Fergus McCreadie: ‘I love playing folk as much as I love playing jazz’

    The Scottish pianist talks about his nature-inspired album and the wonderful effect of lethal viruses on practice

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    Fergus McCreadie. Photo by Dave Stapleton

    So devastating has been the damage wreaked by Covid-19 and so horrifying the death toll that it seems almost in bad taste to lament its impact on the career development of a jazz musician. But, still, one can’t help feeling sorry for young Scottish pianist Fergus McCreadie, whose music elegantly fuses jazz with folk and whose career was just taking off when his progress was stymied by the pandemic.

    “I’m not going to lie, the timing was very irritating,” he admits. “We’d just been signed to Edition Records and the gigs were really starting to pick up and then Covid hit and obviously then we had no gigs. That was frustrating.”

    McCreadie remained positive, however. “You have to make the most of things and I didn’t let it get me down. I thought, ‘Well, what are the things I’ve always wanted to do?’ One of them was hill-climbing which I [subsequently] did a lot. And one of them was to practise a lot which I hadn’t been able to do since I’d graduated from college and even in college I was gigging so much that I didn’t necessarily have the time. So I fell into practising as much as possible. Getting to work more on my playing was a blessing and now I’m happier with it than I’ve ever been.”

    The break from gigging also benefited McCreadie’s third album, Forest Floor, which he recorded, like his earlier albums, with David Bowden (bass) and Stephen Henderson (drums). “It had been so long since we’d played together because of the way the world was so it was nice to spend that week or two rehearsing and getting the stuff together.”

    All the compositions are McCreadie originals. “What was really nice was that I wrote all the tunes and then taught them to David and Steven by ear, in rehearsals. They learned the tunes with me so they became like our compositions rather than just mine. Maybe I’ll dictate the chord sequence or the structure or the tempo but even that can be flexible and a lot of the stuff they do, they come up with themselves. That’s nicer than me completely dictating what they do.”

    ‘I’ve played gigs with folk singers and fiddlers and really enjoyed them. In fact I’m always meaning to get more into that scene because I love playing it as much as I love playing jazz’

    The tunes were all inspired by nature. The opening track, for example, is Law Hill. “I grew up in this town called Dollar,” explains McCreadie. “Law Hill is a wee small hill right next to Dollar and it’s like a little mini-forest at the top. I would walk up there every night when I was younger and enjoy the view – sometimes it would be bright, sometimes it would be dusk and the lights would be pretty – and that fed into the melody.”

    McCreadie is clearly an outdoorsy sort of chap. “Definitely, yeah,” he says. “I spent so much of my childhood and teenage years going up those [local] hills I know them like the back of my hand. And I’ve started trying to do as many munros as possible. So, yeah, hill-walking and hiking I really like and that probably seeps into the music in some way.”

    The subtle interplay between McCreadie, Bowden and Henderson on the album is very satisfying. “The three of us really get each other,” reflects McCreadie. “We have similar goals in what we want music to be like and they’re always ready to spend time learning the tunes and they have such amazing feel. They’re incredible musicians and really good bandmates and I love playing live with them: because we have quite a large repertoire now, we walk on stage with pretty much no plan and just start improvising and at some point we’ll blend into a tune. So it’s a different set every night. There’s such deep communication and such a high level of trust that it’s really special to play with them.”

    Of his own improvising, McCreadie says: “On stage you try and empty your mind of what you’ve known before musically and just see what happens and try and find options you’ve not heard before. I’m thinking: ‘What can I do that’s different to last time?’ Or sometimes I’m thinking of nothing at all!”

    The influence of Scottish folk music on McCreadie’s composing and playing is obvious. “I love Scottish folk”, he declares, “and I’ve spent a lot of time practising jigs and reels on piano and hanging out with traditional musicians. I’m not necessarily quoting folk melodies but it’s such an ingrained part of my musical taste it comes out without me thinking about it. It’s such a happy music, in the right context, and very unpretentious. Watching a bunch of folkies in a bar in Glasgow jamming is just such a nice vibe.”

    Indeed McCreadie has sometimes played in a purely folk context. “Yeah, I’ve played gigs with folk singers and fiddlers and really enjoyed them. In fact I’m always meaning to get more into that scene because I love playing it as much as I love playing jazz.”

    Inevitably, McCreadie heard Scottish music long before he heard jazz. “I grew up listening to it. There was a pipe band in my home town I used to hear every morning when I was really wee, doing their morning practice.”

    In fact McCreadie took up the pipes himself, as a schoolboy. “I really liked the music and I thought it wouldn’t be possible to play that stuff on piano, so I thought: ‘Well, I’ll play the bagpipes.’ But I never quite made it to the competition pipe band [because] you had to be older. I’ve not played the pipes for eight or nine years now but they’re still sitting in my parents’ house. At some point I’ll return to it – maybe when I’m better at the piano!”

    McCreadie is uncomfortable with labelling music or claiming that one genre, be it jazz or folk, is superior to another. “At the end of the day you’ve just got to listen to what moves you and not think about genre or what you think is the ‘right’ music to listen to. If something sounds good, just listen to it. That’s the key.”

    Perhaps the folk roots of his music have contributed to the beautifully melodic quality of McCreadie’s playing. “When I did my first album [Turas, 2018] I thought: ‘A tune can’t be a tune unless it has a good melody.’ I still think melody is the most important thing but on this album I tried making tracks which weren’t necessarily just about the melody, like Landslide, which is groove-based. But whether it’s melodic or rhythmic or harmonic you need a strong hook. That’s what draws people into the music.”

    ‘Brad Mehldau is a remarkable player. What you aim for as a musician is sounding like yourself and he really sounds like himself whenever he plays’

    McCreadie has in the past cited Brad Mehldau, Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett as his key influences. “Brad Mehldau is a remarkable player. What you aim for as a musician is sounding like yourself and he really sounds like himself whenever he plays. And I just love Pat Metheny’s tunes. But more than anyone else Jarrett is, I don’t want to say my idol – I don’t want to idolise anyone too much – but I find really inspiring the way he approaches music and thinks of improvising and the way he shaped his playing personality over the years.”

    As a student at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland McCreadie encountered another influential figure, saxophonist and head of jazz Tommy Smith. “He was never my one-on-one teacher but he took composing and playing classes and he was great. A lot of the things he said were quite simple, like ‘You need to practise this scale,’ or whatever but you would go away and do it and it would open up a lot more possibilities for you.”

    McCreadie won a 2019 Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Album for Turas. “That was a massive shock,” he says. “I really didn’t expect it. With every award you have to take it with a pinch of salt, you can’t let it mess around with your head, but it was a validation that what we were doing in the trio was meaning something.”

    Cairn followed Turas in 2021 and was widely acclaimed but McCreadie believes that Forest Floor is the trio’s best work to date. “Our playing as a trio is stronger and I think with each album I get better writing the tunes with the jazz and folk influences melding so you can’t see where they’ve been sewn together. And this album feels the most natural. I didn’t think about it as much as the other two albums and I think that made a big difference.

    Cairn sold out,” he adds, “so if this album sells out too that will be great but as long as people like the music and find something that moves them, I’ll be happy. That’s the most important thing.”