“I think it’s really important that the audience can connect to the music”, declares London-based pianist Andrew McCormack. “I suppose there’s a danger of trying too hard to do that and it becomes a bit of a lowest common denominator game but a lot of the music I like has different entry levels and I’m interested in that. For example, Miles Davis, on, say, So What from Kind Of Blue – you could listen to again and again and again and again and find new things. There’s a lot going on. But on the surface level there’s an immediacy people can connect to. You need to include people in the journey and not frighten them.”
On his current, mainly self-composed, album Solo tracks such as Dream Catch, Crystal Glass and Shaper Maker are musically complex but by virtue of their melodic qualities and beauty they’re also readily accessible. Impressive also is how McCormack’s fabulous technique is always used to enhance the compositions. Never is there a sense of him merely showing off his chops.
“I’m flattered you think I’ve got a fabulous technique. I think I still have a lot of work to do on it! Technique should be there to serve the music but everything has its place and there’s a difference between playing in the studio and live. An album is more like an artistic statement but maybe on a gig I might pull out the chops a bit more. There is a joyfulness in hearing someone just ripping it!”
Most of the tracks for Solo were recorded in 2016. Thereafter McCormack focused on his band Graviton, releasing the albums Graviton and The Calling but last year he reappraised the solo tracks. “When you listen to old recordings they sound dated because you’ve moved on but I found with these that I was up to something on them. I was trying things and I had ideas so I did another session to round out the programme.”
The absence of stimulating interaction with other players inevitably makes any solo recording challenging. “You have to respond to what you’re playing yourself! There are moments you play something that perhaps you didn’t intend so the skill is to be able to use that as a stimulus rather than think ‘Oh my God, I’ve made a mistake’ and getting all upset and distracted. So that’s the solution to not having bandmates but, having said that, you can’t really replace the joy of sharing music with other people.”
McCormack explains the recording process: “Some [tracks] are more arranged than others but the thing about recording is that you’ll do a take and then listen to how it’s sounding as a recording and that might inform how you approach the following takes. On Weeds I was trying to go on a bit of a journey so there’s a section midway through where I settle into a little one-note vamp thing. The version you hear is the second or third take but I came up with that on the first take and settled into the idea.
“Improvising’s a very complicated process. The ideal is to just be in the moment but that’s not always the case. Sometimes you’re thinking ahead and sometimes you think ‘OK, I’m going to try this thing I’ve been working on’, which is dangerous because it might sound forced. So all kinds of things are going on.”
McCormack first came to prominence in 2006 when he won the BBC Jazz Rising Star Award, soon after the release of his debut album Telescope. “I’m a very different person now and my playing is definitely a lot more mature. In my mid-20s I was trying to figure out what the notes were – and I’m still trying to figure out what the notes are because that’s a lifetime quest – but now I’m also trying to find things beyond the notes. The shift of focus is to something deeper, to what I can actually say.”
In 2013 McCormack moved to New York for three years. “To spend time in New York is the jazz musician’s pilgrimage. I wanted to see it for myself and to meet and play with new musicians and just try and understand what it’s about.
‘There’s a lineage that you have to get to grips with if you want to have an authentic voice … So going to New York was about getting closer to the source’
“I had met [ex-Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers saxophonist] Jean Toussaint when I was a teenager which was a blessing because he showed me how to learn how to play jazz which was an aural tradition, transcribing solos and listening to recordings of master musicians. There’s a lineage that you have to get to grips with if you want to have an authentic voice. And Jean was my direct line to people like Art Blakey and the next person over to that is Charlie Parker. So going to New York was about getting closer to the source. Oh man, I heard loads of people [such as] Chick Corea, Roy Haynes and Ron Carter in the Blue Note. You learn so much watching how the guys who basically invented modern jazz do it.
“And being in New York was eye-opening about the time you need to dedicate to the music. The musicians over there just spent all day every day playing or listening or practising or going to gigs or jam sessions. It’s just an all-day, every day affair so that’s what I’m trying to do now, to fill my day with music as much as I physically can.”
McCormack’s performing career has of course been temporarily scuppered by the Covid-19 lockdown. “I’m making the most of it, practising and developing new music but it’s frustrating not to perform. A craftsman who builds chairs, say, has the satisfaction of something tangible at the end of it. Practising music you don’t have that. What makes it tangible is performing for people because you can share what you’ve discovered. That’s the thing I’m really missing.”