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Fergus McCreadie interview: “Jazz is kind of a folk music in itself”

Part of the explosion of new talent coming out of Scotland right now, 2022 Mercury Prize nominee Fergus McCreadie’s alchemical touch effortlessly connects jazz to folk

By Hugh Morris for Jazzwise Magazine

 

The first time Fergus McCreadie made the jazz world sit up and take note was in 2018. Watching back footage of the pianist blasting through two characterful originals at the final of the BBC Young Jazz Musician competition it’s easy to see why.

Though saxophonist Xhosa Cole would take the crown on the night, McCreadie’s card was marked: as a technically solid player, but, more interestingly, also as a young man patiently constructing a distinct musical identity.

“The best musicians are the ones you listen to, and you can tell it’s them without needing to see it written down,” he tells me during a long Zoom session on a quiet Monday afternoon.

McCreadie arranges his tastes around his penchant for individuality. For Bach, it’s Glenn Gould over Andras Schiff; for Chopin, it’s Martha Argerich over Murray Perahia; a host of jazz piano’s one-of-a-kinds – Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner – get the nod over the cooler protectors of the flame.

That’s not to say McCreadie is comparably showy. His sound is studied and scalic; when seated at the piano, he’s relaxed but unmoving, like he’s done it a million times before. In corto.alto, the nu-jazz group led by trombonist Liam Shortall, McCreadie has developed a knack for delivering face-melting keys solos with a distinctly stony expression.

Some visual quirks raise a smile, though. McCreadie’s instinctive mid-phrase attempts at a thousand-yard stare are thwarted by his thick fringe, that flops down over his eyes and momentarily shuts him off from this world.

That happened a few times in the BBC performance and was still happening during his lockdown piano shows – channelling Jarrett in hours of extended improvisations on his bedroom Nord, broadcast via Facebook.

And though the hair has mostly stayed the same – it’s tied back in a bun nowadays – the past four years have been about incremental development of a musical idea that’s been in gestation since his school days.

The central principle can be summed up surprisingly succinctly: approaching the sound of folk from the perspective of jazz. Explorations of that seam began on Turas, his self-released debut packed with reels that fall out like nimble études, and continued with the melancholic landscapes of Cairn.

We’re speaking following his latest release, Forest Floor, an album that topped the UK’s Official Top 40 Jazz Charts. McCreadie’s signature to Edition Records for Cairn coincided unluckily with the pandemic – it made sense then to follow it up with a similarly outdoorsy album. The result is two albums that flow naturally into one another. It’s as if he’d been planning a double album all along.

McCreadie’s own ‘turas’ (Scots Gaelic for ‘journey’) began with a clapped-out piano his parents paid £20 to have moved into their house – a semi in Dollar, Clackmannanshire (population: 2,800). “The piano is completely destroyed now,” McCreadie says. “I think they just chucked it in the tip, unfortunately.”

Unlike lots of pianists, McCreadie was decidedly unattached to his first piano, mostly because most of his early practice was done in his room, headphones plugged in, on an electric Yamaha. Why ditch the instrument downstairs? A grumpy neighbour started regularly complaining after McCreadie, initially a reluctant pianist, discovered jazz aged 12 and wanted to play and play and play.

“What we should have done as a family was just carry on. I don’t think there was anything wrong, I wasn’t being anti-social or anything like that. But I think the easy solution was to get a keyboard, plug the headphones in, and totally be in my own zone. I could play all day, every day if I wanted to.”

That politeness had consequences later on. Enrolling on the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s jazz course, McCreadie describes the slightly mortifying moment of turning up to a lesson with a classical teacher, and being instructed to play the first chord of Beethoven’s ‘Opus 10. No. 1’ for almost an entire lesson, until he relieved the tension in his hands.

“When you’re a jazz musician, you have all the ideas in your head, and the problem is getting them out into the instrument. Most of the time, you can get the harmonies down, but you can almost always improve the technique,” McCreadie says of his regime of études, exercises and ‘lines’.

RCS also introduced McCreadie to the musicians who would form his long-established trio – bassist David Bowden and drummer Stephen Henderson. Their assembly was fortuitous, thrown together at the last minute for a gig accompanying Bob Mintzer during McCreadie’s first week. “Bob came, played the gig and left in that cool American vibe, but I remember playing with David and Steven and being like ‘wow, this feels like properly good’.”

“It feels like we’re one person sometimes,” McCreadie says of how the trio’s vibe has developed. “We trust each other more, and there’s a safer space to experiment and do interesting things. I don’t think any of us consciously veer in one direction. It just kind of goes where it needs to go.”

Having an established ‘home port’ for this is crucial though, and with broadly functional harmonies, melody driven charts and an embrace of rhythmic vitality, McCreadie’s principles immediately invite comparisons with the most exciting piano trios of the last twenty years (e.s.t., Phronesis and Tigran Hamasyan spring to mind). Though McCreadie wasn’t a child of Scotland’s folk sessions – he attended later in Glasgow, “just to listen” – there’s a rootsy source for those values: the bagpipes, which he took up at school.

“I wasn’t good, I definitely wasn’t good in any capacity. I was bad actually, actively bad… But some of my favourite albums are just pipe tunes over a drone and nothing else.”

Like most kids, he inherited his family’s tastes: Scottish folk, English folk, country: all notably acoustic musics.

So, no fusion? No Capercaillie, Runrig, Big Country?

“I’m not a traditionalist – I like the whole spectrum. But I find myself going back to the really simple, traditional stuff,” McCreadie says, name-checking fiddle player Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh and uilleann piper Mick O’Brien. ‘Trad’ principles also helped construct Forest Floor, as McCreadie ditched the written charts and taught the compositions by ear.

“I think in jazz nowadays, you go to a rehearsal to play a gig, you get given a chart and you play the chart, it’s closer to classical music in a way, because you’re expected to play a certain way, you’re given a specific structure to follow. I don’t think that’s the way jazz has always been – in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, they were taught by ear as well. I mean, when you think about it, jazz is kind of a folk music in itself. It has a lot of the characteristics, and it’s grown up in a lot of the same ways.”

From the ear training, McCreadie’s trio expands the forms into longer, all-encompassing improvisations. It’s at this point that we start to dissect Jarrett – we are speaking the day after his 77th birthday, and his influence continues to loom over McCreadie.

“I don’t want to be known as a Jarrett rip-off, but nobody’s inspired me more than him,” he says. After not clicking with the famed Köln Concert and feeling similarly about a live trio recording (“the singing put me off”), McCreadie found what he was looking for in the Vienna concert from 1992. “He has this thing about approaching improvising with a completely blank slate, imagining going on stage and not really knowing how to play piano. Going zero to zero, starting from nothing and ending at nothing.”

McCreadie calls from his flat in Glasgow, where he’s part of a loud outburst of hip Scottish jazz. Whether it will catch on as much as the London-focused ‘UK Jazz Explosion’ of the past decade is anybody’s guess, but the important people are certainly taking notice: McCreadie is among a strong Scottish contingent on the bill of this summer’s Love Supreme Festival.

And, despite drawing from a smaller pool of musicians, the sounds coming out of Glasgow are less communal melting pot and more tasting menu: of distinct flavours, served separately.

Alongside McCreadie (folky), there’s corto.alto (heavy), Graham Costello’s STRATA (minimal), Georgia Cécile (intriguing), Matt Carmichael (thoughtful), Rebecca Vasmant (dreamy), plus a generation of players who laid the foundations for current successes – like Tommy Smith and Brian Kellock’s heavy swinging collaborations with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, or Colin Steele, the trumpeter whose celebrated album Twilight Dreams led to a short period on ACT. (“By no way am I the first person to do that folk jazz stuff,” McCreadie acknowledges. “He was the original in a lot of ways.”)

I interviewed Shortall recently, who sagely puts Glasgow’s burgeoning reputation as a mecca for artists down to the age-old factor of cheap rent. Is there more to it than that?

“There’s not a pressure from above to sound a certain way,” McCreadie replies.

“There’s an epidemic of musicians who say the music should be this way. But surely the point of jazz is that it can be anything? If someone was like, ‘that’s not jazz’, in Glasgow, a city of really nice people, it would be like social suicide. In London, the reason that a lot of similar stuff is coming out now is that people have seen these musicians being successful, and think ‘that’s what I have to do’. There’s not a formula for how to be successful in Scotland, and I’m hopeful it stays that way.”

McCreadie is rooted in the Glasgow scene, and in Scottish identity. On Forest Floor, he borrows ‘The Unfurrowed Field’ from Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s ‘Sunset Song’, a celebrated Scots text that depicts rural communities coming to terms with mechanisation.

Emotionally, Forest Floor circles around a kind of pastoral melancholy of ridges, glades and hills, and our conversation frequently returns to talk of all things natural, pure and organic, a kind of unspoilt world that can only really exist in the imagination. It’s a far cry from Ewan McGregor’s Renton dunking his whole body into an overflowing public toilet in Trainspotting.

Does McCreadie see the politics in the unblemished, if pensive, sceneries he creates? It’s a complicated one.

“My mum is very strongly left wing, and I think I am that way too, but I see my music as completely not political at all. I think a lot of the best music is very political, and there are so many things going on in the world that I’m constantly angry at. But for me, making music is not the space for that.”

If there’s little room for that anger in his music – what causes his frustration? “When people only care for their own. And relating that back to music, it’s so easy to make playing an instrument about yourself. Often that’s inevitable, when I’m practicing, to try and better myself. But I’d hope that when I’m playing a gig, it’s not just making me happy.”

McCreadie offers a sanctuary then, for listeners and performers alike. And realistically, who cares if that’s real or imaginary – it works just as well either way.