Andrew McCormack, Pizza Express Jazz Club, London – review

When British pianist Andrew McCormack moved to New York early last year he was an in-demand sideman and best known for his long-running partnership with saxophonist Jason Yarde. He returned for this gig as a sure-footed bandleader with a strong personal touch, launching his new trio album First Light. Across two sets, the pianist’s classical precision, unfolding group narratives and swaggering sense of swing kept a full house on its toes.

McCormack’s trio thrives on the relationship between the leader’s overarching sense of form and the wild antics of Brooklyn-based drummer Colin Stranahan. Rippling piano came with an ever-louder pulse, a cymbal ping or a skitter of brushes, and full-bodied chords could be marked by thumps, crashes or even a moment’s silence. But the accents were well placed, and with stand-in bassist Sam Lasserson firmly in the holding role, added to the dynamics without interrupting flow.

The first set, like the new CD, opened with the breezy optimism of “Prospect Park”. McCormack, unaccompanied, introduced the theme before a sprightly pulse kicked in – the mood was upbeat, though dark corners occasionally surfaced. “Gotham Soul” was a slow-burning arc with a fugue-like entry, the gentle “First Light” had an end-of-day mood and “Reluctant Gift” was a trio tour de force whose upward-creeping melody was disrupted by short bursts of quick-tempo swing. The trio followed form to the letter, grew more intense and stopped suddenly at a peak. The set ended with the gentle theme and rich textural variations of “Vista”.

The second half juxtaposed new material with McCormack’s back catalogue and introduced Finnish trumpeter Verneri Pohjola. The pianist’s sensitive and compelling accompaniment made the most of Pohjola’s tonal control and lines that sat equally well over modes and closely argued swing alike. Full and brassy at full tilt, the trumpeter was deliciously fragile on a self-penned waltz and almost flute-like on the atmospheric mood-piece “Luxor”.

Marshalled expertly by McCormack’s sense of form, the unrehearsed quartet gained balance on an untitled opener before they breezed through the rococo theme of “Junket”. They ended maxing out with “Telescope”, the fast, swinging and tricky title track of McCormack’s first CD. A short unaccompanied encore restored calm, but left the audience still wanting more.

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