by Ian Mann
April 07, 2021
A hugely impressive début and an album that demonstrates an impressive compositional maturity and a prodigious gift for melody. The folk elements help to give the album a distinct Scottish identity.
“Where Will The River Flow”
(Porthole Music PM01)
Matt Carmichael – tenor saxophone, Fergus McCreadie – piano, Ali Watson – double bass, Tom Potter – drums
Issued on his own Porthole Music imprint “Where Will The River Flow” is the exceptional début recording from the young Scottish saxophonist and composer Matt Carmichael.
A product of the Jazz Course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow Carmichael has been mentored by his fellow saxophonist Tommy Smith, who has described his protégé as being “better than I was at that age”.
Born near Inverness Carmichael took up the saxophone at school in East Dunbartonshire and quickly discovered a natural aptitude for the instrument. In addition to leading his own groups he 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 “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.
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.
Carmichael formed his quartet in 2016, initially inspired by pianist Keith Jarrett’s “Belonging” quartet featuring the Scandinavian musicians Jan Garbarek (saxophones), Palle Danielsson (double bass) and Jon Christensen (drums). Although something of Garbarek’s influence can be detected in Carmichael’s sound the young Scot is rapidly establishing an identity that is very much his own.
Carmichael’s quartet includes bassist Ali Watson, drummer Tom Potter and the remarkable pianist Fergus McCreadie, a bandleader and composer in his own right and already a Parliamentary Jazz Award winner.
McCreadie leads his own trio featuring bassist David Bowden and drummer Stephen Henderson, a line up that won the 2019 Parliamentary Jazz Award for “Album of the Year” for their self released début recording “Turas”. The trio have since signed to Edition Records, who released the follow up, “Cairn” to further critical acclaim in early 2021. I intend to take a fuller look at this recording in due course. An honourable mention should also be made to “Live at Black Mountain”, an ‘official bootleg’ released by McCreadie during the first Covid lockdown of a brilliant live performance by the trio at Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny on February 26th 2020. I was fortunate enough to have actually been at that show and my review of that event can be found here;
Like his colleague McCreadie Carmichael is also strongly influenced by traditional Scottish folk music. 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 comes from a proud tradition and his music represents a particularly distinctive brand of Scottish jazz, with his quartet basing their improvisations around strong, folk inspired melodies.
“Where Will The River Flow” features nine original compositions by Carmichael. Again in common with McCreadie his writing takes great inspiration from the natural landscape, particularly that of his native Scotland. Carmichael’s “Track notes”, which form part of the press release accompanying the promo copy of the CD, offer a degree of insight as to the inspirations behind the individual pieces.
Album opener “Sognsvann” was written for a Norwegian lake near Oslo when Carmichael was studying in the city during an Erasmus exchange visit. It begins with the sound of the composer’s unaccompanied tenor playing the simple, but arresting, folk inspired melody. Carmichael’s love of, and ear for, a good melody is immediately apparent, as the saxophonist himself observes;
“There is so much power in pure melody and I like the fact that the album opens with just that, melody”.
Piano, brushed drums and double bass, with Watson making use of the bow, are slowly and subtly added to the mix in a beautifully measured and nuanced performance that acts as a kind of overture and establishes the largely ‘water’ theme that informs the rest of the album.
The word “Firth” is defined as “a long narrow inlet of the sea, an estuary”. Carmichael’s tune of the same name is inspired by the Moray Firth, close to the area where Carmichael spent his early childhood years. Introduced by the soft patter of Potter’s hands on skins this is another piece to place the emphasis on folk inspired melody. The first solo comes from Watson’s bass, his playing dexterous and resonant, but still essentially melodic. Initially Carmichael’s tenor whispers fluently, before gradually becoming more strident and full blooded as the music gathers momentum, seemingly tracing the surge of a river towards the sea as Potter takes up his sticks to become an increasingly busy, colourful and dynamic presence behind the kit. As the torrent subsides the piece finally resolves itself with a concluding lyrical passage, again featuring the melodic strains of Watson’s double bass.
“Cononbridge” is named for Carmichael’s birthplace, a small village just north of Inverness. Melody remains the focus with Carmichael stating;
“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”.
There’s a warmth and simplicity about the folk inspired main theme that is instantly appealing and memorable, but which also provides the jumping off point for more exploratory collective interaction, notably the powerful and ebullient exchanges between Carmichael and McCreadie, these skilfully supported by the flexible and intelligent rhythm team of Watson and Potter.
“The Spey” takes its title from the waterway classed as “the fastest river in Scotland”. Even a sassenach like me knows that the Spey is famous for its salmon fishing, not to mention products such as whisky, soups and shortbread! Carmichael describes his composition as;
“the most blatantly energetic track on the album, with moments resembling the rapid, unpredictable thrill of the river in full spate”.
There’s a still a strong folk quality about the melody, akin to a particularly complex and vigorous reel, on a piece that sees McCreadie really cutting loose for the first time. Hitherto the pianist has seemed content to be a particularly skilled foil to the leader’s tenor, but here, given his head, his feverish solo demonstrates the full scope of his improvisatory capabilities. McCreadie also offers excellent support to Carmichael as the saxophonist also takes off with a bravado tenor solo. Watson and the dynamic Potter provide suitably propulsive and combustible support.
Following the tumultuous rush of “The Spey” the self explanatory “Interlude” provides a much needed period of reflection, a brief, but subtly evocative, episode featuring the lonely ruminations of Carmichael’s tenor above Watson’s bowed double bass drone. There’s still a folkish, unmistakably Scottish, quality to the music on a piece that some have likened to a pibroch, with Watson’s bass approximating the sound of the bagpipes.
“Hopeful Morning” is a tune written by Carmichael at the piano, a simple expression of hope at the start of a new day. It possesses another of those simple, folk inspired ear-worm like melodies that Carmichael and McCreadie both seem to specialise in. The pianist is a lyrical presence throughout while Watson’s melodic pizzicato bass solo is a track highlight, alongside the joyous soaring of the leader’s tenor.
“Where Will The River Flow” is one of Carmichael’s personal favourites, the title in keeping with the watery album theme but also an acknowledgement of the uncertainties of youth as the twenty one year old Carmichael looks to begin a professional musical career at a particularly precarious, and uncertain time for musicians. Nevertheless the composer faces the future with “an underlying sense of optimism”, a quality reflected in an appropriately gentle and flowing melody featuring the sounds of piano, bass and Carmichael’s own tenor, all underscored by the soft colourations of Potter’s drums and cymbals. There’s a reflective quality about the music, mirrored in the lyrical solos of Carmichael and McCreadie, but with the latter subsequently moving into more dynamic and assertive territory as the flow of this particular unnamed river gathers energy and momentum, with the impressive Potter also responding accordingly.
“Dear Grandma” is a delightful dedication to Carmichael’s late grandmother, a beautiful ballad introduced by the limpid sounds of McCreadie’s piano and featuring Watson’s melodic double bass and Potter’s sensitive drum colourations. The leader’s tenor speaks tenderly and eloquently on a piece that both beguiles and enchants, concluding with the gentle incantations of Carmichael’s unaccompanied sax.
The album closes with “Valley”, a piece that was entirely improvised by the quartet in the studio, a meditation that reflects upon “the vastness of the landscape that continues to be shaped after thousands of years of rivers flowing from the mountains to the sea”.
In truth the piece feels as if it could have been fully composed, it’s far from removed the usual fractious sound of free improv. Emerging out of a simple piano figure and the wavering sounds of bowed bass the piece begins slowly, but gradually builds to embrace a seemingly unstoppable momentum with Carmichael’s tenor a triumphant clarion call, underscored by a pounding, roiling rhythm section, the music occupying a folk informed space somewhere between the spiritual jazz of John Coltrane and an indie rock anthem. Having peaked the piece ends almost as quietly as it began, with a final flourish of melodic serenity.
“Where Will The River Flow” represents a hugely impressive début from Carmichael and is an album that demonstrates an impressive compositional maturity. The folk elements give the album a distinct Scottish identity and as a writer Carmichael displays a prodigious gift for melody. There may be some who will find his folk inspired themes to be a trifle twee, but I suspect that such detractors will be very few and far between and that Carmichael’s fans will vastly outnumber his critics.
The playing from all four musicians is superb throughout and the quartet are well served by the engineering team of James McMillan and Michael Scherchen. A word, too, for the distinctive artwork of Joanne Carmichael, presumably a family member.
This is an album that exhibits tremendous promise. Expect to hear a lot more from the talented Matt Carmichael.
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