Michael Chapman R.I.P.
Michael Chapman, who has died aged eighty, didn’t quite make it to the age at which he said he might consider retirement. Andres Segovia, the great Spanish guitar virtuoso, had given his final performance aged ninety-four in 1987 (Segovia had also been due to give a concert in just a few days’ time when he died). Michael thought this was a good example to follow.
He had enjoyed a second career over the past twenty years, being feted by alt-rock firebrands Sonic Youth and younger players such as American primitive guitarist Jack Rose and the No Neck Blues Band, after thinking it was all over following a heart attack in 1990. There was even a compilation album, Oh Michael Look What You’ve Done, featuring musicians including Lucinda Williams, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Michael’s long-time friend Bridget St John and his sometime neighbours on the English-Scottish border, Maddy Prior and Rick Kemp singing and playing favourite songs and instrumentals from his forty-strong album catalogue.
This must have come as a surprise to the man who once told the Herald that his songs were too miserable for people to cover. Mind you, he also told a story about being at a festival when his wife, Andru said, “Listen. That’s one of yours.” Michael claimed to have no recollection of writing or recording the song in question but this might just have been mischief because it was on his first album, the startling Rainmaker, and still in his repertoire into the 2010s.
Michael Chapman was born and grew up in the Leeds inner-city area of Hunslet. His father worked in a steelyard and Michael was expected to follow suit. The arrival of Lonnie Donegan playing American folk and blues songs in the skiffle era and Michael’s discovery of blues pickers including Big Bill Broonzy and jazz players Django Reinhardt and, later, Wes Montgomery put an end to that idea. His parents were not at all pleased.
Through his later teens and during his studies to become a photography lecturer Michael was playing in pubs and clubs around Yorkshire. While at art college he took a summer job as a woodsman, finding inspiration for songs such as Among the Trees and In the Valley and subsequently, a book of recollections. His lecturing days didn’t last long and he made his way to Cornwall, where guitarists including the then Ralph May (now better known as Ralph McTell) were drawing audiences to local folk clubs.
Short of cash and seeking shelter from the rain, one night Michael offered to play instead of paying to get into a club. Word of his talent then began to spread on the Cornish scene then further afield. If his singing hadn’t quite found its world-weary character, his guitar playing, as documented on the retrospectively released Growing Pains, was already at the standard where people might gawp at the stage and remark, “Jeez, there’s only one of them.”
In 1969 EMI Records launched the Harvest label to capture the underground and progressive rock music that was popular on the fertile college circuit and on radio programmes such as John Peel’s Top Gear. Michael’s debut, Rainmaker appeared with releases by Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Cream lyricist Pete Brown, Kevin Ayers, and others.
There was a movement of singer-songwriters who were conspicuously able guitarists at the time, mostly based around Soho clubs like Les Cousins. Michael was often lumped in with them but never part of this scene. He’d returned to Yorkshire, to live in Hull, where he found a stupendous sidekick, guitarist Mick Ronson.
The sound on Michael’s early albums, which were produced by Gus Dudgeon, became a significant influence on both Elton John, whom Dudgeon also produced, and David Bowie. No-one hearing Ronson tear into Soulful Lady on Michael’s second album, Fully Qualified Survivor would have been surprised by Ronson’s heroics with Bowie. Ronson and Michael featured on sessions for Elton John’s Madman Across the Water. John apparently wanted them both in his band but failed to make this clear. Then Ronson’s band, the Rats, were hired by Bowie to become the Spiders from Mars. Michael never quite forgave Bowie for pinching his guitarist.
Michael had his own near-hit, Postcards of Scarborough, also from Fully Qualified Survivor, which John Peel championed and which appeared on the popular “sampler” album, Picnic. His next album, Window, was released in his absence and apparently without the promised contributions of saxophonist Stan Getz. Despite these instances and Michael covering songs including Blind Alfred Reed’s How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live ahead of both Ry Cooder and Bruce Springsteen, he shouldn’t be regarded as a nearly man. Albums such as Millstone Grit and Deal Gone Down, released by Decca, show a musician absolutely in charge of his art and added to his acoustic playing, an electric guitar style that inspired Sonic Youth to form.
Signing with Criminal Records (a source of much mirth) Michael released the surely ironically titled tuition album Playing Guitar the Easy Way. The band that had at various times featured drummer Keef Hartley and the aforementioned bass guitarist, Rick Kemp was jettisoned as he concentrated on solo live work. He seemed to like nothing better than getting into his Volvo and driving to the next gig. His relative proximity to Edinburgh and Glasgow meant that Scotland saw much more of him latterly than during his days with the major record labels, although he also became an enthusiastic driver down America’s highways and – always a source of stories and tunes – peculiar byways.
His assertion that he could keep on going as long as Segovia had was always backed up by the quality of his performances and the strength of his material. An appearance on Later with Jools Holland well into his seventies showcased a talent that was the real deal, the fully qualified survivor compared to the probably much better known, much younger bands on the same show.
One gig particularly stands out. In an Edinburgh nightclub where the promotion hadn’t been all it might have been, Michael looked out into the dimness after the first song and commented that, “There were people here for the soundcheck.” Maybe so but the set he played would have graced a packed Hollywood Bowl.
Michael Chapman, guitarist-singer-songwriter, born January 24, 1941; died September 11, 2021.
From The Herald, September 23, 2021
Guitarist comes home to his roots
Neil Warden was sitting in the garden of the house in Dunfermline that he moved to recently when a thought struck him. Not only had the guitarist returned to his hometown, he now lives just fifty yards from where he took his first steps into making music.
“I looked up and realised that the house along the street was where I started going to jam with this slightly older guy who introduced me to guitarists like Larry Coryell and Leo Kottke,” says Neil who, over the past forty years, has played with Scottish blues singers Tam White and Maggie Bell. He’s also featured alongside musicians including the late rock-pop hit maker Jim Diamond and King Crimson bassist Boz Burrell while enjoying success with his own music on both sides of the Atlantic.
Neil grew up with a soundtrack of his dad’s jazz records playing at home. The Count Basie Orchestra, organist Jimmy Smith and guitarist Wes Montgomery were his dad’s particular favourites and Neil was drawn to playing the guitar. He took classical guitar lessons at school and learnd about both acoustic and electric guitarists from his mentor down the street.
“There was a lot of music in Dunfermline when I was in my teens,” says Neil. “If Nazareth were back in town, you could hear them at the Kinema Ballroom, which was a popular spot for touring bands like Georgie Fame and Jon Hiseman’s Colosseum. Tommy Sampson’s orchestra would be playing in the Elizabethan. There was a good folk club and I particularly remember Alan Darby, who went on to play guitar with the soul band Cado Belle and who could play Santana’s Abraxas album in its entirety and – to me – sounded just as good as Carlos Santana.”
In his mid-teens Neil joined the prog rock band Joe’s Diner and gigged across central Scotland. When not playing with the band he was listening to music at home – organist Brian Auger and guitarist Cornell Dupree were favourites at the time – or going out to hear the saxophonist Jim Kyle, whose brother Bill played drums and went on to play a major role in jazz promotion. Neil was also always up for a jam and remembers getting together with local fiddler Pete Clark, now a doyen among traditional music players, to play tunes by the far-from-traditional Mahavishnu Orchestra.
In 1982 Neil left Dunfermline for Edinburgh, where he met Tam White. Initially he was White’s guitar teacher as the blues singer worked on a more self-contained acoustic style in contrast to his powerful band, the Dexters. This led to Neil joining White’s Shoestring Band, a long-running trio with harmonica player Fraser Speirs.
When White’s busy schedule allowed, Neil played sessions and worked on his own music. A CD, Blue Soul Groove, which followed the jazz-funk style of bands like Stuff and the Crusaders, performed a similar “coals to Newcastle” trick as the one that took fellow Scots the Average White Band to the top of the US charts. Radio presenters in New York were convinced they were playing music created in a nearby studio rather than Neil’s home studio in Edinburgh with friends including saxophonist John Burgess.
More recently, Blue Soul Groove also became Neil’s passport into a new project. Back in Dunfermline and having health issues, including Bells Palsy, which has affected his vision, he was keeping active musically through his work on the Weissenborn slide guitar when his Shoestring Band colleague, Fraser Speirs got in touch.
“Fraser said he was recording with Dave Pringle, which was a name I knew from way back,” says Neil. Edinburgh-born Pringle, who composed theme tunes for TV programmes including Wheel of Fortune and whose CV includes work with Dolly Parton, David Soul, Hoagy Carmichael, Annie Ross, and Georgie Fame, among many other notables, recently returned to Scotland after many years in the US.
“Dave is sounding great and the recordings Fraser mentioned have turned into a double album,” says Neil. “They asked me to add guitar in the Blue Soul Groove style. It turned out to be a lot of work, learning new tunes, then recording my guitar parts at home. But I’m happy with how it sounds. The album’s called Once in a Blue Moon and I enjoyed the whole experience immensely.”
From The Courier, September 10, 2021
Wellington Jazz Festival sends new music to Europe
Jasmine Lovell-Smith (photo by Hayden Hockly)
Three musicians whose new albums were launched at this summer's Wellington Jazz Festival have combined to promote their own music in Europe while championing the current strengths of the New Zealand jazz scene.
Pianist Ben Wilcock, who released The River Tethys on August 13th, and saxophonists Jasmine Lovell-Smith and Jake Baxendale, whose Sanctuary followed on August 20th, have already received praise for their new recordings in the birthplace of the Count Basie Orchestra, Kansas City, Missouri. Radio presenter Joe Dimino, of KC’s Neon Jazz, interviewed Wilcock and Baxendale at length after being impressed by Wilcock’s sci-fi inspired album and Baxendale & Lovell-Smith’s debut as co-leaders of an eleven-piece ensemble.
“It was great to receive an endorsement of our music from somewhere with such strong historical links to jazz,” says Baxendale, whose other group, The Jac won the Best Jazz Artist title at this year’s Aotearoa [New Zealand] Music Awards. “It’s always good to win awards at home but to be recognised internationally is a particular boost and lets us see that we are creating music that can travel.”
New Zealand has produced a number of well-regarded jazz musicians in the past, among them pianists Mike Nock, Dave MacRae and Alan Broadbent. Mike Nock, who has recorded for ECM Records, lived and worked in New York for many years. Dave MacRae toured with Buddy Rich before becoming established on the European scene with Ian Carr’s Nucleus, and Alan Broadbent is now a Grammy-winning arranger and composer. Jasmine Lovell-Smith herself studied and played with saxophone master Anthony Braxton while living in the U.S. a few years ago.
“Having such examples definitely helps in giving musicians something to strive for,” says Baxendale, whose own CV includes two years in Germany where he played with the Berlin Big Band and composition studies with trumpeter Dave Douglas in New York. “It’s also significant that musicians like Ben and Jasmine have worked abroad – Ben in London; Jasmine in Mexico as well as New York and Connecticut – and brought the experience they’ve gained back to New Zealand to share with the next generation of players they’ve taught at the New Zealand School of Music.”
Wilcock, Baxendale and Lovell-Smith, whose compositions and arrangements on Sanctuary have been likened by reviewers to Vince Mendoza and Maria Schneider’s work, are keen to highlight other recent releases from New Zealand that are making waves at home and are deserving of international attention.
Saxophonist Lucien Johnson’s Wax///Wane earned him the Best Jazz Composer title at the APRA AMCOS Awards 2021. Cory Champion, who played drums on Johnson’s album, has a recording with his own group, Clear Path Ensemble, and pianist Jonathan Crayford’s Dark Light and saxophonist Nathan Haines’ The Poet’s Embrace are others to look out for.
“We’d all love to be touring our music internationally or welcoming visitors to Wellington Jazz Festival next year,” says Baxendale. “It’s uncertain if that’s going to be possible but if people can make it to New Zealand, they’ll hear a lot of good homegrown jazz.”
Sci-fi and jazz produce bold new album
Ben Wilcock (photo by Riley Claxton)
The Hyperion Cantos series of science fiction novels by American author Dan Simmons is the inspiration for the bold, stylistically varied new album by New Zealand-born pianist Ben Wilcock.
In a professional career spanning more than twenty years, Wilcock has played venues ranging from Glastonbury Festival, with soul singer Bella Kalolo, to the Jazz Bar in Edinburgh, with his own group. He has also toured with R&B singer Aaradnha and blues artist Chris Cain and played concerts with former Herbie Hancock reeds master Bennie Maupin and the hugely experienced American drummer Bob Moses.
Wilcock grew up in a musical family in Hamilton, NZ – his mother is a chorister, his father plays jazz and his brother Sam is a long-time session guitarist in London – and he was exposed to a wide variety of music throughout his childhood and teens.
The stylistic variation on The River Tethys is a result of this. Alongside the seven original pieces, Wilcock and his musicians reinvigorate the 1920s silent movie song La Rosita (later a favourite of Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins), jazz standards Groovin’ High and Star Eyes and the traditional Irish slip jig The Butterfly.
“Each track on the album is based on different unique worlds explored by the various protagonists within the Hyperion saga,” says Wilcock. “We recorded the music and then each track was assigned to characters and scenes in the novels. I knew that musically this was going to be a meeting of old and new worlds, which is where the connection to the books comes in; distant worlds connected by a commonality. As we put the tracks together for the album it became clear which track suited which character or world.”
The album features Wilcock with his partner in Thick Records, Wellington-based Scottish drummer John Rae, bassist Dan Yeabsley and violinist Tristan Carter.
“All of the tracks on the album are 'one takes' because we wanted the recording to really capture a true collaborative improvisation,” he says. “Jazz and sci-fi don’t typically mix so, conceptually, this album has taken me in a new direction, and I hope listeners will feel that they are listening to something fresh and innovative.”
Wilcock launched The River Tethys during Wellington Jazz Festival in June 11; the album is set for release on August 13, 2021.
Bristol stages multi-genre homage to Keith Tippett
Keith Tippett (photo by Dave Broom)
Musicians from the jazz, folk, free improvisation and contemporary classical communities will pay tribute to the inimitable pianist, composer, bandleader and musical mentor Keith Tippett in a two-day celebration in his hometown, Bristol on October 1 and 2.
Tippett, who died in June 2020, was an inspirational figure to many, working in duos – notably with his wife, singer Julie Tippetts – and in the free improvising quartet Mujician and leading both large scale projects, such as the fifty-piece Centipede, and the Keith Kippett Sextet that lit a fire under the British jazz scene in the late 1960s. He was also a towering presence in concert and on recordings as a solo performer on piano.
For almost thirty years Tippett was also the touchstone for the Rare Music Club, which staged regular evenings featuring leading folk musicians, contemporary classical music and jazz/improvised music, usually with members of Mujician as the resident band.
The celebration will acknowledge all of these associations. Folk singer-songwriter-guitarist Chris Wood, who was an early participant in the Rare Music Club, returns on a Friday bill at Bristol Beacon that also features violinist Theo May’s Odd Unit, cello and violin duo David Le Page and Phillip Sheppard and Tippett’s long-time Mujician colleague, saxophonist Paul Dunmall’s quartet.
Running from 12 noon to 2:00am, Saturday’s programme at St Georges presents piano/keyboards duo Matthew Bourne and Glen Leach, vocal partnership Julie Tippetts and Maggie Nicols, a revisiting of Tippett’s 2011 work, From Granite to Wind, a special double edition of the band Dreamtime and Paul Dunmall’s Quartet. The celebration will culminate with specially convened seventeen piece orchestra, including many of the musicians who played with Tippett’s large ensembles, playing music from Tippett’s original charts for Centipede and The Dedication Orchestra, which was formed in tribute to exiled South African musicians with whom Tippett formed a special bond.
The Saturday event will also be streamed.
Tickets are available from the Bristol Beacon website www.bristolbeacon.org or by phone at 0117 203 4040 or email at email@example.com
Saxophonist Lucien Johnson wins major jazz award
Lucien Johnson (publicity photo)
New Zealand saxophonist Lucien Johnson has won the Best Jazz Composition prize in the APRA AMCOS Jazz Awards for Blue Rain from his Wax///Wane album.
The awards are New Zealand's premier jazz awards and Johnson was also shortlisted in the Best Jazz Artist category following international praise for Wax///Wane, which was released in Europe on April 1.
The saxophonist, who spent much of his twenties living and working in and out of Paris, put together a set of compositions that reflect the natural surroundings of his life by the sea but also contain the energy and urgency of city living.
Setting his tenor saxophone in an intriguing line-up – vibes, harp, bass, drums and percussion – enabled Johnson to capture the dream-like quality he wanted to convey. It also harks back to one of the many musical experiences – playing with Ethiopian jazz pioneer Mulutu Astatke - that have come his way as a result of leaving New Zealand for Europe as a twenty-two-year-old with no contacts and just a smattering of high school French.
“If you come from New Zealand, when you’re young anywhere else seems extremely exciting and desirable,” he says. “I talked myself into an English teaching job in Paris and stayed with a friend of a friend for a few days, then was in some hostels before finding a flat in the 11th arrondissement. My French was really bad but after a year or so it got much better and before long I was fluent.”
As he started to meet people, Johnson, who grew up in a musical family, was able to find work as a musician. He played in brasseries and gravitated towards theatre work, including a clown troupe, with whom he toured India. Another theatre gig took him to Haiti, where he spent four months and contracted malaria but also got to play with voodoo drummers.
Back in Paris he started to mingle with American and Japanese musicians, hanging out with drumming legend and long-time Paris resident Sunny Murray, pianist Bobby Few and saxophonist Steve Potts and playing in drummer John Betsch’s band. The brilliant Japanese drummer Makoto Sato introduced Johnson to free jazz bass titan Alan Silva, of Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and Albert Ayler fame, and they formed a trio, going on to record the album Stinging Nettles.
“Playing and recording with a musician of Alan’s stature was a real honour for me and meeting and gaining the respect of these American players who were of the 1960s and 1970s generation who had settled in Paris was amazing,” he says. “But it was often a struggle to pay the rent and after six years, I decided to return home.”
In Wellington he joined a band that toured the U.S. and Europe every year and got a taste of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. He then completed a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at Victoria University and went on to compose music for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the New Zealand Dance Company while making music under his own name. His album West of the Sun, which was released on Japanese label Wonderful Noise, was shortlisted for New Zealand’s Jazz Album of the Year title in 2017.
Johnson’s travels and experiences led to him becoming the go-to musician for festival collaborations back home, which is how he came to work with pianist Marilyn Crispell and bassist Barre Phillips, and with Mulatu Astatke, both in Wellington and Addis Ababa.
Wax///Wane, he says, is the first album he has made in a really mature musical style and he’d like to think it marks the beginning of being able to concentrate exclusively on making his own music.
“I definitely chose the harp and the vibraphone for a reason,” he says. “For me, these instruments invoke, perhaps better than any other, the feeling of dreams. That's why composers like Debussy and Ravel liked the harp. The vibraphone can do that too when you use it with pedal and tremolo. The vibes give Mulatu's music a sense of mystery and one of my favourite Miles Davis albums, Blue Moods, gets this spacious, mysterious feeling with the vibes, as does Archie Shepp's New Thing at Newport with Bobby Hutcherson.”
The Wax/Wane instrumentation is one he would like to record with more and he feels there is more to explore in creating music that reflects the weather – winds and storms contrasting with blue skies – and the flora and fauna of the coast where he lives.
“It's a very different experience from, say, living in New York and going head-to-head with jazz virtuosos every night of the week,” he says. “My music probably doesn't have the same technical complexity as a lot of the music that is made in that context, but I do believe it has a certain level of emotional nuance nonetheless, and a feeling of mystique.”
Lucien Johnson’s Wax///Wane is available on Bandcamp and all major streaming services.
Guitarist's debut album hits the spot
Tom Stephenson (photo by Morgan Shaw)
When guitarist Tom Stephenson’s trio released their first album, Perfect Circle, at the beginning of April, they had mixed feelings about it.
The possibility of hearing their music on the radio excited them. On the other hand, they were slightly wary about what reviewers might make of the third album release in as many months by students and former students of the jazz course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow.
Pianist Fergus McCreadie had launched his second album, Cairn, and saxophonist Matt Carmichael his first, Where Will the River Flow, to five-star reviews in prestigious publications such as Mojo and BBC Music Magazine.
Tom, aware of the star quality and attention that McCreadie and Carmichael had garnered through their student years, thought Perfect Circle might suffer by comparison.
He need not have worried. The influential website London Jazz News and BBC Radio Scotland’s popular Jazz Nights programme were quick to praise Tom’s compositions and the trio’s musicianship and radio presenters from Canada to Italy have turned the opening track, The Sun’s Hat into something of a minor turntable hit.
The strong rhythmic pulse that is a feature of Perfect Circle has a Courier heartland connection. Drummer Greg Irons grew up in St Michaels where he was encouraged to take an interest in music generally and jazz in particular by his parents. His dad, Kenny is a bass player who has gigged across Scotland for over thirty years and his mum, Ruth for some years organised and administrated the jazz school run by long-time Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra director Richard Michael.
Father and son actually formed the rhythm section on occasion for the Sunday afternoon jazz sessions run by guitarist Kevin Murray in Clarks Bar in Lindsay Street before Greg went off to study at the conservatoire in Glasgow.
“My dad used to play me these albums that had great drumming on them and it turned out that he’d seen the musicians involved in Dundee,” says Greg. “There seems to have been a time around the 1980s when not just great drummers like Billy Cobham and Alphonse Mouzon but top guitarists like Mike Stern played concerts in Dundee. Obviously I missed out on that but hearing about it was exciting and probably contributed towards me wanting to become a musician.”
Tom’s back story is different. He was going nowhere at school in his hometown, Darlington, and becoming quite disillusioned with academic expectations when a friend suggested he should take up the guitar.
“I immediately felt a new sense of purpose,” he says. “At first I listened to blues records and players such as Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Within a relatively short time, however, I was dedicating myself to learning a broad range of musical styles.”
This can be heard on Perfect Circle where country, rock and gospel music influences blend in with the trio’s essential jazz qualities.
In 2015 Tom was awarded a scholarship to study on the jazz course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland under the direction of saxophonist Tommy Smith. During his time at the conservatoire Tom established himself on the Glasgow jazz scene and went on to play with established names including trombonist Mark Nightingale, trumpeter John Faddis and the aforementioned guitarist Mike Stern.
It was while they were all at the conservatoire that Tom teamed up with Greg and bassist Mark Hendry. Mark is also a composer and bandleader in his own right, having presented a commission for a twenty-piece orchestra at Edinburgh Jazz Festival while a student.
The trio has gigged substantially, including appearances at Edinburgh and Glasgow jazz festivals, allowing Tom’s compositions to strengthen and develop.
“Each tune on Perfect Circle was written towards the end of my studies at the conservatoire,” says Tom. “My goals were to express myself in an uncontrived manner and get in touch with what excites me about music on a personal level.”
Simplicity and directness are key for Tom, who is keen to play live with the trio in support of Perfect Circle as soon as music venues re-open.
“We haven’t played in Dundee yet,” he says, “but hearing about these concerts Greg mentions from the 1980s, it would be great to be part of that tradition.”
From The Courier, May 14, 2021
Rising saxophone star Matt Carmichael releases debut album
Saxophonist Matt Carmichael, like musicians everywhere, has barely played in public over the past twelve months. The set the twenty-one-year-old from Lenzie played in early November, however, reached as many people in twenty minutes as many jazz musicians will play to in a year or more.
Carmichael didn’t win the BBC Young Jazz Musician 2020 title that afternoon but just reaching the final of the competition and appearing on BBC Four in front of a nationwide audience fulfilled an ambition he’d had since his mid-teens.
“I remember watching the final on TV a few years ago and thinking, I’d love to do that,” he says. “I didn’t really think I’d ever get there, so it was kind of unreal to be standing playing in front of the cameras. It was also strange playing with musicians I’d only just met a few days before and I’m not sure I played as well as I could have done, but it was a great experience.”
Playing in front of a live audience numbering only a handful – the competition judges – was also quite unnerving. Matt left, though, if not with first prize then with the praise of musicians of the calibre of trumpeter and arranger – and chief judge - Guy Barker ringing in his ears.
He's since had a lot more praise from prominent observers as he prepares to release his first album, Where Will the River Flow on Friday March 12. Early reviews and comments from presenters on radio stations such as Jazz FM have enthused about Carmichael’s musicianship and the attractiveness of his original compositions.
Saxophone wasn’t Carmichael’s first choice of instrument. He took piano lessons for six months at the age of seven before deciding that the piano wasn’t for him. He has since revised that opinion and composes exclusively on the piano. Even the first single he released from his album, The Spey, a fast-as-fury reel that conveys the rushing quality of Scotland’s fastest river in full spate and sounds like a saxophone test piece was created at the keyboard.
He was, he remembers, about eleven when the chance to try a saxophone came up at school. After his brief interest in the piano, his parents might have been justified in being sceptical about his keenness for this new instrument. Depending on who’s telling the story – his teacher sensed a real aptitude in his young student; Matt’s version is that he was able to produce some sort of sound on it –the coming together was either a natural development or a fluke.
“I don’t think I’d even seen anyone playing the sax before,” says Matt. “I’m not even sure that I’d heard one played before either and I think my first reaction was, this is something different, it’ll be cool to learn to play.”
Group lessons at school didn’t bode well. Then, when private lessons were arranged with Allon Beauvoisin, the baritone saxophonist and brilliantly dependable backbone in Scottish horn quartet Brass Jaw and sometime saxophone section “anchor” for the Scottish National jazz Orchestra, Matt didn’t really appreciate the jazz his teacher let him hear.
“Allon was really nice,” he says. “He made me a compilation disc of Charlie Parker, Michael Brecker, Chris Potter and other saxophonists, who were obviously brilliant but didn’t really appeal to me musically for some reason. But then I heard Brass Jaw and there was this really soulful solo that Konrad Wiszniewski played on one track and I thought, that’s what I want to do.”
Improvising, he says, seemed to come naturally, although that didn’t make his first experience of standing up and taking a solo with the East Dunbartonshire Schools’ Jazz Orchestra any easier.
“I think I was thirteen or fourteen when I joined the orchestra,” he says. “I’d obviously never done anything like that before, so it was great to get a chance to play in a band onstage. But that first solo was absolutely terrifying. I was shaking. Of course, everyone in the band knows how it feels because your first solo – and everyone has to play their first solo at some point – is a rite of passage. But I didn’t realise that everyone else was shaking as they waited their turn too. Anyway, I got through my chorus, or whatever it was, and the feeling of achievement was amazing. I can still get nervous if I have to stand up and solo in an orchestra even now but I think that feeling of overcoming the fear makes you play better. The adrenaline maybe makes you concentrate more.”
It was while he was with the East Dunbartonshire Schools Jazz Orchestra that Carmichael heard a pianist on the radio who made him think, I want to play with him some day. This was Fergus McCreadie, the pianist in Carmichael’s quartet as it now happens, a serial award-winner who is currently earning rave reviews for his own second album, Cairn.
McCreadie was fifteen at the time and was competing in the Under 17 section of the Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year competition, which he went on to win twice.
“I thought his playing was so advanced,” says Carmichael, “and I couldn’t believe he was so young from listening to him.”
It wasn’t long before his wish to play with McCreadie was granted. Having joined the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland, Carmichael found himself in the same band as McCreadie and playing music that has become one of his main sources of inspiration as the English saxophonist Iain Ballamy took the orchestra through some of his compositions in readiness for NYJOS’ summer tour.
“Apart from Brass Jaw, I’d only heard American jazz at that point,” says Carmichael. “Iain’s music was beautiful and very European. It made me want to check out other stuff that I listen to now, the whole ECM Records thing for example. At the end of that NYJOS tour, Fergus came up to me and said we should play together more. That was fantastic to hear and he obviously meant it because we’re still playing together.”
Playing with NYJOS gave Carmichael easy access to the jamming sessions that were taking place in and around the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow and eventually he auditioned and was accepted onto the jazz course there. His course leader, the internationally recognised saxophonist Tommy Smith promptly invited Carmichael to join his youth jazz orchestra and has since gone on record as saying that Carmichael “is better than I was at his age.”
Once enrolled at the RCS, Carmichael took Fergus McCreadie up on his suggestion that they play together more. He invited the pianist to join his quartet, along with bassist Ali Watson and drummer Tom Potter, and the group is now an established unit.
“I wanted to have a band that kept a stable line-up because that’s the best way to develop the music,” he says, adding that as a saxophonist the onus is on you to form a band and look for work whereas drummers and bass players get asked to play.
He’s certainly gone about the bandleader’s job diligently. Before the pandemic brought live music to a halt his quartet had already toured the UK and played London venues including the hallowed Ronnie Scott’s club in Soho.
Carmichael’s own music, like that of McCreadie, has a very Scottish quality. Both musicians listen to traditional music, although Carmichael cites Irish musicians such as Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, the hardanger fiddle player who plays alongside the revered County Clare fiddler Martin Hayes in folk supergroup the Gloaming, as favourites as much as Scottish players.
“I think Fergus sees his music as folk music played with jazz attitude and technique,” he says. “He certainly captures the landscape in his compositions and that’s what I try to do too. When I wrote The Spey, Firth and Cononbridge, which are all tunes on Where Will the River Flow, I was thinking of these places where I spent the early part of my life. I haven’t lived there for quite a few years now but I still have a strong feeling for that area.”
Before the pandemic forced him to return to Glasgow, Carmichael was studying in Oslo on an Erasmus exchange from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the Nordic influence can be heard in another track on his album, Sognsvann. He graduates from the RCS this summer and is already planning his second album.
“It was a real pity that the Erasmus exchange had to end,” he says. “I really enjoyed Oslo – Sognsvann is named after a lake just outside the city with a lovely, peaceful atmosphere. When we’re allowed to go out and play concerts again, it would be great to take that tune to Norway. Right now, though, I’d love just to go out with the quartet and play the music from the album anywhere.”
From The Courier, Saturday, March 13, 2021
Thunderstruck helps take word of piping genius worldwide
When Gordon Duncan introduced his arrangement for bagpipes of the AC/DC song Thunderstruck at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1999, he was probably expecting to make mischievous ripples rather than waves that have washed up on four continents and inspired an international award-winning play.
An essentially shy, quiet man who had earned his own international reputation as a piper while holding down a job as a refuse collector in Pitlochry, Gordon was a self-effacing virtuoso. A journalist once described Gordon’s fluency on the pipes as akin to the great jazz musician Charlie Parker’s playing on the alto saxophone, only to be gently rebuffed by Gordon’s suggestion that the journalist stop being so daft.
It wasn’t such a daft comparison because Gordon took the pipes to a level of proficiency and expression up there with Dame Evelyn Glennie’ on percussion or Nicola Benedetti’s on violin. Not everyone valued Gordon’s ability to play on the pipes apparently any piece of music – or any musical scale – he could hear in his imagination.
His first album, Just for Seamus, was dedicated to a piping competition adjudicator who had responded to Gordon’s free-wheeling brilliance by saying that if this was where piping was heading, he wished he himself had taken up the fiddle instead.
Plenty of others did appreciate Gordon’s musicality and compositional flair, though. By the time he unleashed Thunderstruck, Gordon’s tunes such as Andy Renwick’s Ferret and The Sleeping Tune were so popular with other musicians and folk bands that they had virtually passed into the tradition, possibly the ultimate compliment for a composer in the traditional music style.
In terms of audacity, Thunderstruck arguably surpassed everything Gordon had produced to date, even his magnificent Pressed for Time. On first hearing, at that Edinburgh Festival concert in 1999, Thunderstruck appeared to encompass such staples of the electric guitarist’s art as feedback and whammy bar manipulation. Although signed off with a grin and a casual mopping of the brow, the performance itself was a tacit challenge to “follow that”.
And many have taken up the challenge. Go onto the internet and you will find Australian buskers playing Thunderstruck on bagpipes whose drones spit flames. There’s a version that marries dubstep and Indian traditions with Gordon’s inspiration and others that feature Spain’s Rondalla Santa Eulalia de Mos pipe band both taking it onto the streets and choreographing it extravagantly in a theatre.
And while the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, formed by a Gordon devotee, now retired, used Thunderstruck as a blueprint for taking rock music on bagpipes onto the international touring circuit with their bagrock schtick, possibly the ultimate tribute is to have the six times world champions, Canada’s Simon Fraser University Pipe Band playing Thunderstruck.
It was, after all, the pipe band arena where Gordon developed much of his boldness for musical arrangement. As the musical director of the vale of Atholl Pipe Band, while still in his teens, Gordon began to introduce the music and techniques he heard in Ireland, Brittany and Galicia into the Scottish piping lexicon.
Fife-born actor, and piper, David Colvin was a member of the Lochgelly High School Pipe Band when he first encountered Gordon. His admiration for his hero has led to him writing and performing in a play, Thunderstruck, that has now won major awards at the Edinburgh Fringe and at festivals in Adelaide and Perth in Australia.
David’s play, which was due to feature at this year’s Perth Festival of the Arts in Scotland before the current health crisis, tells the story of his own experiences in pipe bands (and contains language that, he concedes, follows the saying that “you can take the boy out of Ballingry but you can’t take Ballingry out of the boy”).
Gordon’s presence hovers throughout the piece, though, and David, who acted and played the pipes in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, is enough of a musician to play Thunderstruck towards the end.
“I’m not Gordon Duncan and wouldn’t claim to be,” he says. “The play wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t play the tune it’s named after but the reason the play came about was to try and spread the word more widely about this fantastic musician who was known around the world in piping and traditional music circles but is largely unappreciated by the general public.”
Winning a coveted Herald Angel at the Edinburgh Fringe last year for the play was a thrill for David as Gordon, who died in 2005, had been given the same recognition, as had Gordon’s father, the ballad singer Jock Duncan, and his brother, Ian, in his capacity as pipe major of the Vale of Atholl band.
“People who’ve been to see the play often say, Wow, an AC/DC tune on the pipes and it’s great that they appreciate what Gordon did with that arrangement,” says David. “What I hope they’ll go on to discover, though, is that Gordon’s audaciousness created a lot more truly fantastic music. He was an amazing composer and a real musical visionary. If Thunderstruck, the play, inspires people to investigate Gordon’s music, I’ll have done my job.”
From The Courier, Saturday, March 28, 2020