The Matt Carmichael Quintet at eastPLUGGED, Ratingen

The folk-inspired Scottish group let strong melodies and dramatic landscapes guide their performance in north-west Germany

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Matt Carmichael in concert in Ratingen, Germany. Photo © kh krauskopf

After a long drought, heavy rain raised a stony scent that wafted through wide-open windows at the Friedenskirche in Ratingen on 9 September. Inside the church, the smell mingled with the aroma of malt whisky. Each of the 220 audience members received a welcoming dram before the concert by Scottish tenor saxophonist Matt Carmichael and his quintet.

The whisky was distilled in 2013, at around the same time the musicians first met. Now in their early 20s, they have a distinctive sound that mixes contemporary jazz with impulses from the Scottish folk tradition. The concert in Ratingen featured Carmichael with Fergus McCreadie (piano), Ali Watson (double bass), Tom Potter (drums) and Charlie Stewart (fiddle). They produced a breathtakingly lyrical and expressive display of improvised music-making.

From the first notes played, Carmichael’s saxophone voice surged into every molecule of the modern red-brick hall like a holy electric charge. His rubato opening to Marram, the title track from his upcoming album, thundered in the low register. Cymbals sizzled like breaking waves. Stewart crept in and borrowed the melody, adding structure to the hazy sense of time. Then Carmichael took the tune back, high-pitched notes soaring up to the high, pitched roof.

Each tune melted into the next until Carmichael simply gave up announcing titles. “There was no setlist,” he said. “We just decided in the moment what felt right to play. Somebody would play a hint of a tune and we’d segue into it, improvising in the folk style around strong melodic content. Some of those melodies just came up in the gig. They weren’t written.”

That spirit of collective spontaneity was expressed through the melodic turn-taking and intertwining of instruments. Long solos were rare. The musicians stuck together, exploring tunes cheek by jowl. A dreamy atmosphere unfolded on stage and off stage. “I find it easy to transport myself away and be emotive when I play,” Carmichael said. “And I want my saxophone sound to comfort people, like a human voice.”

Carmichael’s compositions blend that humanity with his deep reverence for Scotland’s coastal landscapes. The dark hues on There Will Be Better Days recalled the dramatic, eternal tussle between land and sea. “Folk music naturally references landscape,” he said.

At some point during the concert, the rain stopped and the whisky ran out. Nobody noticed. All 440 eyes and ears were captivated by the gut-wrenching, spine-tingling sentiments radiating from the stage. Matt Carmichael has the power to break and lift hearts with every phrase. His quintet’s youthful Scottish blend is sweet, rich and perfectly balanced.

Marram will be released by Edition Records on 28 October.