefront of the British jazz scene.
McCreadie has been a frequent award winner with “Turas” receiving the award for “Best Album” at the 2018 Scottish Jazz Awards and the pianist also picking up the award for “Best Instrumentalist”, a feat he repeated in 2020. In 2018 McCreadie was a finalist in the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year competition, narrowly missing out to Birmingham based saxophonist Xhosa Cole.
“Turas” was 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. That same year the recording won the Award for “Album of the Year” at the 2019 Parliamentary Jazz Awards in London.
2019 was the same year that the Jazzmann site won the equivalent Parliamentary Jazz Award for “Best Media”. I got to meet 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 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;
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”.
McCreadie remained highly 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 Edition, a label with an international distribution network. My review of “Cairn”, from which much of the above content has been sourced can be found here;
Away from the trio McCreadie continues to work in a duo with vocalist Luca Manning and 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”. 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.
Although he has been influenced by such leading European piano trios as Phronesis, E.S.T. and the Bobo Stenson and Pablo Held trios McCreadie’s own group ultimately sounds very different 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. It’s an influence that also informs the music of saxophonist Matt Carmichael, as mentioned above.
McCreadie’s writing for “Forest Floor” is again inspired by the Scottish landscape, perhaps even more strongly this time round following his move back to the family home in the small Clackmannanshire town of Dollar during lockdown. If “Cairn” celebrated the rocks and stones of the Scottish landscape the new album reflects the changing seasons and their effect on the forest floor of the album title. McCreadie feels that this latest recording is the trio’s earthiest offering yet, and it’s certainly true that the level of interaction between the three highly empathic bandmates is frequently more vigorous and dynamic than ever before, reaching Phronesis like levels of intensity at times.
This is typified by album opener “Law Hill”, named for a landmark just outside Dollar. This is introduced by a drum salvo from Henderson and features McCreadie’s fast and furious playing, punctuated by the occasional moment for quieter reflection. The interaction between the trio members is intense and feverish, the ferocity leavened by the snatches of folk inspired melody. One imagines the hill of the title on a breezy, showery day, with tumultuous rainstorms interspersed with moments of dappled sunlight. At one juncture Bowden and Henderson drop out entirely, only to return more fiercely than before, just in time for a furious riff based finish. A stunning start and surely a piece guaranteed to become a live favourite.
As its title suggests “The Unfurrowed Field” finds the trio coming down from the hill to the fertile lowlands. A folk inspired theme demonstrates McCreadie’s gift for melody, a quality he shares with Jarrett and with guitarist Pat Metheny, two more acknowledged influences. The trio’s unhurried explorations around the pastoral theme see Henderson deploying brushes almost throughout, his playing deft, colourful and sympathetic. Bowden adds a melodic double bass solo before the tune gradually gathers momentum in a glorious celebration of the Scottish landscape, with Henderson eventually picking up his sticks. The trio’s command of dynamics is exemplary throughout, there are lulls in the music with Bowden’s bass again coming to the fore, followed by further celebratory bursts, before a final return to that beautiful original theme.
“Morning Moon” is similarly reflective, introduced by a passage of limpid solo piano, soon joined by economic double bass and the ethereal sounds of cymbal shimmers and small percussion. Bowden alternates between arco and pizzicato techniques, while Henderson excels in his role as a subtle colourist. There’s a genuine nocturnal quality about the music, McCreadie is an artist whose tune titles are altogether reflective of the music.
Henderson’s drums introduce “Landslide”, another highly descriptive title. Having instigated the event of the title he’s joined by Bowden’s bass and McCreadie’s furiously rumbling piano arpeggios as the landslide hurtles down the hillside. McCreadie keeps the furious left hand momentum going before stretching out to solo with his right, the music still accelerating in terms of pace and intensity, with Henderson drumming up a storm around him. It’s the Scottish landscape at its most savage, but ultimately the energy dissipates as the landslip reaches the foot of the mountain.
The title track is ushered in by McCreadie at the piano and is a piece that seems to describe the forest floor at night. The mood is dark and mysterious, yet strangely tranquil, with bass and drums shadowy figures as Henderson variously deploys mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers.
At over ten minutes duration the lengthy “The Ridge” is arguably the album’s centre piece. Hill walking became one of McCreadie’s main releases during lockdown and the solo piano introduction to this piece captures something of the sense of peace and tranquillity of being out in the open air. Bowden joins to provide a melodic bass motif while Henderson adds subtle percussive embellishment. McCreadie re-assumes the lead as the piece begins to slowly unfold, handing over again to Bowden for a more substantial bass solo. When McCreadie returns to the fore the composition takes on a genuinely anthemic quality, rising to a peak before mutating into the next section with Bowden’s bass again coming to prominence. There’s a strong episodic / narrative quality about the piece with a number of dynamic peaks and troughs, one imagines the composer walking along the ridge and charting the changes in contour, weather, wildlife and the ever changing landscape below.
It’s the sound of Bowden’s unaccompanied bass that ushers in “White Water”, a deceptively gentle introduction to a composition that later begins to live to its title, the music becoming increasingly turbulent as the piece progresses. But for all the sound and fury McCreadie’s sense of melody remains intact throughout, and as one would expect from this multi-faceted composer there are plenty of swirls and eddies along the course, including Bowden coming to the fore with a virtuoso double bass solo. Following that we cascade down the rapids with McCreadie’s torrential piano soloing augmented by Henderson’s increasingly energetic and dynamic drumming. It’s wildly invigorating, definitely a musical ‘white water ride’.
In the aftermath of such excitement McCreadie concludes the album with “Glade”, a musical lullaby that commences with an extended solo passage of lyrical piano. Eventually McCreadie is joined by sympathetic bass and drums, with Henderson now demonstrating the sensitive side of his playing, notably his deft and delicate cymbal work.
“The notes are Scottish, but the approach is jazz” McCreadie has said of his music, a statement of intent that holds true through all three of the trio’s albums. Inspired by Scottish traditional music and the Scottish landscape in equal measure McCreadie brings a uniquely Scottish voice to contemporary jazz. “Forest Floor” remains true to his core values and his exquisite sense of melody remains undimmed, but the interaction between the pianist and the members of his trio is even more vigorous and vibrant than before, the intensity of their rapport deeply rooted in the jazz tradition.
This is music that is both accessible, thanks to the folk / song like qualities of the often beautiful writing and challenging, due to the sheer energy and intensity of the performances. Listening to all three of the trio’s albums it’s easy to see why the McCreadie trio has attracted such attention from jazz fans and why the band are now considered to be major players on the jazz stage in the UK and beyond. His music may be rooted in the Scottish landscape but Fergus McCreadie is a world class act.
I’m now looking forward to seeing him performing live when he appears with Matt Carmichael’s quintet in Kidderminster on June 9th 2022. The tour includes other dates in the English Midlands and also Scotland and Germany. See https://www.mattcarmichaelmusic.com/gigs for full details.
In the meantime McCreadie’s own touring schedule can be found at http://www.fergusmcreadie.co.uk
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