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Manchester Collective and Fergus McCreadie Trio

Manchester Collective and Fergus McCreadie Trio, Town Hall, Oxford, 16/03/2024.

by Colin May

March 26, 2024


This concert confirmed that as well as being talented players the Collective are bold & innovative programmers prepared to take risks, as the McCreadie trio continues to go from strength to strength

Oxford Town Hall
16 March 2024

Fergus McCreadie - piano, David Bowden - double bass, Stephen Henderson -drums;

Rakhi Singh - violin, Donald Grant - violin, Simone van de Giessen - viola, Christian Elliot – cello

The meeting of these two young award-winning groups is an intriguing prospect. Already . each has a high profile in their different genres, jazz and classical, in part due to a their reputation for engrossing live performances as well as for having developed their own distinctive ‘voices’.

Certainly the word seems to have got out, as there was a substantial audience of perhaps 250 plus inside the cavernous venue for the 4pm start of this final date of the tour, named ‘The Unfurrowed Field ’ after one of Fergus McCreadie’s compositions. My neighbour in the seat next to me, a big Fergus McCreadie fan, had come from near Bedford.

Some credit for the good turnout must go to Music at Oxford, promoters of this particular concert. Currently in their 40th year, the consistently high standard of their concerts and events has earned them the trust of their regulars:

This concert was a coming together not only of jazz and classical but also folk as pianist McCreadie’s music often incorporates Scottish folk tunes from which then he spins a different sound world with the two other trusted members of his trio. In addition one of the Manchester Collective’s violinists is Donald Grant who also has strong roots in Scottish folk music and like McCreadie contributed arrangements and compositions today’s programme.

Fergus McCreadie will be a familiar name to readers of The Jazz Mann as both of his two most recent releases and a live performance have been reviewed on this site. Though he’s only in his mid twenties his mantelpiece must be groaning under the number of awards he and his trio has already won.

McCreadie’s jazz biography up to his third and most recently released 2022 album ‘Forest Floor’ is covered in depth in The Jazz Mann’s review of that album:

‘Forest Floor’ won not only Scottish Jazz Album of the Year but also Scottish Album of the Year, the first time a jazz album has carried off the overall prize. Also, it earned a nomination for the Mercury Music Prize 2022 which raised his profile outside of the jazz world.

His fourth album, ‘Stream’ is to be released on Edition Records on 3 September, and since 2022 he’s been the only non classical musician amongst the 2022-2024 cohort of seven BBC New Generation Artists. This resulted in McCreadie collaborating with fellow BBC New Generation artist, Columbian cellist Santiago Caňón Valencia:

McCreadie’s trio with David Bowden on double bass, and Stephen Henderson on drums has been together now for about eight years. In an interview McCreadie explained that they were thrown together when students in McCreadie’s first week on the jazz course at The Royal Scottish Conservatoire to accompany visiting American saxophonist Bob Mintzer:

The three have been playing together ever since, but McCreadie is also very active outside of the trio. He plays in Liam Shortall’s jazz and synth group corto.alto, in drummer Graham Costello’s dynamic Strata and with saxophonist Matt Carmichael who now like McCreadie is signed to Edition Records. Indeed directly after today’s concert McCreadie was going to head to the airport as the next day he had a gig with corto.alto in Berlin.

The Manchester Collective, winners of The Royal Philharmonic Society’s Ensemble Award 2023, are signed to Icelandic record label The Bedroom Collective. Their intention is to “to reshape the future of classical music,” partially by” daring collaborations” like this one between jazz improvisers and classically trained musicians, McCreadie’s Mercury nomination apparently having drawn him to The Collective’s attention. For their 2023-24 season The Manchester Collective have over 20 players their roster, today’s quartet representing just part of a larger pool of musicians.

This afternoon, it’s a 4 o’clock start, and the MCJ is a string quartet with Donald Grant one of their players. The synergy he and McCreadie have not only is a bridge between the two groups, but also they play together as a duo twice with their piano and fiddle/violin alternating the lead instinctively, despite the seating arrangements resulting in Grant being blind sided by having his back to the pianist.

The concert opens with three tunes played with no break, starting with the trio alone playing McCreadie’s ‘Stony Gate’ from the forthcoming album, a track that’s already been realised as a single. It’s an earworm of a tune which starts with McCreadie briefly soloing playing a slightly contemplative and attractive four note ostinato over which he lays a bright catchy theme that could have been taken from a Scottish traditional song or written by the pianist himself .

With double bass and drums joining much of the rest of the number is subtle variations on that uplifting theme, including McCreadie taking a dive into a minor key passage that’s underpinned by Bowden’s driving double bass. McCreadie dazzles with quicksilver dexterous finger work and the trio at times turn the volume control up to loud. Arguably when the volume is turned up in this and other numbers, in the acoustics of the Town Hall Bowden’s double bass gets a little too boomy but this is a minor quibble.

I began to think ‘Stony Gate’s ostinato is the solidity and durability of the gate, and when there’s a sudden brief halt in the music followed by the string quartet entering with a more pronounced eerie metallic sound than on the recorded version, this is walkers being stopped in their tracks by the closed gate, followed by the sound of the rusty gate being swung open.

‘Stoney Gate’ segues into a number from traditional French Canadian traditional folk band La Bottine Souriante arranged by Grant which is seamlessly followed by one of Grant’s own tunes inspired by a 3 mile walk home following Hogmanay celebrations, ‘Bring you down that star’.

This sequence is a mix of the contemplative and the joyful, in the midst of which there’s a delightful double bass solo from Bowden, and has all seven musicians involved together for the first time. It ends with them sounding like an acoustic version of a Scottish folk rock band. The audience who’ve been rapt throughout give this a very warm reception and the musicians respond by telling them, “That’s the most applause we’ve had for the opening sequence the whole tour”.

The Manchester Collective play short three pieces by Hungarian modernist composer Gyõrgy Kurtág, who is known for expressionist miniature compositions. These are selected from “Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervanszky. Their beautifully poignant playing of the desperately sad middle piece evokes for me the pain of Gaza and Ukraine, while the last of the three seemed to offer the slight hope of peaceful resolution.

There is then another segue into the lovely standard ‘Nearness of You’,  which McCreadie initially plays solo but is soon joined by Bowden and Henderson. It’s a beautifully sparse version with McCreadie showing he knows that sometimes less is more.

The string quartet follow with quite an abstract sounding piece in which a sustained melody is not easily detectable. It’s by Christian Mason and based on Sardinian throat singing.

The first half ends with Grant’s ‘NZ2004’, inspired by a party during a trip to the rugby world cup of that year. It starts with a drum solo, Henderson’s moment in the spotlight, that goes from a rolling bass drum, a fanfare for the competition perhaps, to Henderson being a one-man samba band. It concludes with all seven playing and once more sounding like an acoustic Scottish folk rock band, and goes down very well with the audience.

The second half begins with the McCreadie-Grant duo tenderly playing a traditional Scottish air, which McCreadie develops with a brief burst of Rachmaninov style romanticism, before becoming an energetic reel with the pianist playing the inside of the piano and the keys simultaneously.

The Manchester Collective string quartet subsequently predominates much more than in the first half with the trio sitting out. First there’s more throat singing inspired music again by Christian Mason. This time it’s from his Tuvan songbooks. It’s the fun piece of the concert, the quartet adding shouts and other assorted vocalese to short skittering string phrases, the whole I assume being a representation of the sounds of Tuvan horse riders and their horses as they gallop across a southern Siberian plain.

Then the quartet go from 1788, a Haydn string quartet (Op. 54 No. 2, II. Adagio) with exquisite playing by first violin Rakhi Singh, to 2016 and a gorgeous arrangement of an Anna Meredith synthesiser piece ‘Honeyed Words’. The Haydn is preceded by a short prelude from the jazz trio which feels uncertain of the direction it wants to go, though maybe that’s exactly what it is intended to convey. It emerges that this is instead of the trio playing the Haydn with the string quartet which was tried in rehearsal and then abandoned.

For the finale McCreadie specially arranges three of his tunes into a suite. This is the most successful collaboration between the jazz trio and the string quartet in the concert. The tunes include ‘Snow Cap’ from the forthcoming album, ‘Stream’ and ‘Unfurrowed Field’ from the Mercury nominated and award winning ‘Forest Floor’. The stream of music has a tad of sophisticated blues and a sinuous double bass solo from Bowden, and towards the conclusion it seems Rachmaninov style bells are sounding in the midst of the energetic and loud celebratory last phrases.

The boisterous conclusion could have inspired dancing up and down the aisles, the London date of the tour actually ended with a ceilidh. Instead the substantial audience rise to their feet as one to acclaim all seven musicians.

While the string quartet added depth to folk-jazz numbers, at times playing the role of quasi rhythm guitar in the aforementioned imaginary Scottish folk rock band, the jazz trio hardly participated in the classical pieces. For me the jury is still out on jazz-classical collaborations, which is what I thought after hearing a young Ligeti Quartet with trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith at Cafe Oto many years ago.

Having seen a previous “daring collaboration” of The Manchester Collective with the charismatic presence that is cellist Abel Selaocoe from a South African township, this concert did confirm that as well as being talented players The Collective are bold and innovative programmers prepared to take risks.

Also, it gave further evidence that the Fergus McCreadie trio continues to go from strength to strength. The new tunes they played are excellent and increased my anticipation for their forthcoming album. It would no surprise if in due course ‘Stony Gate’ becomes a modern jazz classic played by other groups, perhaps by funk bands.

The enthusiastic and attentive audience had a great time, their cheering going on for about five minutes at the end, and undoubtedly for Music at Oxford the concert is a big success. Indeed everyone involved in this unusual event deserves a big round of applause.


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