Fergus McCreadie ‘Cairn’ LP/CD (Edition) 4/5

Let’s get one thing out of the way first – pianist McCreadie is a prodigious talent with a very bright future. He was a finalist in the Young Jazz Musician of the Year 2018 and probably in any other year he would have won. Birmingham’s own Xhosa Cole just shone not only musically, but in presence and interaction. But Fergus came very close and was rewarded in October 2020 for being named as Best Instrumentalist in the Scottish Jazz Awards.

This is his second recording and it shows how quickly he is developing and the mark he is making on the UK jazz scene. And his trio is settled and they clearly are a tight combination with David Bowden on bass and Stephen Henderson on drums.

One can forgive the slightly overdone spin in the PR for the record from Edition Records – buy hey it’s hard enough to break jazz acts these days and there is some truth in the assertion that the trio has echoes of the Bad Plus and EST. One might perhaps argue that, so far, this band hasn’t come up with the ultimate originality that characterized those previous ensembles.

If anything, this trio is more firmly anchored in the wider piano trio canon with Bill Evans another reference point. But the ambition and intent of this record doesn’t just aim to replicate previous jazz output and is wider than just jazz. It’s a concept album, with all the writing by McCreadie, in which he takes inspiration from his Scottish homeland, its culture and landscape and from a range of musical genres.

The title obviously refers to a landscape feature built out of stones so in the construction and images this is followed through and the tracks also build together with different aspects of McCreadie’s reactions to his surroundings.

The opener, North is a stately opening statement almost fugue-like, quite quiet, beautiful with an open feel and no hint of the fireworks to come.

The recording then peaks dramatically and early with the second track Cairn which starts with a compelling bass figure before the piano comes in with a simply lovely them which really swings and becomes danceable with a call and response feel. Fergus makes the piano sing on this one, showing the full range of his ability with Bowden putting in a sharp and lyrical bass solo before the piano takes it up again. Probably the stand-out track for me.

Across the Flatlands keeps the feel swinging and dancing and this time is started by Henderson drumming a funky pattern using by my ears just his hands before Fergus plays another tricky little theme. Later Henderson switches to sticks and it intensifies while keeping the driving rhythm underneath before a last note on the piano is left hanging.

The mood changes with The Stones of Brodgar with a slow and stately theme which is followed by a rounded bass statement with piano chords underneath. McCreadie then picks out another lyrical passage before again stepping it up with a stronger and denser chordal statement before taking it slower and quieter.

Jig does exactly that – a quick jig-like piano opening before the whole trio play, demonstrating what a big round sound they create on this recording. The recording quality is very good with the grand piano, in particular, sounding great across the range. It all works up quite a frenzy with percussive piano and hard-working drums before a re-statement of the them comes to a neat conclusion.

The next track, Tide, is again descriptive with a flowing theme and feel and an almost Chinese-sounding feel in the treble figures.

Tree Climbing is an upbeat number with a precise theme stated in the treble with somewhat of a folk feel which returns use to the danceable style of those earlier tracks. The sound thickens as McCreadie takes us across the full range of the piano and we are left again hanging – this time on a chord.

The theme of An Old Friend is suitably slower with a singing quality beautifully stated by Fergus solo at first. It’s a good example of the impressive range of expression on this record which belies the youth of the players. The bass comes to the fore again effectively against the piano before Fergus picks it up again then as it seems the track is closing the chords roll with a more ominous feel to the melody building to a peak then receding back to that lyrical feel of the beginning.

The closer is Cliffside which has an insistent basis in the mid-range with a sharp theme in the treble and this is another track where it intensifies before settling back but with that insistent figure throughout and with an abrupt end.

A very impressive recording which is a consummate refutation of the idea that the second album is always “difficult.” No chance of that happening with this one and to take a chance with a cliché, this is by no means a dry stone collection…

A highly recommended record that rewards repeated listening. I almost gave it 5/5 but these players are only going to get better so I’m saving that extra star in the hope and expectation of their next recording.

Brian Homer