Unless it dries up, the river will flow to the sea. A more intriguing question might be: where will the flow take Matt Carmichael? At twenty-one, in his final year at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, the tenor saxophonista BBC Young Jazz Musician Finalist in 2020is only starting out on his musical journey. But his assured debut as leader suggests that Carmichael will travel far. These nine originals, which draw heavily on Scottish folk traditions, herald the emergence of an exciting talent and an original voice.
The playing is uniformly excellent, tight yet uninhibited, which is perhaps to be expected from a quartet that formed in 2016. The album starts serenely with "Sognsvann," a spare composition, named after a Swedish lake, and built around Carmichael's lilting and unmistakably Scottish melody. Understated yet lyrical, it feels like a warm welcoming toast before the main business begins.
Carmichael enjoys a solid rhythmic foundation in the form of drummer Tom Potterwhose collaboration with the leader goes back to the East Dumbartonshire Schools Orchestraand Ali Watson, a highly melodic bassist with a big, rich sound. The former's dynamism and the latter's melodic approach to groove are heard to good effect on "Firth," a handsome folk tune that moves from its cantering intro into a lively gallop, with pianist Fergus McCreadie
and Carmichael revelling in feisty unison play.
Carmichael and McCreadie's chemistry provides much of the album's charm and plenty of its spark. The pair met in 2015, in the NYOS Scottish Jazz Orchestra. Jazz has been part of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland since 1992 and this investment in youthbolstered by Tommy Smith
's Youth Jazz Orchestra is clearly paying dividends, with McCreadie's second album Cairn
(2021) released to some fanfare on the much-lauded Edition Records label. Saxophonist and pianist merge on the main melody of the breezy "Cononbridge," which swells from its brushes and gently chugging, country-esque bass stirrings into something grander, as McCreadie stretches out and the leader injects greater intensity into his melodic delivery.
Melody is central to Carmichael's writing, even on the helter-skelter unison motif and dashing improvisations of "The Spey." In full flow, fearless yet in total control, Carmichael revives memories of the teenaged Marius Neset
when he first surfaced with Jazz Kamikaze in 2005. The similarities are fleeting, however, for Carmichael nails his own quite distinctive colorsHighland tartanto his mast.
There is emotional heft in Carmichael's playing on the delicate ballad "Dear Grandma," and a different kind of introspection on "Interlude"a brief duet between Carmichael and Watson that marries bowed bass drone and plaintive melody to brooding effect. Bassist and saxophonist both shine on "Hopeful Mornings," another tune bookended by a memorably pretty motif. Outstanding too, the powerful title track, whose uncluttered architecture allows Carmichael's aching melody to seduce before McCreadie unleashes great torrents of tumbling lines, driven by Potter's bustling sticks. Carmichael takes up the reins with verve before engineering the softest of collective landings.
"Valley" rounds off a fine collection in some style, with Carmichael's patiently constructed solo gathering irrepressible momentum over an unobtrusive yet meaty rhythmic pulse. Melodically and rhythmically engaging, emotionally uplifting, Carmichael's impressive debut carries the promise of even greater things to come.
Sognsvann; Firth; Canonbridge; The Spey; Interlude; Hopeful Mornings; Where Will The River Flow; Dear Grandma; Valley.