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Andrew McCormack's Graviton
The Calling To Adventure

by Robin Kidson

 

 

Graviton The Calling

 

 

"Soft and far the calling starts
and as it grows, his fate is shown.
Fast time runs the calling grows strong.
Eden is just where you live,
But something's changed,
It's not the same place.
Oh, GO NOW!
Oh, RIGHT NOW!
You are made for far more ......"

 

Pianist and composer, Andrew McCormack, categorises the music which his band Graviton plays as “prog-jazz”. That’s a new one on me. I remember prog-rock, of course, and rather liked the music of some of its exponents – yes and King Crimson, in particular. Prog-rock took the rhythms, instrumentation and attitudes of rock and combined them with elements taken from classical music, folk and jazz. Add to the blend some prodigious musicianship and the result was often quite brilliant music. There was also, it has to be said, a fair amount of pretentiousness and more-is-more excess, and the whole movement dissolved under the onslaught of punk.

In retrospect, some of the bands which traded under the prog-rock banner didn’t really belong there at all. If I listen now to old Soft Machine records, for example, I feel I’m experiencing straight contemporary jazz, not prog-rock. It’s also difficult sometimes to work out where prog-rock ends and jazz-rock begins. That’s the trouble with labels: yes, they can help us to simplify and therefore better understand a complex world, but it’s important to recognise their limitatons.

Which brings us back to Andrew McCormack and his “prog-jazz” label. Andrew was born in 1978, well after prog-rock’s glory days. He has had a varied career. In 2006, for example, he was the BBC Jazz Award’s Rising Star but has also written for the London Symphony Orchestra. He has recorded three albums with saxophonist Jason Yarde, performed with his own trio and, since 2007, has been a member of the Kyle Eastwood quintet. He formed Graviton in 2017 and they released their first (eponymous) album in that year. When writing the tracks on the album, Andrew admits he was listening to a lot of old prog-rock at the time including Bill Bruford, Gentle Giant and Genesis. Listen to Graviton in a live performance in 2017 of Escape Velocity from that first album:

 

 

 

 

"........Endless more to endure
More
You are made for far more than you think for.
More, far more.
More, far more.
Aahhhh, you'll miss the sky here.
But you must go on the same
The calling is too strong ......."

 

Graviton’s second album, The Calling, has recently come out on the excellent Ubuntu label. A favourite prog-rock device was the concept album with individual tracks having a common theme. Often, that theme would have something to do with the old hippy liking for myth and legend – Tolkien, King Arthur, Icelandic sagas, you know the sort of thing. McCormack has done something similar with The Calling. A booklet with the CD includes an elaborate explanation by Andrew of the album’s theme which “follows the classic hero’s journey…. 'the calling’ itself is the irresistible summoning to adventure which the hero cannot avoid without devastating consequences”.

McCormack plays piano on the album and has composed all of the tracks. He is joined by some superb musicians – Noemi Nuti (vocals), Josh Arcoleo (tenor sax), Joshua Blackmore (drums), and Tom Herbert (electric bass). Robin Mullarkey joins or replaces Herbert on electric bass on three of the ten tracks. Noemi Nuti has also written the lyrics to four of the tracks. In the old prog-rock tradition, those lyrics are set out in the CD’s booklet.

 

Knight


Painting by Olga-Tereshenko

 

".......Transformation's near,
The calling is clear
Overcome the line,
That your mind defines
So you will become far more!"

 

 

The Calling begins with Uroboros, “the pre-cosmogonic chaos….its meaning includes the infinite cycle of death and rebirth but also infinite possibility; everything and nothing at the same time”. It is a short brooding piece, mainly featuring piano and percussion with some very effective electronic augmentation.

The journey begins proper in the Walled Garden “which is the perfect balance between nature and culture… It’s a safe, protected place where the community happily live their lives, but the walls are not impenetrable”. Musically, the track introduces us to some of the album’s most striking features. First off is Noemi Nuti’s voice. Although born in the US, she trained in England and has absorbed that Norma Winstone English female jazz voice style whilst developing her own distinctive sound. On Walled Garden, she sings wordlessly in a way which clearly owes something to Norma Winstone but not  that much. Her interplay with Arcoleo’s sax is particularly original and effective.

A second feature is the use of infectious prog-rock riffs. Finally, Walled Garden shows us that McCormack can write with a vengeance. His tunes are often quite complex with changes in mood and tempo but always accessible; hummable, even; stuff to make your feet tap.

 

Listen to Walled Garden

 

 

 

Next up is the title track, The Calling, when “danger comes to the gates that the hero must go out to confront…the hero will heed the calling and must go on a perilous journey to discover the unknown world…” The track has lyrics written and sung with crystal clarity by Noemi Nuti. The piece alternates between jagged spikiness and a sometimes soaring smoothness but drives along most satisfyingly. Josh Arcoleo comes into his own particularly in some complex but absorbing interplay with Andrew McCormack's piano.

Here is a performance of the track in the form of a promotional video for the whole album:

 

 


On his journey, the hero needs a Magic Mentor to guide him or her on their way. All the trademark stuff is on show on this track – the wordless singing, changes in tempo and mood, the complex but accessible tunes… Added to this is some nicely judged electronic enhancement (including some multi-tracking on the vocals) which is used sparingly and never overwhelms but is good at creating the various moods of the piece. Andrew’s skillful piano playing is well to the fore.

Crossing the Threshold is the next track, the threshold being “the point of no return” where the hero must go “into the unknown, risking all for the higher cause”. Again, electronics are used effectively and there is some crisp drumming from Joshua Blackmore. This is followed by the stand out track of the whole album, The King is Blind, which is a driving piece of prog-rock or jazz-rock or whatever you want to call it. If it had been released in, say, 1973, it might have been a hit – or at least had an airing on The Old Grey Whistle Test. Noemi Nuti is at her most expressive, singing her own lyrics with gusto. Just when you’re beginning to think, yes, this is really good but it isn’t really jazz, both Arcoleo and McCormack come in with solos which are most definitely jazz.

 

Here’s a brief extract from The King is Blind:

 

 

 

The hero must then negotiate the Fork in The Road: “Up one must go/Never down/A fork in the road” according to Nuti’s lyrics beautifully sung as usual. It is a slow, rather hypnotic piece with both sax and piano playing a memorable riff. On into the Belly of the Brienne of TarthWhale, “the lowest, darkest place of self-discovery”. This has an upbeat rock rhythm, driven forward by Blackmore’s bang-on-the-beat drumming, and an insistent riff played against a wash of atmospheric sound – like being in the belly of a whale, one supposes.

The hero and the magic mentor “are then ready to face the ultimate challenge, the dragon of chaos!” as represented in the longest piece on the album, Dragon. Nuti’s wordless singing is thrillingly ethereal. Abrupt and often dramatic changes in mood and rhythm, with a series of jagged interludes, seem to mirror the fight with the dragon. Josh Arcoleo and Andrew McCormack take virtuosic straight-jazz solos.

The dragon is defeated and “the hero then returns to the walled garden transformed, more developed in consciousness and a more valuable member of his/her society”. This is marked by the final piece on the album, Returning, which has one of the most memorable melodies on an album full of memorable melodies. Once again, this has lyrics by Noemi Nuti. Towards the end of the track, she repeats over and over again the final words of the song “Coming home, returning; coming home returning..” to another trademark McCormack riff.

 

Brienne of Tarth

 

 

Summing up, “The classic hero’s journey” says McCormack, “has been the subject of much art and music throughout history and it speaks to us all on a collective level that we can intrinsically understand. I think part of the strong attraction that we have to these stories is that they can show us all a correct and meaningful way to be in the world”.

The Calling is a most satisfying and absorbing piece of work by a composer coming in to his own ably assisted by some supremely talented musicians. If this be “prog-jazz”, then let us have more.

 

In this video, Andrew McCormack talks about the album together with footage of the band playing extracts from some of the tracks.

 

 

 

Click here for Andrew McCormacks’s website.

 

Andrew McCormacks Graviton

 

Graviton is playing some live dates over the summer:

1st July : The Whiskey Jar, Manchester
2nd July : The Flute and Tankard, Cardiff
1st August : 606 Club, London

 

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