|L-R: Anton Eger, Josh Arcoleo, Andrew McCormack,
Noemi Nuti, Rob Mullarkey
Photo Credit: Mike Hall
Pianist ANDREW McCORMACK has demonstrated fascinating versatility in his career so far, leading his own trio, working in a duo with the saxophonist Jason Yarde and also alongside major artists such as Kyle Eastwood and Jean Toussaint. McCormack speaks insightfully about the differences between the various situations in which he has worked as a leader. Feature by Dan Paton:
“The fewer musicians you have in the ensemble, the more responsibility the pianist seems to have. Weirdly, I find playing duo more exhausting and challenging than playing solo. When you’re playing solo, you’re in control of what is happening. In a duo, you’re responding to what someone is doing as well as providing the rhythm and the harmony – the reaction and surprise whilst simultaneously trying to hold everything down is a big challenge.”
His latest album Graviton (released on PIAS Jazz Village last year) emphasises particular facets of Andrew McCormack‘s leadership, including his strengths as a composer (partially honed through working as a composer and arranger on a number of film soundtrack projects) and further pushing the rhythmic possibilities of his music. Utilising a slightly larger all-star ensemble, the music on his new album Graviton explores intricate lattice-like structures, varied textures and thrilling knife-edge tension. There is a breathtaking vitality and urgency to the uptempo pieces and the ballads are characterised by poignancy and beauty, whilst also incorporating lithe and subtle grooves. Some of the music draws from world rhythms and perhaps even from dance music and electronica.
When asked about the album’s rhythmic qualities, and the role played by drummer Anton Eger (Phronesis, Marius Neset) in particular, McCormack explains that he has “become a lot more interested in some of the musicians exploring rhythm a lot more”. Offering some examples, he identifies Phronesis (“Anton is a world class musician and someone I’ve always admired”) but also mentions pianist Tigran Hamasyan. This musical investigation seems to have flourished during McCormack’s three years spent living in New York. “I would check out the musicians who would play with Ari Hoenig at Smalls every Monday night – they are exploring that side of playing and improvising,” he explains.
McCormack’s experience in New York seems to have encouraged a period of intense self reflection that informed his focus on composition as well as his interest in rhythm and improvising. “New York really forces you to figure out what your strengths are,” he suggests. Why is this? “The environment is very competitive,” he argues.
“It’s not enough to be an excellent piano player because there are countless excellent piano players – so it’s about what is special about you in particular. My idea in going to a different city, and to New York specifically, was to develop myself a little bit and to keep growing. This gives you a lot of focus and direction, and Graviton is the result of that.”
In fact, some of the New York preoccupations that inform Graviton might not be immediately apparent to listeners. “It got me to explore even deeper what Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk were doing, even if you wouldn’t necessarily hear it on this record. Being in the place where they created bebop – it has a different meaning. It makes it more real. It’s a bit like a pilgrimage – there is something about that hallowed ground.”
Perhaps London now has enough of its own lineage to be similarly informed and competitive though? McCormack feels that the main distinction between the two cities is “volume”. “It feels like there’s so many more musicians there because the whole world goes to New York. You do get a lot of European musicians coming to London but in New York, you’ve got people coming from Asia and South America – there are a lot of Israeli musicians there too.”
One intriguing facet of McCormack’s composing on Graviton is how carefully he integrates the vocalists into his musical structures. “I wanted to have a female vocalist,” he explains. “It’s an element I think that sounds really beautiful and it’s actually a fairly classic line-up too.” (He cites the examples of Chick Corea’s Return To Forever and Django Bates’ Human Chain as other well known ensembles that have utilised the female voice.) In writing for this new element, he considered his broader compositional aims too. “I wanted to have voices, whether that be a horn player or a singer, doing something fairly integrated and compositional, offering a variety of sound and colour within this genre of rhythmic jazz playing.” Whilst the opening track Breathe might provide the most immediately striking example of this integration, there is also the remarkable Andromeda, described accurately and succinctly by McCormack as “a choir of Eskas” – it’s one of the album’s deepest and most satisfying surprises.
Another way in which the album offers new dimensions to McCormack’s work is in the emphasis on production and mixing. The mixing process had to contend with a range of sound worlds, incorporating piano and electric keyboard and Ralph Wyld’s percussion. “Rob Mullarkey (who also plays bass on the album) spent more time than agreed mixing,” McCormack states. “He poured his heart and soul into it and really took the time to make it right. It’s a new way of working for me – usually I’ve done more of a jazz session and there the mixing can be relatively straightforward because once you have the overall sound, it may not change much from track to track. Here, each track needed to have its own story. The extra element of the mix was able to bring out these other colours and other sounds in addition to what the individual personalities provided. The results were more than I ever expected.”
The broad sonic palette of the music, together with the inherent challenges in playing it, might make for a tough but exciting experience when McCormack and his ensemble tour it, starting in Manchester on 1 February.
“It’s a roast,” McCormack admits. “We’ve done a handful of dates over the past year but this is the proper tour – the one where we can really get our teeth into the music and I’m really looking forward to it. At the London Jazz Festival, we were starting to find things we could do as a group that were not written or pre-determined, anticipating what the other players are like and what they will do.”
Whilst the line-up of the group has shifted, the inevitable result of the many logistical and availability issues with which all jazz bandleaders are familiar, McCormack’s variety of touring groups are also tremendous. “The album was an all star line-up,” McCormack explains, “and with Shabaka (Hutchings) and Eska, there was always an understanding that they were not going to be available for live touring.” McCormack’s partner, Noemi Nuti, helped him demo a lot of the music from Graviton and steps in as sole vocalist for the live dates.
“She has always been a part of this project and has now come in and really made it her own gig, which is great to see.” He also highlights some of the vocal processing and looping Nuti uses to “create new clusters of sound” as part of the live group, a different way of presenting some of Graviton’s wide range of sound worlds. Saxophone duties will be split between Josh Arcoleo and Leo Richardson, who also worked on the Graviton demos. McCormack praises Richardson as “a really virtuosic, well-rounded musician”. Bassist Rob Mullarkey might be less widely known but, as McCormack suggests, “he’s probably a part of a lot of the music people are listening to and they may not realise that it’s him” One example of this is his role as bass player with Jacob Collier as and when he deploys a band set-up. Of Mullarkey’s playing, McCormack proclaims that “he’s as groovy as a… I can’t swear, can I?!” Anton Eger and Josh Blackmore (one of only a handful of UK drummers potentially able to reflect Eger’s intensity, speed and dexterity) share the drum seat. The tour also offers some new personal milestones in McCormack’s career, including his first headline show at Ronnie Scott’s in London.
The process of recording, rehearsing and performing Graviton certainly seems to have ignited new fires in McCormack. Whilst he claims to have a new solo piano album “in the can”, it seems this may have to wait a while. “Graviton has opened my eyes and ears to a new way of working,” he enthuses. “I would like to develop it more and see where it takes me. I want to keep growing and not rest on my laurels. All the musicians I really admire and respect keep working on their music. Even someone like Keith Jarrett still practises every day, even after all the music he has created. It’s astonishing and a great example of someone who wants to call themselves an artist.
It’s an example that McCormack is no doubt setting himself for an even younger generation. (pp)
TOUR DATES FEB – JUNE 2018
1 February 2018 – Band On The Wall, Manchester (+Tryon Collective)
2 February 2018 – Wakefield Jazz, Wakefield
3 February 2018 – Southport Jazz Fest, Merseyside
5 February 2018 – Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
6 February 2018 – The Stables, Wavendon
7 February 2018 – Ronnie Scotts, London (+Camilla George Qrt)
22 February 2018- Bonnington Theatre, Nottingham
13 March 2018 – The Venue @ DMU, Leicester
21 March 2018 – Ropetackle Arts, Shoreham Sussex
5 May 2018 – Wiltshire Music Centre, Bradford On Avon
28 June 2018 – Harwich Festival Essex