by Ian Mann
June 11, 2022
This was music that skilfully blended jazz with folk elements to create engrossing, constantly evolving musical tapestries, that combined high energy passages with moments of pure beauty.
Matt Carmichael Quintet, Kidderminster Jazz Club, The Corn Exchange Room, Kidderminster Town Hall, Kidderminser, Worcs. 09/06/2022
Matt Carmichael – tenor saxophone, Fergus McCreadie – piano, Charlie Stewart – violin, Ali Watson – double bass, Tom Potter – drums
Tonight’s performance was one of a short series of gigs organised by the West Midlands Jazz Network. The Carmichael Quintet’s whistle stop tour of the English Midlands also included dates in Stratford-upon-Avon, Birmingham and Bishop’s Castle.
It represented a welcome foray over the border for this young Scottish quintet, its players products of an astonishingly fertile Scottish music scene.
Born near Inverness Carmichael took up the saxophone at school in East Dunbartonshire and quickly discovered a natural aptitude for the instrument. A graduate of the Jazz Course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow he has been mentored by his fellow saxophonist Tommy Smith, who has subsequently described Carmichael as being “better than I was at that age”.
In addition to leading his own groups Carmichael has also performed with vocalist Luca Manning, bassist Mark Hendry and the bands corto.alto and Fat Suit. Significantly he has also collaborated with folk musicians such as fiddler Charlie Stewart and singer Josie Duncan.
A frequent award winner Carmichael was the recipient of the 2019 Peter Whittingham Development Award, this prestigious prize, together with a successful Crowdfunder campaign, helping to finance the recording of his self released début album “Where Will The River Flow”. The album was recorded to the highest professional standards at QuietMoney Studios in Hastings in March 2020, just before the first Covid lockdown.
My review of the album, from which much of this biographical detail has been sourced, can be found here;
Carmichael was a finalist in the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year competition in 2020, an event that formed part of the EFG London Jazz Festival and which was also broadcast on national television. The competition was eventually won by the London based pianist Deschanel Gordon but all of the finalists will have benefited from their appearances on national TV.
I was particularly impressed with Carmichael’s performance. He was the only finalist to have the courage and conviction to play his own, original music exclusively and in a competition where the technical ability of the musicians was a given his bravery should have been awarded with the overall victory – IMHO. Great exposure though, nevertheless.
“Where Will The River Flow” featured the quartet of Carmichael on tenor sax, Fergus McCreadie on piano, Ali Watson on double bass and Tom Potter at the drums. First formed in 2016 the group was initially inspired by pianist Keith Jarrett’s “Belonging” quartet featuring the Scandinavian musicians Jan Garbarek (saxophones), Palle Danielsson (double bass) and Jon Christensen (drums.
Perhaps even more influential for Carmichael was Garbarek’s use of folk melodies in the Norwegian’s own solo work. In Carmichael’s case he draws inspiration from the traditional music of his native Scotland and on “Where Will The River Flow” he demonstrates a remarkable gift for folk inspired melody. It’s a quality that he shares with McCreadie, the leader of his own group, whose folk informed brand of jazz in the piano trio format has won him considerable critical acclaim for the albums “Turas (2018)”, “Cairn (2020)” and “Forest Floor” (2022) plus the ‘official bootleg’ “Live at Black Mountain” (2020). McCreadie is also the winner of numerous awards, including the 2019 Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Album (for “Turas”).
“Where Will The River Flow” also found favour with the jazz media and jazz public alike and its success led to Carmichael signing to the Prestigious UK label Edition Records (also the home of the McCreadie Trio) for his second album, to be titled “Marram”, which will be released in the Autumn of 2022. The new album will feature the same personnel as the debut with the addition of the previously mentioned award winning folk fiddler Charlie Stewart, who brings an even stronger Celtic feel to Carmichael’s music.
The success of “Where Will The River Flow” led to Carmichael being invited to perform in Cologne as a guest soloist with the celebrated German ensemble the WDR Big Band, with the celebrated Bob Mintzer arranging Carmichael’s compositions for performance by Carmichael with the WDRBB.
Carmichael’s merging of jazz and folk influences is a particularly Scottish characteristic. Cross pollination between musical genres, particularly jazz and folk, has long been a characteristic of the small but fertile Scottish music scene, with jazz musicians such as trumpeter Colin Steele, drummer Tom Bancroft and others regularly collaborating with folk artists and integrating folk melodies into their music.
In this sense Carmichael, and McCreadie, come from a proud tradition and their music represents a particularly distinctive brand of Scottish jazz, with their bands basing their improvisations around strong, folk inspired original melodies.
Although something of Jan Garbarek’s influence can be detected in Carmichael’s music the young Scot has already established an identity that is very much his own.
He doesn’t really sound like Garbarek but one aspect of the Norwegian’s methodology that he has borrowed is the tendency to segue several compositions together in concert to create a single entity. This process encourages improvisation, particularly in the linking passages, as the compositions merge to form engrossing, constantly evolving musical tapestries.
A case in point was a lengthy opening segue that lasted for around twenty five minutes as the new tune “Horizons” was merged with “Cononbridge”, a composition sourced from the first album and named for Carmichael’s birthplace, a small village just north of Inverness. The gentle sounds of unaccompanied piano introduced the performance, joined by soft and breathy tenor sax and then by bowed bass and cymbal shimmers. Stewart’s fiddle sketched folk inspired melodies, underscored by Potter’s deft brush work, but it was bassist Watson who was to take the first ‘solo’, backed by the sound of pizzicato violin and brushed drums. I use the word ‘solo’ loosely, this is not jazz played in the familiar ‘head-solos-head’ format where solos are clearly signposted and applauded accordingly. In Carmichael’s music the lead is transferred more subtly and organically, with individual instruments swimming in and out of focus. McCreadie’s piano was next to come to the fore as the music gathered momentum, with Potter moving from brushes to sticks and with Carmichael eventually weighing in more powerfully on tenor.
Seamlessly shifting dynamics are a hallmark of Carmichael’s music and a second passage of solo piano formed the link into “Cononbridge”, another piece featuring warm, folk inspired melodies, here played by Carmichael and Stewart, both in unison and in counterpoint. Stewart’s fiddle solo featured some of the purest ‘folk’ playing of the evening, the folk influence still informing a dazzling McCreadie solo as the group temporarily went into ‘piano trio’ mode. Finally it was fitting that Carmichael took over on tenor in this musical celebration of his place of origin. “Although most memories are very distant now, I have an attachment to the place and the warmth and melody of this track, for me, evoke a sense of home”.
Like his “musical soulmate” McCreadie Carmichael’s writing is strongly informed by Scottish traditional music and also by nature and the Scottish landscape. These influences are reflected in his tune titles, including “The Spey” from the first album. Named after the fastest river in Scotland this was to close the first half in spectacular fashion. “It’s the fastest tune we play”, explained Carmichael and this was a high octane performance that combined the energy and melody of traditional jigs and reels with jazz sophistication and adventurousness. Along the river’s course we enjoyed a series of sparkling sax and piano exchanges, a wildly inventive outpouring ideas from McCreadie as the band again went into piano trio mode, and finally a set of tenor and drum exchanges. Potter’s playing was hugely impressive all evening, colourful, inventive and neatly energetic, but also capable of considerable subtlety. Whether acting as a colourist or really driving the band Potter, aided by the similarly impressive Watson, gave the music just what it needed.
The second set was to feature a similar mix of old and new tunes, again with several pieces merged together, and was, if anything, even more impressive than the first.
The duo of sax and piano introduced the first segue, comprised of “Marram”, the title track of the forthcoming album, and “The Far Ones”. In contrast to “The Spey”, which had closed the first set, this was music that was conspicuous in its quietness, the addition of Stewart’s violin giving the music something of the quality of a traditional folk air. As Carmichael’s breathy tenor sax took over the music gradually began to build momentum, subtly mutating from an air to a jig and with Carmichael soloing on increasingly forceful tenor. McCreadie’s solo piano passage provided the link into the next section, which featured a series of sax and drum exchanges, these mutating into a more extended solo drum feature from Potter. This helped to set the scene for a dazzling piano solo from McCreadie, hands a blur at the keyboard. Again the group’s command of dynamics was demonstrated as this segue concluded with the gentle sound of an unaccompanied tenor sax coda.
Before introducing the final lengthy segue Carmichael emphasised the importance of improvisation to the band in the live environment. No group member was sight reading and this is clearly a band that likes to stretch out and take risks, but which does so on some gloriously melodic source material. The music of both Carmichael and McCreadie manages to be both highly accessible and highly adventurous, a rare and thrilling combination.
Lyrical solo piano introduced the ballad “Dear Grandma”, Carmichael’s dedication to his late grandmother and a tune sourced from the debut album. This was also notable for Watson’s melodic double bass soloing, the mournful keening of Stewart’s violin and the emotive sound of the leader’s tenor, his unaccompanied saxophone leading into the next section. This was “Dune”, another composition scheduled to appear on the forthcoming album and a piece that ties in nicely with the “Marram” title. This was an altogether more robust tune, again with a melody reminiscent of a jig or reel and featuring some dizzying interplay between Carmichael and Stewart, with the violinist eventually assuming the lead.
The deserved encore was a brief, but beautiful, ballad reading of the Hoagy Carmichael (presumably no relation) song “The Nearness of You”, with the quintet placing their own unique stamp on it. This was ushered in by a gentle sax and piano dialogue, with Carmichael and McCreadie later joined by double bass, brushed drums and violin.
This was an excellent performance by the Carmichael Quintet that was very well received by a small but discerning and appreciative crowd. This was music that skilfully blended high energy passages with moments of pure beauty, and during the quieter moments you could literally hear the proverbial pin drop. I hadn’t anticipated the seguing process or the strong emphasis on improvisation, but these elements worked well, making the live experience significantly different to that of hearing the group on record, always a good thing with regard to a jazz act.
The quality of the performance was reflected in healthy CD and vinyl sales after the gig, quite a decent percentage in comparison to the size of the crowd I’d say. One person was moved to remark that it was the best performance he’d seen at the Club since its inception, which is pretty impressive given the high quality of some of the performances that we have seen here.
I was hugely impressed by all the musicians in this young but phenomenally talented band. My only cavil would be that the fiddle was a little too low in the mix at times, but this is a very minor complaint. I’m certainly looking forward to hearing the new album in due course, and to assessing Stewart’s impact on the group sound in a studio context. “Marram” will certainly be among the most keenly awaited of 2022 British jazz releases.
My thanks to Matt, Fergus and Tom for speaking with me afterwards and good luck for the rest of the tour, which continues tonight (11/06/2022) at Clun Valley Jazz in Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire.
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