Review: Andrew McCormack and Jason Yarde at The Vortex



Andrew McCormack and Jason Yarde
(The Vortex, Friday 21st June. Review by Matthew Wright)


These two extraordinary virtuoso performers have been working together on and off for five years now. Their recorded début, My Duo, came out to widespread acclaim in 2009, and a distinguished successor, Places and Other Spaces, in 2011. Technically exquisite, emotionally profound and formally adventurous, they push the duo to new levels of sophistication.

Unsurprisingly, both players are in widespread demand elsewhere. Their technical accomplishment is sought by many classical ensembles; both also compose. This gig was presented as a reunion of two hugely talented performers who know each others' playing completely. Their interaction was intricate,  intimately probing,  their understanding of one another’s movements instinctive, their styles complementary .

They adapt well-known standards from jazz and elsewhere: their version of ‘Something’s Coming’ from West Side Story was as fresh as an arctic breeze through the stale, overheated atmosphere of Bernstein arrangements. There were also original compositions. For this gig, a combination of tracks from the two albums was interspersed with new material, some by McCormack, some Yarde, and some written jointly. One was so new its title was discussed with the audience. (They both have charismatic stage presences, Yarde, in particular, showing off a fine dry wit.)

In the past, critics have commented on the ultimately limited range available to a duo of piano and sax. But the overwhelming impression from an evening with these two performers was how fully they both inhabit the harmonic space. There are so many notes. They are such effusive and generous players that it’s difficult to know what another instrument could do when they play like this, other than cramp their style.

There was a kind of pattern to their performances. Adopting a fulsome minimalism, Andrew McCormack would construct a complex harmonic platform on which Jason Yarde’s sax would writhe, run, burst and cry. McCormack was the surging ocean swell, lifting both players with his seething harmonic tide; Yarde the flying fish launching from the mass of notes into beguiling flight before plunging back into the depths.

This freshness and evocation of outdoors is reflected in several track titles: ‘Vista’, with its gentler, more melodic exploration, and ‘Antibes’. Yarde candidly conceded he’d never been to Antibes, and indeed his surf-like hissing tone, and seagull-squawk, uncannily evocative though they were, made it sound more like Scarborough in March than a Riviera playground.

  But McCormack never felt outdone or wallflowerish, though inevitably, with solo sax playing of this quality, there were moments when he was effectively accompanying Yarde. During sections of the track ‘Breezabeth’, 14 minutes of mind-warping intensity, his colossal, explosive reach sounded more like Shostakovich than Nyman, his more usual stylistic guide. And there were several tunes in which the two exchanged positions. In ‘Something’s Coming’, the piano had the spikier, more involved improvisation, while the sax played the melody straightahead.

Yarde’s saxophone improvisation was world class. There were multiphonics, blown into a reverberent piano lid for extra distortion, as well as voicing, flutter-tonguing and growling.  Sometimes he was a scalding, spurting geyser of notes, at others, his sax cooed and fluttered like a caged bird. There was, of course, virtuosic speed, but more striking was the variety of sound, and the speed with which he changed mood. ‘Thank U4 2 Day’, one of the shorter pieces, compressed anger, lyricism, humour and sadness into four minutes of fervent drama.

Compositions tended to reflect the predominant playing style of each performer, so McCormack’s, on the whole, had longer melodic lines and allowed for pianistic exploration of harmony, while Yarde’s tended to offer more scope for explosive, percussive improvisation. But the extraordinary feature of this duo, like any great artistic collaboration, was how skilfully they combined their distinctive characteristics into a compelling whole.

Both performers are superb in larger ensembles, and are now enjoying great success on a wide range of stages. But you miss out on some of their intensity. This was an exhilarating performance, and anyone interested in composition and performance at the boundaries of our art should seek them out.

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