FOREST FLOOR / McCREADIE: Law Hill. The Unfurrowed Field. Morning Moon. Landslide. Forest Floor. The Ridge. White Water. Glade / Fergus McCreadie, pno; David Bowden, bs; Stephen Henderson, dm / Edition EDN1197, also available for free streaming on Bandcamp
Fergus McCreadie is a Scottish jazz pianist-composer and one of the very few Europeans accepted by mainstream American jazz publications as a “big deal.” His music combines jazz sensibilities with Scottish folk songs or folk song-like material and is very clever. Although his music generally fits the Millennials’ demand for soft, quiet, unobtrusive jazz (why they demand it, I don’t know), it is inventive and cleverly constructed. According to the publicity blurb for this album,
Forest Floor signifies an evolution in Fergus’ trio and sound… Whilst Cairn [his previous album] focused on the permanence and beauty of Scottish stone, Fergus felt that this album had a greater earthiness to it, illustrated by the changes the seasons produce on the forest floor, a perception that fed into the title, music and artwork for the new work… as he explains: ”In all my music I’m searching for an idea or a theme, that the composition and performance is based on. It’s a journey and adapts to each live performance. The recording documents the stage of that journey at a moment of time… This album has its own journey, its own destination… Forest Floor, both in its artwork and aesthetic, develops the themes created for Cairn.”
The opening track, Law Hill, starts off with a very strong theme statement, played quite loudly and with a driving if irregular beat. Once McCreadie gets into the improvisation, his drummer, Stephen Henderson, plays a sort of rolling beat using press rolls to urge the music forward. The music itself is modal, using open fifths in the left-hand chording, so harmonically, at least, it is relatively simple, but even so McCreadie occasionally slips in and out of neighboring harmonies with great felicity. McCreadie also does an excellent job here in blurring the lines between the written and improvised passages, which I particularly admired. There’s also a nice passage where he briefly creates a two-handed fugue for a few bars.
In The Unfurrowed Field, McCreadie reverts to his usual, gentler style, but again tying the tune’s structure to Scottish folk song structure, again with the open harmonies indigenous to that culture. Bassist David Bowden also gets a solo on this track. He has good musical imagination but also a very dry, hollow sound which I didn’t much care for. (I’ve been too spoiled by other bassists past and present, particularly by Eddie Gomez who I once saw in person.) The overall shape of this piece is much simpler than Low Hill; McCreadie even indulges in two full choruses of the same repeated lick, possibly trying to create a hypnotic feeling, although he does gradually increase the volume in this chorus and adds some right-hand frills near the end of the second chorus, which he then moves to the left hand in the next as he expands on it with a remarkably busy yet interesting series of runs.
Morning Moon, as one might expect, is quieter still, but to his credit McCreadie really does create and sustain an almost magical mood which the subtle playing of his rhythm section does not disturb. Pieces like this, piled one on top of another, tend to get under my skin, but placing one such in the midst of what is clearly a suite of pieces provides some needed contrast. Also, a little past the halfway mark McCreadie increases the volume, possibly indicating a “burning off” of the morning moon in the sky as daybreak reaches its apex. Little touches played by the bass and drums remain subtle and continue to feed into the mood of the piece. Landslide opens with a drum solo, slightly but not overtly dramatic, before the pianist enters with a fast modal theme reminiscent of the opening track but more swinging. This time, however, he creates the illusion of double time by increasing the tempo of one hand, then the other, while the rhythm section remains constant; yet there is also an increase in speed as the “landslide” builds up and then releases itself. The tension is temporarily relieved by a reduction of volume and an ever-so-slight reduction of tempo at the very end.
The title track, Forest Floor, also a slow piece, is one of the loveliest things on the album, a real melody that could almost pass for a Romantic classical piece. Here, Bowden plays his bass with a bow instead of pizzicato, creating a nice, rich underpinning similar to a “ground bass” in classical music. My sole complaint is that this track didn’t develop as well as the previous ones. But it’s nice in context.
The Ridge is also a slow piece, yet within its slow-moving frame McCreadie does more with it than in Forest Floor. Here he reverts to the strong influence of Scotch folk music yet also creates, slowly yet interestingly, a long-lined melody that comes to the listener almost more as a suggestion than as a demand to listen. About two-thirds of the way in, bassist Bowden suddenly switches from playing in 4 to playing in 6/8, which gives the music a nice 3-against-2 feeling. After a while, Henderson’s drums play an even faster beat, more like 12/8 or something very much like it, to increase the tension still further. A very nice piece.
White Water also opens slowly, and again just with the bass followed by a couple of cymbal washes, but then McCreadie ups the pace, again in an irregular meter and again using open chording. There’s a nice plucked bass solo played (again) in a somewhat quicker tempo with the drums, here playing on the edge of the snare, creating interesting patterns, and when McCreadie re-enters it is with renewed energy and vigor, getting into the spirit of his rhythm section. The tension then continues to build, as it did in Landslide, as the music progresses. A very creative piece and, once again, built on both Scotch folk music and classical principles.
Glade is another soft piece, this time a waltz—to my ears, more of a “pretty” piece than an effective one as jazz. This is more like cocktail-party or Ramada-Inn-type “jazz.” I could live without it, although even here McCreadie slowly increases the tempo as it moves along (but doesn’t develop much at all).
My verdict, then, is that Forest Floor is a very ingenious jazz suite with some remarkable moments but not a work of genius as its publicity (and the enthusiasm of some critics) may suggest. Clearly worth hearing except for the final piece, however. McCreadie has some very interesting ideas and, when developed to the best of his ability, makes a very positive impact on the listener.
—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley
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