Pianist Andrew McCormack’s first solo album Solo is about to be released. Feature by John Fordham:
Andrew McCormack. Photo credit Monika S Jakubowska
In October 2006, three months after a then little-known 28 year-old London pianist called Andrew McCormack had won the Rising Star prize in that year’s BBC Jazz Awards, I found myself interviewing Keith Jarrett on the release of his enthralling solo piano album, The Carnegie Hall Concert. I remember imagining with a shiver the challenge Jarrett had set himself on the night that show was recorded, walking out toward a spotlit grand piano on an otherwise empty Carnegie Hall stage, with 3,000 people waiting to be captivated by what he might do over the next couple of hours.
Relating that memory to long-time Jarrett admirer McCormack as we begin to talk about the emergence of Solo, his own fine unaccompanied-piano debut after close to 20 years of playing in all kinds of company, the enormity of that kind of adventure is something he evidently appreciates only too well. “When you do it live, you’re making yourself about as vulnerable as you can be in front of an audience,” McCormack says feelingly. “It’s a situation that needs to be handled with care, by the musician and by the listeners.”
Though he collected that BBC Jazz Awards Rising Star prize on the considerable strength of Telescope, his trio’s 2006 debut release, Andrew McCormack’s rise to become one of the UK’s most inventive jazz pianists and composers has been at his own measured pace. From early years of close association with the influential Tomorrow’s Warriors jazz-education project and its co-founders Janine Irons’ and Gary Crosby’s Dune Records label (for which he accompanied artists including saxophonist/composer Denys Baptiste, singer Juliet Roberts and the late trumpeter/composer Abram Wilson), McCormack began to develop an increasingly independent voice as a composer: within jazz’s classic piano-trio format; from 2009 in an empathic duo with saxophonist Jason Yarde; in crossover projects with classical ensembles and in film music; and latterly in his more heavily electric, densely-composed and tightly groove-driven group Graviton.
His pianistic allegiances to Thelonious Monk, and to contemporary players including Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner, have always been sporadically audible, but a constant presence has been a restlessly creative curiosity that has steadily enriched and broadened his palette. The London Symphony Orchestra commissioned McCormack to write the full-orchestral work Incentive for a Barbican premiere in 2009, he has studied composition with contemporary-classical luminary Mark-Antony Turnage, climbed a steep learning-curve living and working in New York for a while, worked regularly with bassist Kyle Eastwood (contributing scores to Eastwood’s father Clint’s movies along the way), and is entering his fourth decade as an all-round contemporary performer-composer of startling scope.
So with such a range of choices and resources at his fingertips, why has Andrew McCormack decided on the stripped-down candour of solo piano music at this point in his life?
“It’s not as recent a decision as all that,” McCormack explains, down the line from what he calls ‘the piano cave’ he’s retreated to since lockdown. “I was asked to do the solo spot on Jez Nelson’s ‘Jazz In The Round’ series at the Cockpit Theatre right back when those gigs began, in 2012. I thought ‘it’s now or never’. After that a lot of other things intervened of course, and I didn’t return to it until I did a short tour of solo dates around the UK in 2016, and recorded that music shortly afterwards, including some duos with the classical violinist Thomas Gould. It had been incredibly useful to do that tour, because an audience is always a participant in the music, it’s not a passive thing, so I learned a lot about what worked and what didn’t. But then recording and playing with Graviton took over, and I didn’t come back to that solo material until last summer.”
When he reacquainted himself with the takes, McCormack heard qualities in the music, and interesting surprises in the choices he made in playing it, that he hadn’t been aware of three years earlier. He decided to choose the best of it, add some new solo material, and save the duets with Gould for a separate venture.
“I was saying to myself ‘what was I doing then, what was I thinking?'” McCormack muses. “Improvisation can always set those thoughts off, of course. You find you did things that you hadn’t intended, but it doesn’t mean the results are at fault.”
The results are a triumph for McCormack as both a composer and a virtuoso improviser. From the harmonic audacity and balance of tenderness and drive on Dream Catcher, the punchy, motif-juggling on the steadily-walking Nomad, or the rocking hooks of Weeds, to a cover of Thelonious Monk’s We See that threads baroque contrapuntal devices through the composer’s respectfully-represented original theme, “Solo” is a session brimming with idiomatic surprises and cross-genre ingenuity that makes it a standout in a very demanding field.
“Some of those pieces were more planned than others,” McCormack observes. “Nomad was the most planned, though even then there are harmonic areas in it where you can move around improvisationally, or play some call-and-answer between left and right, set up little games. With Weeds there’s a section it gets into where I hung on a note and played arpeggios around it – that happened by chance on one of the takes, and I kept the idea for the later take that we used. On We See, something different was happening because Monk is such a special composer and his fingerprints are all over the music, his voice is so strong it’s virtually impossible not to have him speak through it. But I tried to do something like a two-part invention with it, the left hand more of an equal voice to the right. Since Brad Mehldau arrived, jazz pianists have increasingly used counterpoint, and of course Art Tatum did in the 30s and 40s, but in the bebop era it fell out of fashion.”
Andrew McCormack and his sister Katherine studied desultorily on the family piano in their early years, but he fell in love with the instrument and with jazz in his early teens, when he heard a Columbia jazz compilation LP his late father had brought home. The disc included classics by Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck, but it was a Billie Holiday account of You’ve Changed, and Miles Davis’s So What from Kind of Blue that transfixed him.
“I thought ‘what the hell is this?'” McCormack laughs. “When I heard So What I just loved the sound of the harmony, the swing and the groove. That gearshift where Jimmy Cobb sets off Miles’ trumpet solo, it’s magic that’s beyond the notes. Miles died not long after I’d discovered him, and I just wanted to learn everything about the players in his bands – Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Coltrane. I heard a Miles tribute at the Albert Hall with Herbie, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams, with Dave Holland on bass and Wallace Roney on trumpet – they did So What fast, at the Four And More tempo, it was amazing. I had a cassette tape in a Walkman with Kind of Blue on one side and Nefertiti, with the Shorter-Hancock quintet, on the other, and I used to walk to school playing it on a loop.”
McCormack describes music as being “a solace” for him in his later teens, and at Pimlico Sixth Form College – a state school with a specialist music department – he met kindred spirits including the guitarist Dave Okumu, bassist Tom Herbert, drummer Tom Skinner, and the expat, former Art Blakey saxophonist Jean Toussaint. The experienced Toussaint showed the young man “how to learn jazz the way the musicians that created it learned to play – by aural transcription of solos.” Not long after, McCormack began attending Tomorrow’s Warriors rehearsals in Brentford, meeting the pianist Robert Mitchell and saxophonists Jason Yarde and Denys Baptiste, among many others, and subsequently studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, which broadened his knowledge and his playing connections all the more. But it was Baptiste who gave the young pianist his first professional break, a landmark that McCormack recalls fondly. “It was an education for me, from so many angles,” he says. “One, because Denys showed me what the life of a musician is about, and it’s in performing and playing to audiences where you really learn how to do it. Two, it was incredible to be accepted by this community of amazing musicians that I looked up to at this young age.”
The depths and range of Solo eloquently confirm how creatively Andrew McCormack has distilled the experiences of the two packed decades that followed that initiation. Though he would like to revisit the more programmatic and tightly-structured narrative possibilities and the contemporary rhythmic language he embarked on with Graviton, he’s realistic about the likely impact of the present health crisis on the already challenging task of touring a five-piece band with a raft of equipment. In the meantime, this disciplined, inquisitive and resourceful artist is fully focused on solo playing, and the avenues it’s opening up for him both musically and spiritually.
“I think we’ve all experienced that moment in playing or listening to music, where time doesn’t seem to exist any more and you’re just transported to a different sphere,” Andrew McCormack reflects. “I don’t think I deliberately try to channel my spirituality when I play, but I probably am. Sometimes I’ve done gigs where I can’t remember what happened, and I can’t explain why. It’s what can happen through music, and the other arts, and perhaps it’s what we’re all looking for in the experience of art, even when we don’t realise it. I’ve said before that music can be an amazing shortcut to the transcendent. It’s something about being in the moment – and I keep wanting to go back there.” (pp)Andrew McCormack’s Solo is released on Ubuntu Music on Friday 26 June, with a livestream launch on his Facebook page at 7.30pm.