Matt Carmichael – ‘Where Will The River Flow’

There have been some good jazz album releases from Scotland recently: pianist Fergus McCreadie released Cairn at the end of January, which received positive reviews from the jazz press. Paul Towndrow also received deserved praise for his album Deepening The River released in February. Now it is the turn of Matt Carmichael with his debut album release Where Will The River Flow.

I first heard Matt Carmichael on the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year 2020 final. I was impressed by his playing, his tone, his apparent ease with being on stage at the centre of the attention, and the two self-composed tunes he chose to play – both of which appear on the album. All nine tracks of Where Will The River Flow are written by Matt and I admire that he has the strength of conviction in his own music not to include covers on his debut release.

Album cover artwork
by Joanne Carmichael

“[Matt Carmichael] Has his own sound and storytelling together… so lyrical, emotive and believable… you can really feel the Scottish landscape in his playing and compositions”

BBC Four

‘Sognsvann’ is a lake outside Oslo, Norway (Matt spent some of his time studying in Oslo), it is also the inspiration for the album’s opening track. This is a beautifully written simple folk melody full of warm, rich tones from Matt’s saxophone with understated piano accompaniment from Fergus McCreadie but what really adds depth to the tune is the rich bass bowing of Ali Watson. The wonderful resonant bass features prominently in the second track ‘Firth’ but it is the combination of sax and piano that gives this track the rolling rhythm and evocation of river meeting open sea. Credit must also go to drummer Tom Potter who keeps a rolling, bubbling tempo throughout even when the sax and piano are building above.

‘Canonbridge’ is one of the two more personal tunes on the album and relates to a small rural village close to where Matt grew up. In many ways the composition is like the structure of the album’s opening track in that it is based on a relatively simple melody with the sax and piano playing off each other. What I like about this tune is the way the sound builds, becomes more excitable, the piano more percussive but at no point does the tune get out of control before fading back to the main melody.

‘The Spey’ is full of energy interspersed with moments of relative calm and is full of “moments resembling the rapid, unpredictable thrill of the river in full spate.” This is a tune that simply needs to be heard rather than read about. The fifth track is entitled ‘Interlude’ and it is just that, a warm toned lyrical melody that gives breathing space after the energetic ride of ‘The Spey’. This brings us on to the second of the tunes that Matt played in the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year 2020 final: ‘Hopeful Morning’. Again, this track is built on a relatively straightforward melody with well- balanced playing between sax and piano. The tune ebbs and flows with each member of the band adding their own light and shade giving the track an uplifting feel and optimism for a ‘Hopeful Day’.

Matt Carmichael describes the album title track, ‘Where Will The River Flow’, as one of his favourites and it is easy to hear why that might be. The structural traits of previous tracks are also present here in that a strong melodic line runs throughout the playing but there is also an edginess in pianist Fergus McCreadie’s solo, which is then softened out by Matt Carmichael’s sax before building once more and then falling to a peaceful soft coda that fades to a breath: beautiful! The softened tones that end the title track are then followed through to ‘Dear Grandma’, the poignant penultimate tune of this album. This is clearly a very personal composition full of emotion and memories. The playing is gentle, with a full rounded tone on the sax but also moments of lightness in the upper register as well as well-placed trills from the piano that adds a sense of fun that works so well on this moving dedication.

The album ends with ‘Valley’, “which was completely improvised in the studio, reflecting the vastness of the landscape that continues to be shaped after thousands of years of rivers flowing from the mountains to the sea.” Put simply, it works; it works because Matt Carmichael believes in his voice, a voice steeped in the folklore, the landscape, and the people of Scotland. It works because he has a quartet of musicians who know how to bring out the best of Matt’s compositions.

Where Will The River Flow is a statement album, and the fact that it is a debut album makes that statement all the more impressive. This is not an album of nine stand-alone tunes, it is an album of one continuous celebration of Scotland made up of nine Scottish melodies blended into the world of jazz and it is a blend that will deserve the accolades I believe the album merits.

Musicians: Matt Carmichael – tenor sax; Fergus McCreadie – piano; Ali Watson- bass; Tom Potter – drums.

Tracklist: 1. Sognsvann; 2. Firth; 3. Cononbrodge; 4. The Spey; 5. Interlude; 6. Hopeful Morning; 7 Where Will The River Flow; 8. Dear Grandma; 9. Valley.Where Will The River Flow  is released by Pothole Music and is available via Bandcamp

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