Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

January 13, 2015


A genuine sextet performance, one that blurs the boundaries between jazz and chamber music to create a vigorous new hybrid. It's rare to hear a string quartet so fully integrated into a jazz context.

McCormack & Yarde Duo featuring Elysian Quartet


(Joy and Ears JAE0002)

This is yet another album that has been sitting in the “to do” pile for far too long but with pianist Andrew McCormack set to tour the UK in March 2015 with his trio of bassist Sam Lasserson and drummer Chris Higginbottom (plus guest saxophonist Mark Lockheart on the majority of the dates) now seemed like a good time to catch up with it.

“Juntos” was released in the summer of 2014 and represents the third album release by the duo of McCormack and saxophonist Jason Yarde and follows their debut “MY Duo” ( Joy and Ears 2009) and the acclaimed “Places And Other Spaces” released on Edition Records in 2011. Again it’s released on Jason Yarde’s Joy and Ears imprint (see what he just did there).

McCormack and Yarde have always made a bigger and more varied sound than the pared down line up of just piano and saxophone might at first appear to offer. Both their previous albums have impressed in terms of their range and scope and the performance I witnessed at the 2011 London Jazz Festival confirmed that their intimate music also transfers well to the live environment.

Both musicians write for the duo and in this most co-operative and democratic of unions the compositional credits are split pretty much equally. An element of McCormack’s classical background has always found its way into the duo’s sound and this has been taken a stage further with “Juntos”, the duo’s first collaborative project with other musicians.

As the duo’s album liner notes explain it was always their intention to expand the group from time to time for specific projects but it still comes as something of a surprise to find them collaborating with a string quartet. The Elysian Quartet consists of violinists Emma Smith and Jennymay Logan, violist Vince Sipprell and cellist Laura Moody. It’s a highly interactive collaboration with the string players fully integrated into the music as the freshly assembled sextet create their own distinctive sound world, one that sounds perfectly natural and organic. There is no sense of the strings being merely “grafted on”, this is genuinely co-operative music making executed with real improvisational rigour and with McCormack and Yarde thanking their colleagues for “coming along on the journey with us with such verve”.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise, Smith and Logan have plenty of “previous” in terms of these interactive jazz/classical collaborations having both been members of the acclaimed Basquiat Strings, led by cellist Ben Davis. Interestingly Logan actually played viola in that line up. The pair, both now on violins, were also part of guitarist Phil Robson’s Six Strings & The Beat. They and their colleagues Sipprell and Moody are part of a new generation of classically trained string players who are equally comfortable in the world of jazz and improvised music, and it’s thanks to the quality of musicians like these that the presence of strings on a jazz album is no longer something that suggests that the recording is one that is best avoided.   

Clocking in at a generous seventy one minutes “Juntos” consists of twelve pieces, five by McCormack, four by Yarde and one jointly written. Two pieces are credited Yarde/McCormack/Elysian Quartet suggesting that they spring from group improvisations, presumably the “instant compositions” the co-leaders speak of in their liner notes.

The album begins with McCormack’s composition “Nice Cup Of Tea” which finds Yarde’s sax cutting a swathe through the spiky polyphonic rhythmic patterns generated by the strings plus piano. McCormack subsequently picks his way through the jagged, stabbing bowing and also exchanges fertile ideas with Yarde along the way. This is a true sextet performance, the distinctive contributions of the Elysian Quartet being of equal importance to those of the co-leaders/soloists.

Yarde’s “Ob’s 1st Adventure” features more of the same push and pull between the core duo and the string players, but this time with the Elysian Quartet sometimes deploying pizzicato techniques.  This is again spiky, edgy music that is, like Basquiat Strings, surprisingly rhythmic. Yarde is the main soloist, blowing passionately but fluently above a complex backdrop of percussive, underpinning piano and vigorously bowed strings. 

After the uncompromising intensity and complexity of the opening two numbers Yarde’s “From Then On” initially almost comes as a form of light relief. Nonetheless there’s still a quiet air of brooding intensity that sees keening soprano saxophone gradually becoming more impassioned against a backdrop of piano and droning strings.

McCormack’s “Little Door” has more of an obvious chamber feel with Yarde adopting an oboe like tone on sax. However it’s more than merely “pretty”,  the distinctive verve and rigour that typifies this sextet’s work is very much in evidence throughout the performance, the members of the Elysian Quartet variously deploying pizzicato techniques and sharp, percussive bowing as well as more conventionally mellifluous string sounds.

Also by McCormack the atmospheric “London Light” with its elongated string phrases evokes the sombre atmosphere of a winter’s afternoon (the album was recorded in January 2013) with the melancholy ring of Moody’s cello prominent in the arrangement alongside Yarde’s needling soprano.

At a little under nine minutes Yarde’s “Sometime After” represents the longest piece on the album. Introduced by lonely sounding solo cello it allows the string quartet a little room for manoeuvre before the introduction of sax and piano. An extended pizzicato passage plus Yarde’s occasional toying with multiphonics ensures that this is the most adventurous track in terms of technique as it constantly but subtly shifts shape as if seen through dappled sunlight. Yarde’s soprano dances lightly above accordion like string drones as McCormack’s piano stealthily negotiates a route through the entire piece.

McCormack’s invigorating “The Riddle” combines the elegance of chamber music with the joyousness of jazz on a stirring number that must surely be an audience favourite at the sextet’s occasional live performances.

“Other With Others” is the first of two highly effective group improvisations. Although freely structured one can almost hear the musicians thinking and the piece is both moving and evocative as well as serving as a reminder as to just how deeply involved with this project the members of the Elysian Quartet have become.

On Yarde’s “Always Of You (And The Love Of Paris)” some of the repeated string patterns speak of the influence of minimalism and there’s a vague folk feel about the music too. Meanwhile Yarde’s grandly romantic saxophone melody sails above it all triumphantly.

Both McCormack and Yarde are highly busy musicians who are involved in a plethora of other projects, notable among these the pianist’s long term engagements with the bands of British saxophonist Denys Baptiste and American bassist Kyle Eastwood. In recent years the pianist has been living in Brooklyn and is beginning to make his mark on the New York jazz scene. Meanwhile Yarde is a prolific sideman and also an in demand record producer. The jointly written “3 Point Burn” saw the duo exchanging files over the internet, it’s a tune that was actually written in different countries! However there’s a real zest about this unusual collaborative effort that results in one of the liveliest pieces on the album, a collection of joyously interlocking fanfares leading into a spikier, wilfully dissonant central section where sax and piano duel in robust fashion with the strings. Yarde’s fiery sax soloing eventually re-unites the group for a rousing climax.

The next two pieces are described as “Cd bonuses” and are presumably absent from any vinyl version of this album.

The second group improvisation, “How The Other Half Lives” is by definition more freely structured, a spirited exchange featuring vigorously plucked and scraped strings as the Elysians again demonstrate their formidable improvisational abilities. 

The closing “Vista”, composed by McCormack, is actually a duo performance that features Yarde’s elongated sax melody lines above McCormack’s underlying piano pulse. Initially there’s a Garbarek like plaintiveness about the Yarde’s tone but his playing soon becomes more impassioned with McCormack faithfully shadowing him every step of the way. Soothing and rousing by turns this is a superbly controlled duo performance.

“Juntos” is a worthy successor to the duo’s previous two albums and the addition of the Elysian Quartet has proved to be an inspired move. This is a genuine sextet performance, one that blurs the boundaries between jazz and chamber music to create a vigorous new hybrid. Other than Basquiat Strings it’s rare to hear a string quartet so fully and successfully integrated into a jazz context although Six Strings and the Beat and the work of the Ligeti Quartet on trumpeter Laura Jurd’s “Landing Ground” album also deserve special mention. 

There are are moments when “Juntos” represents something of a challenging listen, but it’s a challenge that’s well worth undertaking.

Andrew McCormack Trio + Special Guest Mark Lockheart
UK tour March 2015.

The Verdict,
Edward Street, Brighton, East Sussex BN2 0JB
01273 674 847

606 Club,
90 Lots Road, London SW10 0QD
020 7352 5953

Jazz @ Acapela
Capel Horeb, Heol Y Pentre, Pentyrch, Cardiff CF15 9QD
029 2089 0862

Cheltenham Jazz @ The Everyman Studio Theatre
7 - 10 Regent Street, Cheltenham, GL50 1HQ
01242 572 573

Seven Jazz@ 7Arts Centre,
31(a) Harrogate Road, Leeds LS7 3PD
01132 626 777

Sheffield Jazz @ Millennium Hall,
Polish Centre, 520 Ecclesall Road, Sheffield S11 8PY
0114 266 5425

Andrew McCormack - piano
Sam Lasserson - bass
Chris Higginbottom - drums
Mark Lockheart - saxophones (all dates except Cardiff)

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