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Andrew McCormack Trio

First Light


by Ian Mann

July 19, 2014


Andrew McCormack has found his own voice and it speaks very eloquently on this excellent album which should do much to enhance his reputation on both sides of the Atlantic.

Andrew McCormack

“First Light”

(Edition Records EDN 1052)

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 début 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. 

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 just 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 hope to be taking a look at this recording more fully in due course. In the meantime I can confirm that the McCormack and Yarde Duo is a thoroughly convincing live act having witnessed the pair in 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, a 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, a musician with an international reputation but sadly rather undervalued at home, 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 the “American Trio” to be heard on this recording with bassist Zack Lober 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. 

Recorded in December 2013 at the Systems Two studio in Brooklyn “First Light” features eight new McCormack compositions plus an interpretation of Thelonious Monk’s “Pannonica”. Something of the energy and buzz of New York is apparent in McCormack’s writing as evidenced by the bustling opener “Prospect Park” featuring McCormack’s darting, mercurial piano lines, Lober’s muscular, propulsive bass and Stranahan’s neatly energetic drumming. It’s fiercely interactive music with features for both bass and drums.

However the trio can also do lyrical, the case this time being presented by the slowly unfolding “Gotham Soul” with its expansive McCormack solo and melodic but deeply resonant bass feature. There’s an episodic, anthem like quality to this piece, which concludes with an exquisite passage of solo piano, as flowing melodicism is balanced by a frisson of urban grit in this musical portrait of metropolitan life.

The same blend is apparent on “Leap Of Faith” with its short melodic phrases and sparky interplay between piano, bass and drums with Lorber again playing a prominent role. The percussiveness of some of McCormack’s phrases suggest an updated, 21st century Thelonious Monk. 

With Stranahan initially deploying brushes McCormack’s title track starts out as a genuine ballad before developing into something far more expansive and energetic. The word “episodic”  again springs to mind, yet the piece ends as tenderly as it began.

“Reluctant Gift” is gritty and urgent with short melodic piano phrases and shuffling bass and drum grooves. There’s a feverish quality about McCormack’s soloing that will be familiar to anybody who has seen him live and the piece concludes with a major feature for the excellent Stranahan who circumnavigates his kit with considerable aplomb and an obvious relish.

“Vista” draws on the same sources as “Gotham Soul” with its gently rippling piano arpeggios and cinematic / episodic development. This time Stranahan impresses with the delicate and succinct detail of his drumming and there’s a substantial feature for the Canadian born Lober. McCormack’s own playing becomes more expansive as the tune progresses yet he never loses sight of the overall shape of the piece.

“The River”, presumably inspired by either the East River or the Hudson, has an edgy urban vibe with staccato piano phrases and a busy bass and drum groove the jumping off point for some fiercely interactive group interplay, culminating in an extended feature for Stranahan.

The more abstract “Faith Remembered” is essentially a solo piano performance, a sometimes sombre meditation that McCormack imbues with a dark and fragile beauty.

The album concludes with the trio’s interpretation of Monk’s “Pannonica” but despite his obvious admiration for the composer McCormack doesn’t imitate Monk’s style, instead preferring to stamp his own identity on the piece. Lobber and Stranahan offer swinging support and enjoy substantial features of their own, Stranahan engaging in a series of scintillating exchanges with McCormack.

“First Light” (also the title of a 2006 piano trio album by Frank Harrison) has received overwhelmingly positive reviews and rightly so. The record is full of excellent playing by a tightly knit, highly interactive trio, the creative interplay inspired by a set of well written, often highly descriptive themes. While some of the writing is obviously British or European in origin there’s still a lot of the influence of New York in the trio’s sound.

At the age of thirty six Andrew McCormack is no longer a “promising youngster”, instead he’s a mature musician with a sound very much his own, aware of the tradition but not dependent on it. His piano style acknowledges the influence of Monk, but not slavishly so, and he sounds very different to other contemporary pianists such as Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, Esbjorn Svensson, Craig Taborn or Vijay Iyer. In short Andrew McCormack has found his own voice and it speaks very eloquently on this excellent album which should do much to enhance his reputation on both sides of the Atlantic.

Andrew McCormack’s UK trio featuring Chris Hill and Troy Miller will perform in Hall Two at London’s Kings Place at 6.15 pm on Friday 12th September 2014 as part of the Kings Place Festival.
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