Fergus McCreadie is Scottish music’s man of the moment, no question about it.
By Barry Didcock for The Herald
That moment reaches a climax of sorts on Tuesday when the 25-year-old pianist and his jazz trio perform at the prestigious Mercury Prize ceremony – he’s nominated for the 2022 album Forest Floor – and it continues with his appearance two days later at the Jazz FM Awards. He features in two categories there and is joined on the list by another Scot, Edinburgh-based jazz vocalist Georgia Cécile. On the same night, 400 miles to the north, Forest Floor is in the running for the Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award. This year’s event takes place in Stirling, close to McCreadie’s family home in Clackmannanshire.
He faces stiff competition for the Mercury Prize. Harry Styles, Sam Fender, Little Simz, and Wet Leg are among his fellow nominees. But it’s not improbable that he wakes on Friday with three new awards for the mantlepiece of his Dennistoun flat, the Mercury among them. So yes, it’s fair to say he is Scottish music’s man of the moment.
Right now he’s in Mono, the bar-cum-venue-cum record shop off Glasgow’s King Street, where he sits unrecognised, sipping an orange juice and conjuring a response to the question: How did he feel when he heard about the nomination and how does he feel about the wider chorus of critical acclaim which has come his way?
“The boring answer is very happy, as you would expect. I was sitting practising and I got a call from my label manager. He said you’ve been nominated for the Mercury Prize, in quite a dry tone of voice.” But, he adds, “I don’t want to let it feel like I’ve made it. I haven’t. It’s one stepping stone on the journey, isn’t it? So I try and not to think about it too much”
In the world of rock and pop, the album-as-cultural-artifact idea continues to hold sway. It’s one reason there are still prizes like the Mercury and the SAY Awards. But for McCreadie, as for most jazz musicians, the long player has a less exalted place in their sense of who they are as musicians. The important crucible is the live space. It’s the performing that matters.
“I think the albums are necessary from a business perspective,” he says. “You need something to sell and something at gigs that people can remember you by other than just your name and the memory they have. But jazz albums take so little time to actually make, to be honest. It takes three days, maybe, to get an entire album finished.”
Contrast that with, say, Harry Styles. His album, Harry’s House, was recorded over two years, employed three producers, 12 co-writers, and four studios on two continents, and was the foundation for a world tour that saw him perform to 50,000 people at Glasgow’s Ibrox Park in June.
“Pop artists will spend months and months in the studio and there’s much more of a cycle where they’ll do a period of recording and period of touring, whereas for us it’s one little snapshot. In six months of gigging there’ll be maybe one, two, three days of recording. John Coltrane said it nicely when he described his own albums as like chapters in a diary of a book that was never finished. That’s a nice way of thinking about it. You’re constantly capturing little snapshots of your playing. But your album’s never going to be fully your vision, whereas [playing] live is the more essential jazz experience, for definite.”
He still cites those artists as influences. But to that personal canon, he adds cultural and geographical specificity in the form of musical flavours drawn from Scottish traditional music, and inspiration taken from elemental aspects of the Scottish landscape. Forest Floor, for example, was inspired partly by forest walks he made during a lockdown spent at his parents’ home. And so as his glittering, often improvised piano runs float above David Bowden’s double bass and Stephen Henderson’s drums, there are moments of earwormery in the form of lilting melodies inspired by traditional Scots music.
Is he trying to create a vernacular which will blend those two forms into something entirely new? Yes and no, he says.
“You’re just trying to create the music that feels most natural to you, to play and write. For that me, since my late teens, that has always been this folk and jazz combination. That all comes in, I think. But I’d say it’s not striving for that particular sound necessarily, it’s trying to strive for that sound that’s in my head.”
McCreadie met Bowden and Henderson in his first week as a student at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) in 2016 when he was drafted in to form a rhythm section with them. They were in their final year. No pressure, then. Making matters worse, the makeshift trio was to accompany Bob Mintzer, saxophonist with Grammy Award-winning fusion band Yellowjackets, who was running a masterclass and performing in a lunchtime concert. “For me, that was a very scary and intimidating experience,” says McCreadie. It was also one which proved pivotal: he had found the other two members of his trio.
His own journey to RCS began with piano lessons when he was seven. But the way he tells it he was no pint-sized prodigy.
“It took a long time before I realised that was what I wanted to do. I always did like to play but I always assumed – and I think a huge amount of people assume this when they start playing an instrument – that I didn’t have ‘it’, the thing. The gift, so to speak. But I don’t think that’s real. It doesn’t exist. It’s just hard work and practice, and I never knew that.”
It took being at a Fife Summer Jazz School and being told that every teacher there had done tens of thousands of hours of practice before he realised. “That,” he says, “was the lightbulb moment.”
Away from the trio, McCreadie plays as part of STRATA, the band formed around another young Glasgow jazz luminary, drummer Graham Costello. Joining him in STRATA is Dumfries-born Liam Shortall, whose own band Corto.alto blends jazz and hip-hop. Nimbus Sextet, another young Scottish jazz band, recently signed to the storied label Acid Jazz and McCreadie’s own label, Edition Records, is home to artists such as The Bad Plus, Denys Baptiste, and fellow pianist Jason Rebello.
Is there something in the water in Glasgow at the moment to be causing this upsurge of jazz talent? There is something but it’s not in the water. It’s on Renfrew Street. McCreadie’s theory is that the Conservatoire is acting as a sort of incubator, which in turn boosts the writing of tunes, the creation of bands, and the mounting of gigs at which those bands perform. In turn, that scene draws in musicians from beyond the Conservatoire, and the whole thing snowballs.
So far, so good. But although Glasgow is a UNESCO City of Music, it’s the rock, indie, and dance scenes that tend to take the space – literally. On top of that, Glasgow’s dedicated jazz venue, the Blue Arrow, has just closed.
“We’re missing something,” he admits. “Imagine if Scotland had a Ronnie Scott’s or a Birdland or a Blue Note. The Jazz Bar [in Edinburgh] and the Blue Lamp [Aberdeen] are great, but I think Glasgow especially is really missing a regular club where you can regularly play, and more of a regular circuit. There’s a really good vibe around the scene, there’s incredible musicians, and great audiences. There’s all the ingredients – just not the pot to put them in.”
That said, Scotland’s future as a nursery for talented jazz musicians looks safe. And with Fergus McCreadie at its fore, it’s in very capable hands.