Last night, on International Jazz Day, Scottish saxophonist Matt Carmichael and his quartet performed at The Globe in Newcastle. A finalist in BBC Young Jazz Musician 2020 and winner of the Peter Whittingham Development Award 2019, Carmichael has much acclaim to his name and there was great anticipation and excitement surrounding his livestream performance. With award-winning pianist Fergus McCreadie at his side, and the incredible antics of bassist Ali Watson and drummer Tom Potter contributing to the set, Carmichael’s performance was not one to be missed – the quartet certainly didn’t disappoint. Featuring Celtic folk roots combined with jazz tradition, Carmichael’s original compositions from his debut album Where Will The River Flow were a stunning basis upon which the quartet built their performance. The music was so moving, distinctive, complex, and yet accessible to all audiences; the lyricality inherent in the folk tradition lends itself beautifully to jazz music, and Carmichael’s interpretation of both is truly compelling. The performance oscillated between quieter, intimate melodic moments, and more intense moments of liberated improvisation in which the quartet were unapologetically powerful. This contrast lent the performance an even greater sense of accomplishment and technical ability, but also of emotional subtlety – it was a pleasure to watch.
The quartet opened the set with ‘Sognsvann’, a beautiful ballad inspired by Carmichael’s time in Oslo. All of the pieces on Where Will The River Flow are linked by themes of water, and ‘Sognsvann’ is no exception – inspired by a lake just north of Oslo, the composition reflects the sense of peace that can be found near water. Carmichael’s melodic ideas are so exceptional, in that they are extremely accessible to every listener and yet developed and used in complex ways; these are only the very first works of many yet to come. Continuing the sense of movement introduced by ‘Sognsvann’, the quartet transitioned immediately into ‘Firth’. Carmichael explained later that ‘Firth’ is a place where the river meets the sea; this feeling of opening up, and again of movement, was beautifully reflected in Watson’s bass solo. ‘Firth’ also featured a shredding solo from Carmichael, immediately engaging the audience and adding a layer of intensity we hadn’t seen before.
One of the album’s singles followed: ‘Cononbridge’ is where Carmichael grew up, so the tune immediately had a sense of intimacy for us as listeners. For me, the live performance of this track struck the perfect balance between the jazz and folk traditions. Carmichael made some really nice choices on his lengthy solo, featuring lots of quotes, pitch bending, and incredible runs. As previously mentioned, the way in which he develops melodic ideas makes for a really satisfying listen. In fact, the soloing from all four musicians throughout the performance was fascinating. McCreadie’s solo on ‘The Spey’ in particular was stunning – ‘The Spey’ featured a much faster tempo, reminiscent of a reel, and McCreadie’s solo felt like classical counterpoint at times. The rhythmic ideas being used by both Carmichael and McCreadie during ‘The Spey’ were incredible, and what was even more impressive was Potter’s drumming and Watson’s walking which underpinned the whole piece. The piece provided that beautiful balance between intense, shredding solos, and more intimate moments, and was a pleasure to hear in a live space.
Providing contrast again within the set, two very moving pieces followed: ‘Dear Grandma’ and the album’s title track, ‘Where Will The River Flow’. ‘Dear Grandma’ is dedicated to Carmichael’s grandmother who sadly passed away, and is a delicate and moving tribute to her. Carmichael’s tone on this was so nuanced, managing to be both breathy and controlled. The sensitivity in this piece was honestly incredible, especially for such young players. At one point, the band played the main melody together in a beautiful moment of solidarity and unity. The emotion within this track was intense, and was later reinforced by the uplifting movement of ‘Where Will The River Flow’. It felt as though the quartet had formed the set in order to take the audience on a specific emotional journey; the calming peace of ‘Where Will The River Flow’ soothed the sadness of ‘Dear Grandma’. As the piece progressed, the quartet began to really bounce off one another, and were listening intently in order to respond to each other’s statements. The audience enjoyed the performance so much that ‘Hopeful Morning’ was played as an encore, featuring another tasteful yet experimental solo from Carmichael.
Watching the Matt Carmichael Quartet was a true pleasure. Where Will The River Flow is a beautiful, nuanced and yet emotionally intense album which we would recommend to any listener. The lyrical melodies, the Scottish folk roots mixed with jazz, and the incredible soloing from every band member makes this album a stunning listen. It’s easy to understand how these musicians managed to win awards at such a young age. Carmichael’s compositions are compelling within themselves, yet Carmichael, McCreadie, Watson and Potter really bring out something special in them when collaborating in a live space. We cannot recommend them enough, and can’t wait to see what they do next.
If you want to buy Where Will The River Flow, you can find it here.