Andrew McCormack

“…You know what it is, is that you know what Art Tatum does at the piano, you know what Bud Powell does at the piano, you know what Herbie Hancock does at the piano; you know what McCoy Tyner does. But right now you’re just in the moment, and you forget all that and just play.” – Andrew McCormack

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Andrew McCormack is a talented UK born and bred, pianist composer, currently residing in New York. His latent talent soon became clearly evident and was nurtured by some well-established and respected musicians within the industry. In London to play a unique gig at one of London’s newest but most popular Jazz music venues, Brilliant Corners, Mr McCormack took time out between rehearsals and performance to discuss with uk vibe’s Michael J Edwards about his career thus far, his M Y Duo project with close friend Jason Yarde and other notable collaborations, the art of composition, his recent album ‘First Light’, his relocation to New York and his genuine love of Jazz and it’s purveyors past and present.

Michael J Edwards: Andrew McCormack it’s a pleasure to sit down with you at long last. You’ve been one of the U.K.’s shining young musical talents for over twelve years or so. For the purposes of chronology, please give us a brief insight into your early childhood/formative years. Was music a constant in the McCormack household?

Andrew McCormack: Well my family is not a musician’s family, but it is a performance family. My parents are actors, so I’ve always been around theatres and backstage. I started playing piano because my mum really insisted on me, and my sister, learning it, and that was probably when I was around seven years old. But they were really very rudimentary piano lessons, and although I was fairly into it, it didn’t really take off, and my sister and me just stopped, but the piano stayed in the house. When I was thirteen years old I heard some music on the telly and it sparked a bit of curiosity in me, and I just started going to the piano by myself, out of my own interest. I was actually quite late starting the piano, being thirteen years old. But I got into Jazz, and it was Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’. That was the first thing that I heard I was really into – the light bulb went on.

It was something extra, it wasn’t just the notes they were playing, it was the feeling or the mood of the music; it spoke to me in a way that wasn’t just technical I suppose. But I wanted to try to figure out some of what they were doing; and it’s been a lifelong quest ever since.

Michael J Edwards: At sixteen you were fortunate enough to study Jazz with Andrea Vicari at Pimlico School. How was that transition?

Andrew McCormack: Basically I was thirteen years old, I started playing piano and I took to it immediately, working really really hard, and I was playing all the time. And it became clear very early on that I wanted to pursue this. My mum didn’t know anything about what she should do for me in terms of education, but at that time Pimlico had a specialist music course, but it wasn’t a private school it was a comprehensive school that had a specialist music program. In retrospect she could have tried to get me a scholarship at the Purcell School or Cheetham’s School of Music up in Manchester, which would have been a standard thing to do, but I guess she wasn’t sure if it was my future yet. Obviously private education being quite expensive, but having said that Pimlico School was a great environment to be in and they were doing great things when I was there.

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

There were lots of kids my own age at Pimlico who were really into music, which I didn’t have in my secondary school, I was the only one who was really serious about it, or serious in any way. So I was kind of the odd one out. When I got there, there were kids my own age that were actually kicking my arse a bit and challenging me to push myself, as well as this being in to people who were into the same thing I was. Andrea Vicari was teaching me, and I had Classical lessons as well, and I wanted to work towards going to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama; so Pimlico was kind of gearing me towards that.

Michael J Edwards: I believe 1996 would have been a defining year for you when you received a scholarship to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama under two very prominent tutors, namely Andrew Ball with regard to Classical piano and the incomparable Simon Purcell with whom you studied Jazz piano. Can you relay the impact that these two gentlemen had on your playing and your mind-set with regards to how you view the music?

Andrew McCormack: Well, first of all, talking about going to somewhere where I was getting my arse kicked a bit, the first week I was at Guildhall, I thought they had made a mistake – I didn’t know what I was doing there! (Laughs) All these pianists were amazing! They were virtuoso like Classical pianists…. and then there was me! (Laughs) The scholarship was a surprise because I think Simon Purcell really wanted me to go to the Guildhall, so that’s what that was for. Simon really became a mentor for me, he really took me to pieces and gave me a very strong foundation from which to build on. And similarly Andrew Ball really straightened out a lot of my classical playing and got me thinking about stuff I hadn’t even considered, such as sound and repertoire. How you play Bach is different to how you play Brahms. There are techniques and approaches to playing classical music that I didn’t really that I didn’t even wet my feet with until I got to Guildhall. So I was learning a lot in those years. It’s great because you’d spend all day everyday working on the music.

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Michael J Edwards: Your ascension within the UK Jazz music echelons happened quite rapidly. In 1997 you were a semi-finalist in the Perrier Young Jazz Musician of the Year Piano Competition, staged in Paris. Only a year later in 1998, you were prize-winner in the Young Jazz Musician of the Year; which was no doubt a proud of achievement for you. How did you cope with such success and avoid the burnout syndrome that many young aspiring musicians fall prey to? Did you have a good support network, i.e. family?

Andrew McCormack: It’s funny, because I’d sort of forgotten about those. I’m definitely up for the challenge, which has become quite evident over the years. The competition in Paris was really interesting because that was an international competition, so there were pianists from all over the world, from different generations as well. And I first heard people like Tigran Hamasyan – I don’t know if you’re aware of him? [Tigran Hamasyan album review]

He’s really young; I think he’s like twenty-seven years old now. When he was at the competition he was about fifteen years old. And this year he played a duo concert with Brad Mehldau in Montréal, so this guy is on the up. His last album I played constantly, I think he’s doing really exciting things. I first saw him as a kid who was not much older than I was when I started playing and he was already interesting and now he’s world class.

I don’t think I would do competitions now, just because I’m more interested in trying to work on my music and what I want to do. But I still want to be involved in the music scene as a whole, within that UK competition in the sense that you are amongst amazing musicians, and listen to what they’re doing and you think about it in terms of what you’re doing. And maybe you can learn something from what they’re doing.

Michael J Edwards: Well, once in the spotlight, quality connections continued, linking up with the Denys Baptist quartet at the tender age of eighteen and being part of his ‘Be Where You Are’ CD, which was shortlisted for the Mercury music prize in 1999. How was the experience with regards to your musical growth, and what is Denys like as a musician and a person? Did you learn a lot from being in that quartet as you obviously toured a lot with them? No doubt you grew up fast?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Andrew McCormack: I first met him doing the Tomorrow’s Warriors sessions at Jazz Café, that’s was when I first played with him. I guess he liked my playing and he could see the potential in me, and he formed a quartet with me, Larry Bartley and Tom Skinner. Tom at that time would have been about fifteen or sixteen years old, two years younger than me. And we did a lot of gigs, we did a lot of touring; especially when he got the Mercury music prize nomination, things really took off for him around that time. So we did tours to Russia and we went to all these European countries, the Czech Republic, we did gigs in France and Germany. And I’m an eighteen-year-old kid who’s just recently got into playing music. So I learnt loads doing that and it really opened my eyes to what it would be like being a professional musician quite early on.

Michael J Edwards: Did it open your eyes in the sense of “I like the taste of this!” Or was it a case of “Whoa, this is intimidating!”

Andrew McCormack: No, absolutely, I do enjoy that! I love engaging with audiences, communicating, and people get to hear you. That’s what any musician would want ultimately. And ever since then Denys has been kind of like an older brother to me. I learnt loads from being in his band; it was really a very important period of my life. I should also mention Jean Toussaint as well in terms of someone bringing me into their band and taking me under their wing, Jean did the same thing for me. And Jean (Toussaint) is the closest direct link that I have to the actual makers of Jazz music. He played in Art Blakey’s band, and Art Blakey played with everybody from Charlie Parker all the way through to Thelonious Monk. And he was very helpful in teaching me about how to learn music; that when you listen to the masters’ music, you’re not listening for what to play; you’re listening for how to play. So if you transcribe a Bud Powell solo, for example, it’s not because you take those notes and use them verbatum, you’re actually looking at why did he use those notes? How is he using those notes? That’s what you’re looking for when you listen to those people; because ultimately you want to speak with your own voice, but within this cannon of music that we’re all part of.

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Michael J Edwards: You’ve also worked on numerous other projects, most notably with your good friend and long-time buddy of yours, saxophonist Jason Yarde with the highly acclaimed ‘M Y Duo’ album, which received stunning reviews when you played a selection of tracks from it at Kings Place, London. Can you tell us the background to some of those tracks such as ‘Antibes’ and ‘Tunnel Vision?’

Andrew McCormack: Myself and Jason go back to those days with Tomorrow’s Warriors… I played in a band that he had called J-life. Robert Mitchell was the piano player, so I would get thrown into his hot-seat every now and again. They were the first people I saw my generation, or a little bit older than me who were really playing something; because obviously I was playing with my friends at school and stuff like that. I was like, “Wow! Who are these guys! I remember Jason coming up and playing and I was like, “Wow! Who is that guy! So I’ve known him for many years, and I think it was my idea to do the duo! (Laughs) But I wanted to do a duo with someone who had a composer’s head as well as a player.

Michael J Edwards: Which neatly leads onto my next question; what are Jason’s qualities and what does he bring to the table that excites you?

Andrew McCormack: Yeah, It would be that he is a composer as well as a player with a strong voice of his own. It’s the opportunity to really collaborate on the music because he’s writing stuff and I’m writing stuff. We’ve written stuff together, we’ve co-written music, D-Town, which is on the second album. It’s a very mutual collaborative project, as well as us being good friends. With ‘Antibes’ I was playing at that the Juans Les Pins festival in Antibes, I was playing with The Kyle Eastwood Band, and Keith Jarrett had just played the night before. I was doing sound check and looking over the beautiful Mediterranean Sea and I just came up with this idea and that was it. ‘Tunnel Vision’ was just a very simple idea, which came to me on the London Underground; I just had this idea for the theme. Actually Denys Baptiste gave me the title, because I saw him shortly afterwards and played it to him and explained how I had the idea, and he said, “Yeah, call it ‘Tunnel Vision.’ So he gets credit for the title.

Michael J Edwards: How did it feel to have your works premiered at Hugh Masekela’s 70th birthday Concert?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Andrew McCormack: Well the background to that is that I got really into Classical composing for a few years and I almost put my piano playing on the backburner. I heard Mark-Anthony Turnage, a Classical composer, but who also worked with jazz musicians a little bit. I first heard his piece ‘Blood On The Floor’ at the Guildhall school of Music. I was in the library listening to music, and when I heard that it, kind of changed my life forever really. He was writing Contemporary Classical music, but with Jazz musicians involved in it. I really wanted to find out more about it and how he got to that.

So I studied Classical composition for a long time, and I actually got in touch with him through a mutual friend and started having private composition lessons. I sought him out; and at first he said no. But then he said, “Look, why don’t you come round and we can have a look at what you’re doing.” And just off the back of what I showed him he was like, “Okay, why don’t we do it once every two months.” He was very busy, but luckily he recognised that I did have some sort of talent. But he really helped me a lot and my composing really came on in that time. And I submitted a piece for a workshop that the London Symphony Orchestra does, called the Panufnik Young Composers Scheme. Jason Yarde had done it I think a few years before and that’s how I knew about it… So I got the opportunity to have this piece workshopped by the orchestra. After that they commissioned me to do a ten-minute piece for the Barbican concert, which was the one that Hugh Masekela played at. But since then I’ve gone back to my first love and that’s piano playing, I’m really trying to work on that again.

Michael J Edwards: You mentioned earlier other high-profile bands and groups you played in such as J-life and the Jazz Warriors. I take it you took elements from each of those group experiences?

Andrew McCormack: Everything you do becomes a part of you, whether it’s the good things or the bad things, you always learn from them. If you have a good gig or a bad gig, there’s always something to learn.

Michael J Edwards: Out of that you met numerous other luminaries such as Gary Crosby, whose label you were signed to for a period of time, releasing your 2006 debut album ‘Telescope’ via Dune records?

Andrew McCormack: I had already recorded half of the music; so with ‘Telescope’, half of the music that is there is what I had originally done on my own, and I sent it to Gary and Janine at Dune as a demo. And they immediately said, “Let’s do it! We’ll give you some extra studio time and release it” I won the BBC Jazz Awards off the back of it – BBC Rising Star 2006. It was around the time I was getting into composing so I didn’t pursue the trio thing, I also started doing the duo with Jason (Yarde), and I was working a lot with Kyle Eastwood band, and it is only sort of recently that I decided to come back as a solo artist.

Michael J Edwards: Who are some of your influences on piano?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Andrew McCormack: I think as an overall artistic role model, I think Keith Jarrett. I admire his dedication and his connection to the music. He’s steeped in the history of the music, but he doesn’t play in any particular style; it doesn’t go, “Oh here’s his Wynton Kelly minute,” or “Now he’s doing a bit of McCoy (Tyner). He’s just in the moment, it’s like he’s plugged in, connected! And he hasn’t stopped working on his music. He is now getting on for almost seventy years old, and still practising every day, and the challenge that he set himself in his solo piano concerts when improvising the entire concert. Going out with a blank mind not knowing what he’s going to play. I just think he’s an incredible artist, and he’s endlessly fascinating.

Michael J Edwards: Are there any particular tracks of his that stand out for you?

Andrew McCormack: The album that were doing tonight, ‘My Song’. Some of my favourite music of his I think is the Cologne concert, it was a huge achievement. That’s the most famous record that he made; it’s possibly the record that put him on the map. Also referred to as the Koln concert it became a smash hit, one of the bestselling solo piano albums of all time. So it really established him as a major artist. If I can get anywhere near the bottom of what he’s doing, I’d be happy! There are lots of influences, but if I was to name one person I keep going back to, I think he would be him.

Michael J Edwards: Which artists stimulate your musical senses at the moment?

Andrew McCormack: We were talking about that guy Tigran (Hamasyan), I’m really watching him closely at the moment. I think it’s a really exciting artist, I think he has his own voice and I think he’s doing some really interesting things.

Michael J Edwards: You now reside in New York, why and when did you make the move?

Andrew McCormack: I’ve now been out there for about a year and a half, since March 2013. I had an apartment out there for about a year, but then I had to move out because my flatmate’s girlfriend moved in. And since then I’ve been subletting places until I go back. But It tends to be half and half, two or three weeks here (UK) and two or three weeks there (USA), but next year I’ll be there for about two or three months. Then I come back to the UK in March to tour the UK with my band, and then there’s the Kyle Eastwood tour starting April/May. So I won’t get back to New York until June; it will be two months in New York and then three months in the UK.

Michael J Edwards: And what’s the music vibe like in New York?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Andrew McCormack: It’s incredible! Yeah, it’s been humbling. It’s forced me to ask difficult questions about what I have to contribute to music. It’s a very difficult question to ask yourself, but I think it’s an important one; it’s something that you need to think about, if you’re serious about putting yourself out there as an artist. And the thing I said about being connected to the music; the environment there is really set up for that, because there’s so many great musicians there and they all gravitate to New York from all over the world. And you get to play with all of these guys, so it’s been a huge learning curve, the last year and a half.

Michael J Edwards: What musicians past or present, would you like duet with or compose with?

Andrew McCormack: I think who it would be cool to do a duet with is (Thelonious) Monk. I think his conception of music is so unique, but very direct. He really communicates his ideas to you, and his ideas are interesting and weird and unusual. It would be really cool to like hang out with him, and maybe play with him, maybe show him some ideas of mine. Yeah, I’d say Monk!

Michael J Edwards: Is the UK Jazz scene in a healthy state, and could the media be doing more to highlight it?

Andrew McCormack: I get really annoyed watching the Mercury Music Prize when the supposedly industry experts start talking out about Jazz, and they start getting into stereotypes. They start making fun of it because they don’t “understand” it. I get a little bit annoyed about that… I think there’s a lot of ignorance and mistrust about Jazz, it’s a bit of a dirty word. I don’t know if that’s the musician’s fault or the industries fault, the journalist’s fault, I don’t know. But having said that, when you go into Europe I don’t think they have that same kind of bigoted mind-set; people are much more open to the idea of Jazz. Here in the UK I feel that people don’t really know about it, or have a negative mind-set towards it – I don’t get it, I don’t understand it! I wouldn’t criticise something I don’t understand, I would be just like, “I don’t know what that’s about.” It’s about being open and adult, being grown up.

If you’ve got something to communicate to people and you want to find a way to do it that they will understand, like the music were playing tonight which I think is very accessible. The title track of the album ‘My Song’ is a pop song; it really is an instrumental pop song! And I think that’s what Keith (Jarrett) was trying to do… He was playing his music and still doing his thing, but he was doing in the context that was very direct and approachable for people who don’t really understand what he’s doing. I’ve got nothing against that, I think that’s what we should be doing. If you want to communicate to as large an audience as possible, you have to kind of meet them halfway.

Michael J Edwards: If you could play Jazz in any era,, what would that be?

Andrew McCormack: I think it’s important to live in the present, so I’m happy to be where I am right now.

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Michael J Edwards: You’re now signed to Edition Records, are you excited about working with the label and the prospects ahead?

Andrew McCormack: For the kind of music that I’m doing, I think this is the perfect label for me right now. They’re very hands on whilst growing, they’re expanding, and each year they’re moving forward. I think that’s very important, to be always trying to move forward. I’m trying to do that; and trying to think about what I’m going to do next year, so they’re a great label to be involved with.

Michael J Edwards: Does your Classical music training aid you with your composition?

Andrew McCormack: I studied composition separately I guess although I was always composing as well as playing, but I do learn things from playing the Classical repertoire definitely. So I guess in that sense it enables me to check out what those composers were doing and maybe translate some of that into what I’m doing.

Michael J Edwards: Can you please give us a brief synopsis of your latest album release ‘First Light’?

Andrew McCormack: Sure! Well ‘First Light’ is kind of like a new beginning, that’s kind of what the imagery has become; ‘First Light’ – like the dawn, like a new day. I’m sort of returning to becoming a solo artist again. And also my year in New York basically, living in Brooklyn, it kind of renewed me. Like I said it was very humbling, it broke me down to nothing, and I sort of had to build myself back up again.

Michael J Edwards: Was that a revealing process for you?

Andrew McCormack: Definitely yeah! I mean I learned all sorts of things. It was challenging in a way that I was having to ask myself questions about what I want to do, and what do I have to contribute? So yeah, I learned huge amount about myself, and this music is the music that I wrote in the first year; so it’s kind of a chapter in my story. And I will be touring it in the UK in March & April 2015.

Michael J Edwards: What advice did you give to young up-and-coming musicians starting out in your experience, thus far?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Andrew McCormack: There’s a corny saying, but I think it is true and that is, “If you take care of the music, the music will take care of you.”… I think the thing is, for Jazz specifically, is to try and learn as much about what the masters were doing and not worry about having your own voice straight away. I think it’s something that you ‘get to’ and I’m still trying to ‘get to’ that. And this is what I was saying about (Keith) Jarrett, it’s about just being in the moment; but having all of that information. You’ve kind of gone through all of that information, you’ve eaten all of that music; you know what it is that Art Tatum does at the piano, you know what Bud Powell does at the piano, you know what Herbie Hancock does of the piano, you know what McCoy Tyner does – But right now you’re just in the moment, and you forget all of that and just play.

But you’re part of that story, and I don’t believe you can be connected to the music without having gone through that on some level. So I think my advice to a young musician is just to learn as much about what those guys were doing; and I’m talking about Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane – the guys that really did something with the language. You’ve got to take it, really own a part of it. In fact, really you don’t own it; it doesn’t belong to any of us! You didn’t come up with it, somebody else did, but we use it to communicate our ideas. Which is ultimately what it is about, it’s about communicating our ideas within this amazing thing that’s been created by all of these people over the last hundred years.

Michael J Edwards: We’re here at Brilliant Corners to witness your quartet’s performance; can you explain a little bit about the unique format and concept of this evening’s performance?

Andrew McCormack: Once a month they take a seminal Jazz album, and they play a vinyl copy of the album through their amazing audio system that they have here. The audience sits in silence and listens to the entire record, then there’s a break and then the band comes on and plays their live interpretation of that music. So tonight we’re doing Keith Jarrett’s ‘My Song’. We’re going to listen to Keith play his thing and then my quartet – Mark Lewandowski on bass, Chris Higginbotham on drums, Julian Siegel on saxophone and myself on piano are going to play all of the pieces from that album. But we’re going to do our interpretation of that music. And I as I was saying, it’s not about trying to recreate what Jarrett did, it’s about taking that same music and speaking that music with our voices and the way we play. But what’s cool about it is that the audience have already heard that music so they already have a connection and a relationship to it for when they hear the live gig.

Michael J Edwards: It’s a beautiful concept.

Andrew McCormack: It’s really nice, yeah! I played in the one last month with Quentin Collins (trumpet) and Tony Kofi (sax). We covered Wayne Shorter’s ‘Speak No Evil’. And the audience are absolutely with you one hundred percent. It’s really special; it’s a really special night.

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Michael J Edwards: A final message for the uk vibe readership and your fans across the globe?

Andrew McCormack: I just hope I can give more quality music, and I hope that people can come with me on the journey.

Michael J Edwards: Thank you for your time Andrew, I’ll let you go to get into the right head space for the gig.

Andrew McCormack: Thank you very much and good luck with the magazine, the UK Jazz scene needs the support.

Michael J Edwards

Essential Album: First Light (2014 Edition Records)
Essential Collaboration: http://www.myduo.biz/about-us
Essential Website: http://mccormackmusic.com/
Essential Record Label: http://editionrecords.com/

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