Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Exciting and Inviting Piano Trios

Photo: Dave Stapleton
Pianist Fergus McCreadie, a native of Scotland and resident of Glasgow, is one of the bright young stars of the European jazz scene.  At 22, he's already garnered a slew of awards –– in 2019, his self-released debut album, "Turas", was named "Album of the Year" at the Parliamentary and Scottish Jazz Awards. In 2020,  was named "Best Instrumentalist" at the Scottish Jazz Awards.  In 2015, the pianist and composer recruited bassist David Bowden and drummer Stephen Henderson; they have developed into a delightful interactive trio (watch the video below). McCreadie is also a member of drummer Graham Costello's STRATA and has recorded a duo album with vocalist Luca Manning.   

In 2020, the pianist signed with Edition Records and just issued his first album for the label (second overall).  "Cairn", named for a mound of rough stones usually seen on hilltops (especially in Scotland), features nine new original pieces by the pianist. Opening with the trance-like "North", the music pulls the listener in on the strength of the melodies, the emotional richness, and the splendid musicianship.  The trio seems to breathe as one, no one musician hogs the solo space, and you can tell they listen closely to each.  Whereas the debut album came together in the studio, this time the ensemble had the luxury of playing this music on numerous gigs. The title track ups the tempo but yet it's the rich melody that really stands out.  McCreadie's delightful solo brings Bruce Hornsby to mind while the fire of the rhythm section adds considerable power to the mid-section of the song.    

Photo: Dave Stapleton
Pay close attention to the fine playing of both Bowden and Henderson.  The bassist, who leads the jazz-fusion sextet Meczla, is a strong, foundational, musician as well as a melodic soloist.  Henderson is a member of Bowden's other ensemble Square One and is a powerful drummer yet also has a subtle side.  Listen to his hand-drumming on the intro to "Across Flatlands" and again on "Tree Climbing". The latter tune has the feel of the music from "Riverdance" at the outset but as the bassist gets into his solo, the music builds on the piano chords –– McCreadie's solo starts quietly but builds to an energetic, powerful, climax, egged on by the drummer's percussive barrage.  Not surprising that "Jig" has a similar feel. This tune starts in high gear but listen to how the piece develops. Reminiscent of McCoy Tyner in his Blue Note period, the music swings, twists and turns, sparks flying among the musicians. Henderson gets a spotlight near the close of the piece that dances with glee in the manner that Eric Harland's solos often do.   

Photo: Dave Stapleton
There is also power in the lyricism of pieces such as "Tide" and "An Old Friend".  The former track should remind the listener of standing by the ocean on a days when are climbing up the sand.  One can feel the tidal pull in the flow of the pianist's left hand while the cymbal splashes suggest the crashing whitecaps.  There's a trace of Randy Newman in the opening moments "...Friend" in both the gentle chords that lead in the simple yet emotional melody. As the piece progresses forward on the piano chords and melody, the bassist and drummer enter quietly (soft brushes work) and Bowden creates a rich emotional and melodic solo.  The music does reach a powerful climax but goes out on the gentle feel of the opening.

"Cairn" closes on "Cliffside", the bassist joining with the piano chords to play the melody over the shimmering and insistent piano chords.  Those chords never let up even during the piano, pushing the rhythm section to build the intensity until McCreadie's right hand is flying over the keys.  Technically virtuosic? Yes.  Emotionally satisfying?  Absolutely!  Fergus McCreadie, David Bowden, and Stephen Henderson have created a striking and highly fascinating album that will resonate in your heart and mind long after the last notes fade.  

For more information and to purchase the album, go to https://fergusmccreadie.bandcamp.com/album/cairn.  To learn more about the pianist and his rhythm section, go to www.fergusmccreadie.co.uk

Here's the title track:

Pianist and composer Yoko Miwa moved to the United States from her native Japan in 1997 to attend Berklee College of Music.  Though she only intended to stay for one year, Ms. Miwa stayed and is an active member of the Boston jazz scene and on the faculty of her alma mater.  She has issued eight recordings as a leader either in a trio or quartet setting and all with her husband Scott Goulding on drums.  Bassist Will Slater makes his first appearance on 2012's "Act Naturally" album and remains with the Trio to this day, occasionally spelled by Brad Barrett.  

After the pandemic stopped the Trio last March, Ms. Miwa had to cancel her April 2020 recording session.  Not only that but also her father died of complications from Alzheimer's Disease. The studio reopened in July, the pianist set the dates with the Trio and results can be heard on her ninth album, "Songs of Joy" (Ubuntu Music).  Kicking off with a powerful version of Richie Havens' "Freedom", one can hear how much the musicians needed to be back in the studio as well as how much Ms. Miwa was celebrating life in the face of tragedy. The influence of McCoy Tyner can be heard in the thundering piano chords and how her solo rolls forward (her left hand is relentless) –– Goulding takes a short solo before the musicians return to the powerful reading of the melody.  The pianist learned the title track from vocalist Sheila Jordan.  Composed by Billy Preston, one can hear the influence of blues and gospel on the melody lines and Ms. Miwa's splendid solo. Her two-handed explorations throughout the performance raises the level of intensity.

Photo: Chris Lee
The 11-song program includes five originals and six covers. Among the former group is "The Lonely Hours"; dedicated to the pianist's father, it's her response to not being able to be there in his final days (in the early weeks of the pandemic, international travel was very limited as was access to the hospitals and hospices). One can hear Ms. Miwa's classical training in the composition yet the music blurs the lines between genres.  Check out her "Largo Desolato" below.  While the title refers to "a slow, solitary, grand phrase", this music rises from a blues-soaked bass line into a powerful performance (you might catch a "grand phrase" at the onset of the piano solo but, mostly, this song swings).  "Small Talk" really swings. The bounce in the piano playing has a strong hint of Harold Mabern and dig how Ms. Miwa plumbs the lower notes of the keyboard throughout. The lovely intro to "Inside a Dream" reflects the influence of Bill Evans as does the flow of the music (note how Slater plays in unison with the pianist plus his fine solo and counterpoint).

The final two tracks on the album are "Tony's Blues" and "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You".  The former, composed by former Berklee colleague Tony Germain, is another display of the pianist's deep understanding of the blues/ r'n'b styles of Bobby Timmons and the afore-mentioned Mabern.  Most people recognize the latter track as a Led Zeppelin track (off their debut album).  Composed by American folk singer Anne Bredon and made famous in the early 1960s by Joan Baez, the Trio's version here (augmented by the bowed bass of Brad Barrett on his only appearance) captures the longing in the song. Ms. Miwa's insistent piano work really pushes the music forward.  

"Songs of Joy" is notable for many reasons.  The strong material, the powerful piano work, the solid yet fluid rhythm section, and the fact that the music is so positive. Yes, there are "blues" songs and the leader does create a musical response to the passing of her father but the overall emotion one gets while listening is joy.  The joy of performance, of camaraderie, and doing what you are meant to do –– bring pleasure to the listener.  Yoko Miwa does that and more, making one so glad to be in the presence of these fine musicians! 

For more information, go to www.yokomiwa.com.  Check out her interview with Jason Crane on "The Jazz Session" by going to the top right of this post. 

Hear "Largo Desolato":

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