What with winning the Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award in 2022 and being nominated the same year for the Mercury Prize for album Forest Floor, jazz pianist Fergus McCreadie is truly part of the forefront of a new wave of Scottish jazz musicians. With a new solo EP, Sketches, and a New Year’s Day gig at Greyfriars Kirk coming up, he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
The reception for Forest Floor has been amazing. What do you think it is about that album that particularly connected with people?
I think it’s quite an evocative album. I think there is probably that Scottish thing that it reminds people of – it’s definitely a ‘landscape’ vibe. That, combined with the improvising: I think it’s one thing to use music to evoke something if you write it all down. But because so much of that album is improvised, you can actually make it feel a bit more raw in that sense.
I’ve heard a few people talk about Forest Floor winning the SAY in terms of it being a breakwater for Scottish jazz.
Honestly, it didn’t need to be mine, but I really wanted a jazz album to win that. And it’s cool that this year a jazz album [Ezra Collective’s Where I’m Meant To Be] has won the Mercury Prize as well. I think that shows a more of a public conscious thought that jazz isn’t just some weird, outlier thing. People maybe take it a little bit more seriously, in a way that maybe before people have seen the jazz album in the shortlist and thought, ‘oh, that’s just the token jazz thing that won’t actually win’ – that is exactly how I felt about Forest Floor being in the shortlist. I was like, I’m really happy it’s there, but there’s no way a jazz album will win a major music prize. Just doesn’t really happen. And then it did actually happen, which is completely bonkers. I really didn’t expect that. If I’d known it was going to happen, I would have actually been there!
I think the best thing that came out of it was one woman – I don’t know who it was – tweeted at the time and said, ‘I think this album has made me consider that I might actually like jazz’, which I thought was a big victory.
There’s a group of musicians, yourself included, that have this real folk influence, this kind of rootedness. I wondered if you had any insight into what’s driving that.
The genres are actually more similar than they let on, I think. They sound not that much like each other, but the approach of how they’re learned and the culture of them is actually quite similar. Both of them are taught by ear: in jazz you learn everything on the instrument; folk music, people show up and learn just by playing it. Neither of them are written down traditions, really. And being in these social scenarios where you’re kind of swapping tunes – both of them grow and succeed in pubs before they kind of get out to the wider world. So I think it’s almost natural that a trad musician is going to feel a lot more comfortable in a jazz context than a classical musician, because the training is much more similar. So that path to connect the two isn’t a hard path to tread.
Sketches was all done in one session, is that right?
Having that time pressure just makes you just do it without overthinking it too much. So, yeah, it was just a four-hour session. I think one of the tunes on the album is the first take of just the initial idea, how it kind of fed into it. It’s like feeling out what my hands wanted to do on that day and then refining that enough, so you’ve got a good arc to this short little sketch you’ve come up with. But not over-refining it, because I think over-refined music is boring.
Hogmanay is clearly a particularly Scottish thing. Why do you think Scotland, as a country, responds to Hogmanay in the way that we do?
Scottish people love to party! But I think it is such a historical thing. Even when I was really young, it was always with my family: let’s stay up and watch Hogmanay with Jackie Bird in Edinburgh, with the fireworks at Edinburgh Castle. Those are three such Scottish things to have slammed into. It’s kind of a musical thing that people associate Hogmany with trad music because, I mean, Phil and Ally must have played that show countless times now. And everyone around the world sings Auld Lang Syne. It’s one of the times of year that I feel the most Scottish, for sure.
Any New Year’s resolutions?
I’ve been practicing this one Chopin piece for months now, doing my fucking head in. It’s so hard. If I could play that all the way through, I’d be happy with that. Then in general, I think I’d like to take a little bit more time for myself. I say yes to almost everything just because I love playing and love doing gigs, and it’s always with their friends and stuff, but sometimes maybe not doing every single gig you get asked is good. So maybe that’s my resolution: to try and create a bit more free time for myself.
Fergus McCreadie Trio play First Footin’ at Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, on 1st January. Tickets here.
Sketches EP is out now.