Matt Carmichael - have sax, will travel
Matt Carmichael (photo by Chun-Wei Kang)
Matt Carmichael rattles off his upcoming commitments, starting with the various bands he’ll be appearing with at Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival this month. There’s the saxophonist’s own gig with his quartet, in a double bill with drummer Graham Costello’s STRATA, one new group led by bassist-composer Mark Hendry and another co-led by singer Irini Arabatzi and drummer Stephen Henderson.
Immediately after those, Carmichael leaves for a three-week tour in the Balkans with the JM World Jazz Orchestra. Then come some gigs in Belgium with a group of musicians he met on an exchange project in Brussels and after that his quartet goes on the road over here.
So much, then, for students taking a break over the summer because the twenty-year-old from Lenzie is between his second and third years on the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s jazz course. His course leader, saxophonist Tommy Smith, will doubtless approve of Carmichael’s activities since Smith seldom seems to pause for breath in a schedule that takes him across the world with Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen’s trio and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra while also finding time for his own various projects.
Smith, who has already described Carmichael as “better than I was at that age” and in whose youth orchestra Carmichael also featured, can be sure that the course he strove so tirelessly to establish – having seen the high standards of jazz education in other parts of the world and wanted the same for Scotland – is paying handsome dividends. The scene around the RCS and its jazz graduates has produced more talented, and more individual, bands than you can shake a conductor’s baton at.
“It’s been great to be part of that scene,” says Carmichael, who attended the Royal Academy in London briefly before settling on the Conservatoire. “You’re really encouraged to be yourself, which I don’t think is always the case with other jazz courses, and everyone around you is really supportive.”
Saxophone wasn’t Carmichael’s first choice of instrument. He took piano lessons for six months at the age of seven before deciding that the piano wasn’t for him. So when the opportunity to try saxophone came up three or four years later and he showed some aptitude for it (his own modest version of the story is that he was able to produce sound on it), his parents might have been justified had they been sceptical.
“I don’t think I’d even seen anyone playing the sax before,” he says. “I’m not even sure that I’d heard one played before either and I think my first reaction was, this is something different, it’ll be cool to learn to play.”
Group lessons at school didn’t bode well and when private lessons were arranged with Allon Beauvoisin, the baritone saxophonist and brilliantly dependable backbone in horn quartet Brass Jaw and sometime saxophone section “anchor” for the Scottish National jazz Orchestra, Carmichael didn’t really appreciate the jazz his teacher tried to steer him towards.
“Allon was really nice,” he says. “He made me a compilation disc of Charlie Parker, Michael Brecker, Chris Potter and other saxophonists, who were obviously brilliant but didn’t really appeal to me musically for some reason. But then I heard Brass Jaw and there was this really soulful solo that Konrad Wiszniewski played on one track and I thought, that’s what I want to do.”
Improvising, he says, seemed to come naturally, although that didn’t make his first experience of standing up and taking a solo with the East Dunbartonshire Schools’ Jazz Orchestra any easier.
“I think I was thirteen or fourteen when I joined the orchestra,” he says. “I’d obviously never done anything like that before, so it was great to get a chance to play in a band onstage. But that first solo was absolutely terrifying. I was shaking. Of course, everyone in the band knows how it feels because your first solo – and everyone has to play their first solo at some point – is a rite of passage. But I didn’t realise that everyone else was shaking as they waited their turn too. Anyway, I got through my chorus, or whatever it was, and the feeling of achievement was amazing. I can still get nervous if I have to stand up and solo in an orchestra even now but I think that feeling of overcoming the fear makes you play better. The adrenaline maybe makes you concentrate more.”
It was while he was with the East Dunbartonshire Schools Jazz Orchestra – and this is where the youth of Scotland’s current jazz proliferation strikes home – that Carmichael heard a pianist on the radio who made him think, I want to play with him some day. This was Fergus McCreadie, the pianist in Carmichael’s quartet as it now happens, and recent winner, with his trio, of the Best Album prize at the Scottish Jazz Awards.
McCreadie was fifteen at the time and had just won the Under 17 section of the Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year competition.
“Yeah, Fergus is a year older than the rest of my quartet,” says Carmichael. “He’s the only one with a beard but we’ll be able to grow beards soon. I thought his playing was so advanced.”
It wasn’t long before his wish to play with McCreadie was granted. Having joined the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland, Carmichael found himself in the same band as McCreadie and playing music that has become one of his main sources of inspiration as the English saxophonist Iain Ballamy took the orchestra through some of his compositions in readiness for NYJOS’ summer tour.
“Apart from Brass Jaw, I’d only heard American jazz at that point,” says Carmichael. “Iain’s music was beautiful and very European. It made me want to check out other stuff that I listen to now, the whole ECM thing for example. And at the end of that NYJOS tour, Fergus came up to me and said we should definitely play together more. That was fantastic to hear and he obviously meant it because we’re still playing together.”
Playing with NYJOS gave Carmichael easy access to the jamming sessions that were taking place in and around the RCS and eventually he auditioned and was accepted onto the jazz course. His first gig as a leader was with McCreadie’s trio (bassist David Bowden and drummer Stephen Henderson) and trombonist Liam Shortall and when he formed his quartet, McCreadie agreed to join along with bassist Ali Watson and drummer Tom Potter.
“I wanted to have a band that kept a stable line-up because that’s the best way to develop the music,” he says, adding that as a saxophonist the onus is on you to form a band and look for work whereas drummers and bass players get asked to play.
He’s certainly gone about the bandleader’s job diligently. His quartet has already played London gigs including the Vortex and Pizza Express, the latter with vibes player Johnny Mansfield guesting, and have recorded an EP and a series of other tracks. An album is on the horizon but before that, Carmichael is looking forward to studying at the Norwegian Academy in Oslo for six months on the Erasmus student exchange.
“A few other colleges were available but I love Norwegian jazz with its folk music influences and studying where all that great music is being produced really appealed,” he says. “I’m hoping, after I’ve been there, to record my first album with the quartet. We have enough material already and I think sometime over the next year or so, we’ll be ready to put an album out.”
From The Herald, July 6, 2019