Review: Andrew McCormack Trio at Pizza Express Dean St

Photo Credit: Dylan Bate

Review: Andrew McCormack Trio
(Pizza Express, Monday 18 March. Review by Matthew Wright)

Without much fanfare, Andrew McCormack has built a diverse and versatile career which now deserves to be taken very seriously. Though only in his mid thirties, he already had three albums (and the BBC Jazz ‘Rising Star’ Award in 2006) to his name when his fourth, Live in London, was launched in December, to excellent reviews.

With Live in London – recorded, as the name suggests, live at the 606 last August – McCormack now has two different piano trios on record, as well as two duo discs with saxophonist Jason Yarde – as well as some very distinguished collaborations, composition (he studied with Mark-Anthony Turnage), and film scoring. He must now have some musically enviable career choices.

This gig reprised much of the new album, with one significant change of personnel. McCormack’s trio on the album comprised Chris Hill on bass and Troy Miller on drums. On Monday, Miller was absent, and in his place American virtuoso Colin Stranahan, who – not yet thirty – already has more than fifteen years’ performing experience, since his first gigs as an eleven year-old in his home city of Denver.

Miller put in a great shift on the album, playing with wit and sensitivity throughout, though – compared to the same tracks performed with Stranahan – he seemed to give the piano greater space to lead.

Stranahan gave a wonderful show, illuminating the themes and character of each track brilliantly, whether with a monstering energy (‘Two Cities’) or by exploring delicate sound-worlds (‘Antibes’). He experimented restlessly, placing strings of what McCormack described as his ‘ethnic bells’ on the hi-hat to create a delicate shimmering sound, or using his musical score as a kind of baffle on the drum skin.

There’s a delicious contrast between his appearance of almost shamanic absorption in the performance, and the impish humour of his drumming. Now based in New York, and not seemingly in London very often, he’s well worth a detour to watch.

McCormack mostly played tracks from the new album, beginning with two Monk standards, followed by three tracks from the new album. Reviewers have already noted his erudite range of influences; it’s worth emphasising what an enjoyable evening’s listening it makes altogether.

As an experimental virtuoso, McCormack was Stranahan’s equal, occasionally reaching into the piano’s innards to pluck its strings or hold down its dampers. His technical ability was demonstrated prodigiously, billows of harmony gusting across the stage during some intensely skilful playing. If anything, in this reviewer’s worthless opinion, a couple of the tracks would have benefited from moments of simpler lyricism. Occasionally I yearned for a touch of Horace Silver.

Set between two such dominant performers, Hill’s bass was necessarily, at times, overshadowed as he (sensitively and dextrously) filled in the harmonies, but he also had his moments to shine. During ‘Smoke Gets in your Eyes’, he soloed with muscular, resonant lyricism. When he has the stage, he fills it. The ensemble was superb throughout. These musicians know each other’s playing so well, they dance in and out of one another’s musical lines with the power and accuracy of ballerinas.

As band leader and MC, McCormack operated with a rather English reserve, not unlike, it seemed to me, a Colin Firth character: Mr Darcy, or King George VI. (There’s a slight physical resemblance too.) Until he started playing, only McCormack’s blood-red shoes let on that behind the self-effacing persona was a wellspring of passion, skill and originality. He has developed a fascinating, subtle and multi-faceted jazz voice, and – what’s more – gave a performance to savour.

Categories: miscellaneous

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