Pianist Andrew McCormack has established a reputation as one of the finest musicians of his generation. Leading a number of projects under his own name including solo piano performances, his Trio with Joe Downard and Rod Youngs, and his Prog-Jazz group Graviton, McCormack brings an exciting sense of adventure to his music.
Spending three years in New York he honed his skills immersing himself in bebop and the roots of the music. He has also forged an international reputation over the last decade as a member of the Kyle Eastwood Band.
More recently an enforced period away from playing live due to the pandemic found McCormack using the time writing new music for the Trio which he has presented in the album Terra Firma released on Ubuntu Music, and it was here we began our recent conversation about his recent activities and new projects.
The new album Terra Firma feels very much like coming round in a full circle from your debut album. What prompted you to record with a trio again?
I’ve been working on my piano playing much more lately (especially during the lockdowns) and the trio is naturally more piano focussed as a lead instrument.
In contrast to the Graviton band, although a lot of fun to write for and play, it’s expensive to take on the road with limited opportunities but also, I’m interested in the improvising and interaction that the piano trio gives me and the audience. Graviton is somehow musically less free because of the complex forms being used.
Much of the music was written over an intensive period of time during 2020/21. Can you tell us a bit about this time spent composing?
It seems like a distant dream now but faced with lockdown, I wanted to make the most of my time at home. It’s difficult to have a regular life as a freelance musician and you can’t rely on energy levels being the same every day as you’re often travelling to such and such a place one day, travelling back the next. During lockdown I was able to structure my week reliably for the first time since I was a student! Waking at 6am and working until 6pm everyday on my music. I worked on and learnt some new skills in that time too, recording and mixing as well as composing for TV/film. But the bulk of what became Terra Firma was developed in this time and ready to be recorded in early 2022.
The compositions are very much time bound alluding to recent events that occurred during the period of enforced isolation. Perhaps you can tell us about these pieces, and your thoughts behind the music?
‘Prayer for Atonement’ was written as a direct response to the George Floyd killing. It’s not as though I haven’t been aware of some of the systematic imbalances for racial background but the shock at that video was unbelievably powerful.
How a human could be treated so inhumanely. It was a distressing time amongst my friends and colleagues in the jazz world as the racial tensions under the surface came up to the fore in sometimes very ugly ways.
‘Prayer for Atonement’ meditates on how the crimes of the past still echo with us today and perhaps naively, I hope one day those crimes can be reconciled.
In a different sphere today, we now have the ongoing situation in Ukraine. Something we still have yet to see pan out but will certainly create bad blood for generations to come.
‘Fake News’, unfortunately a Trump-ism, affects all of us no matter who you are. The algorithms of the internet mean that the more click ability, the more widespread the information.
The truth is not something that goes viral, it’s something to be upheld and protected. We must be very careful in the decisions we make even when we have reliable information so to have that under threat is very serious.
‘Cherry Blossom’ is from a more optimistic moment. It was after the darkest winter of the pandemic, the NHS was at breaking point, the highest daily death counts so far. But we good news that the vaccine started to roll out at rapid pace.
As spring arrived and the Cherry Blossoms started to bloom, normal life seemed to be on the horizon.
As well as your original compositions, you have also chosen to play several pieces by other composers such as ‘Work’ by Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker’s ‘Confirmation’. What prompted you to add these tunes in among your own pieces?
Around 2013, I spent three years living in New York to develop my craft and one of the many things you become aware of is that legacy of Be Bop. Culturally it’s in the roots of modern jazz and I don’t want to lose sight of that. It’s funny because lately I do seem to always include some Monk on my recordings (Solo, First Light)
Having said that, I think it’s our job to develop that language, so ‘Confirmation’ on this record is also an exercise in more contrapuntal improvisation. Bach and bebop have a lot in common and there’s plenty to explore.
One left field selection, and most welcome, is a version of Sting’s ‘Fragile’. What were the thoughts behind including this lovely composition?
One of the ways jazz musicians can give their audience a way into what they’re doing is by using repertoire that people are already familiar with. Playing American Songbook standards is an obvious example, but I’ve always loved this song as it has something really special about it.
This song actually works very well as a vehicle for improvisation, and I wonder if it’s something about the way Sting writes music, he’s always had jazz musicians in his bands, perhaps there’s already quite a bit of overlap.
While you have been playing with drummer Rod Youngs for many years, this trio with Rod and Joe Downard on bass is relatively new. How did you come to meet and play with Joe, and what made him such an obvious choice for you trio?
One of the wonderful things about jazz is the intergenerational band line-ups you get. As you mention, Rod and I go back quite a long way, even before I had any ambitions to lead my own projects and he even helped me learn a few things about playing in a rhythm section in my time with Denys Baptiste and Gary Crosby.
Joe is part of a new generation of forward-thinking players rooted in the jazz canon which I’ve always seen myself as a part of.
He also lives just around the corner from me in Camberwell, which reminds me of my happy days living in Brooklyn surrounded by loads of musicians!
With the release of the new album, I guess that the emphasis for the immediate future will be focussing on the trio however you also have several other long-term projects under your own name. Firstly, there is your solo piano playing that was so eloquently captured on your album Solo. Do you have plans to continue to develop your solo performances further?
I do relish the challenge of performing solo, I just played a solo set at Bath Jazz Weekend and I will be at the Maltings in Berwick Upon Tweed in March. There’s a special focus needed and in concert it’s really interesting to explore different avenues until you stumble upon something, and you can feel the room change. It’s hard to describe but I want to learn how to do that better!
I also have been committing to weekly uploads on YouTube which are mostly solo performances. So far this year, I’ve had offers for both solo and trio shows so they seem to co-exist nicely.
There is also your prog-jazz ensemble Graviton that has released two acclaimed albums, and a very different musical world. As gigs hopefully resume do you feel that there will be the time and space in your current schedule to write new music for the band to perform and record?
I’m very fond of that band and the music but as I alluded to earlier, it’s difficult to tour live. I wonder if it needs to remain more of a recording project for now. it’s not over, just sleeping.
You have also enjoyed a long-term association as a duo with saxophonist Jason Yarde. We were all devastated to hear of Jason’s recent health issues. The music you produced was remarkably intuitive and deeply moving, and this sad news must have come as a terrible shock to you, as it did to all of us. How did you first meet Jason and begin this wonderful musical partnership?
It was very grim news, and I was shocked and really saddened when I found out.
He had had a bit of a rough patch lately and was so delighted to see him out in Italy for my wedding in the summer of 2022. We enjoyed a cool beer after an intense volleyball match (Italians can be very competitive!) and we had been talking about new recording ideas which I think we would have been ready to do but will have to hold for the time being.
When he suffered the stroke, he was performing on stage and luckily there were doctors in the crowd. They were able to attend to him immediately so we’re hoping he can make a full recovery in time and there will be more music to come. Jason is a workaholic so I hope he will take the time to rest.
Going forward, is there a master plan in the back of your mind? Do you find yourself thinking that you might like to take your music in one particular direction for a while or do you enjoy having the option of multiple projects on the go at any one time?
I have so many interests. One of my addictions is composing for orchestra which has led to actual commissions for the London Symphony Orchestra (Incentive 2010) and I even lent my hand to one of the arrangements on the new Kyle Eastwood Symphonic album coming out later this year. But my productivity is patchy in this area, it would be good if I could be more consistent.
But for now the focus is on Trio and solo but there’s possibly some concerts later in the year with Denys Baptiste as special guest so keep your eyes peeled for that!
A GoFundMe campaign has been set up to help Jason while he recovers from his stroke and for his rehabilitation. For more information or to donate to the fund raiser visit the campaign page here.