Live review

“Solo” by Andrew McCormack

Andrew McCormack – Solo
(Livestreamed album launch, 26 June 2020. Review by Rob Mallows)

Andrew McCormack

Screengrab from livestream

Lockdown has forced London’s music lovers to experience live music in a very odd way. But even with the limitations imposed by a live YouTube ‘gig’, pianist Andrew McCormack’s new solo piano album – appropriately titled Solo – shows his continued maturation as an artist.

Coming live from his home in Camberwell, McCormack and his upright piano played tunes from said album. There was an unusual intimacy for a gig. We were in his living room, looking at his drawn curtains. On a hot summer night, there was no air conditioning to aid the performer.

And no audience.

Those who were watching – and sadly, the average ‘audience’ was just 18 or so at any time – were given the best performance McCormack could give in such circumstances. 

The Vortex is intimate anyway – audiences of 35-50 for many shows. But it’s just not the same online, not least I imagine for the artist himself. “Likes” and applause emojis can be no substitute for live appreciation.

But, we all make the best of it, and draw what beauty we can from gigs coming through our screens and speakers. And what came through this gig – and on the album it portrayed – was contemporary jazz piano imbued with care and personality.

First track Prospect Park reflected McCormack’s former life in New York. Jaunty, with a slight ragtime feel to the opening, it provided an upbeat and summertime feel to kick things off, even though the curtains were closed. 

With the next – untitled – premiered composition, there was a lot going on – runs, gaps, shifts in gear… all the while the camera’s autofocus inexorably zooming marginally in and out (making for an annoying viewing experience).

Crystal Gloss has a sweet middle section which contains classical flourishes. While I was listening, my attention went to one side of the piano, to six or seven folders, replete no doubt with scores and scraps of musical ideas. It suggests McCormack’s been rather productive in this lockdown period. A positive sign for the future.

He then turned to Thelonius Monk – We See – and it was evident in his playing that McCormack cares a lot about Monk; he showed extreme care with his interpretation and the performance, well, each note was played with joy, even when playing just a single key with his lefthand. This track offered a super middle section with walking bass and train-on-the-track chords.

Nomad – the most ‘written’ piece on the album – pointed to the fact that a lot of the pieces on the new album are strong in improvisational, ‘in the moment’ playing. 

McCormack let go wonderful multi-octave runs and used a filigree light touch that brought to mind sand grains drifting inexorably down a desert dune. This tune went down a lot of pathways, and clearly benefited from the time spent on composition.

Weeds – not, he stressed, the chemical high, but rather a song about the negative thoughts that get in the way of daily life – was next up, but there was nothing negative about it, with some interesting chords in close proximity and a positive tone in contrast to the angst suggested in the title. The best bit was when McCormack put on the brakes, his left hand just doing its thing, his right hand exploring with abandon and an urgent spontaneity.

McCormack rarely if ever loses sight of the melody, and that was really important for keeping me engaged in both this show and the album. His trips of wild abandon are always exciting, but they are rarely, if ever, the goal. 

Prayer for Atonement was McCormack’s tribute to the ubiquitous George Floyd, with an appropriately melancholy opening, and clearly was played with personal feeling. His last track – Dream Catcher – was dedicated to Carl Jung and his interpretations of the manifestation of dreams. 

It’s hard to beat McCormack in ensemble mode – either as part of the Kyle Eastwood Quintet, or with his own compositions on recent smash Graviton. And sometimes it can feel as though solo piano albums rely on sating the listener with the preponderance of one sound, perhaps like offering a plate of mashed potato without meat or gravy or vegetables. 

But then, when the potatoes are as nourishing, and flavourful, as McCormack’s playing, it’s still a good meal.

LINK: John Fordham interview with Andrew McCormack

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