Rising jazz star Matt Carmichael on crossing musical boundaries: “I’d love to be able to just turn up at folk sessions and play sax”

Raised on American jazz greats such as Coltrane and Parker, rising star Matt Carmichael has developed an exciting Scottish style of his own
Matt Carmichael PIC: Greg MacveanMatt Carmichael PIC: Greg Macvean
Matt Carmichael PIC: Greg Macvean

It was an Englishman, John Amyat, who famously declared, during the Scottish Enlightenment, that he could stand at the cross of Edinburgh and “in a few minutes take 50 men of genius by the hand.” One is tempted to substitute 21st century Glasgow for 18th-century Edinburgh and for “men,” trumpeters, saxophonists pianists and drummers… A decade on from Tommy Smith establishing the first jazz course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow has indeed become a hotbed of emergent jazz genius.

“Yeah, there’s a lot going on,” agrees tenor saxophonist Matt Carmichael, now in his third year at the Conservatoire but about to head for Oslo on an Erasmus student exchange. At just 20, Carmichael has already played the likes of Ronnie Scott’s, Newport Jazz Festival in the US, Edinburgh Jazz Festival and the BBC Proms, either under his own name or with one of the numerous groups emerging from the Glasgow scene, such as the Mark Hendry Orchestra and Fat-Suit, or with artists like singer Luca Manning and pianist Fergus McCreadie.

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His Matt Carmichael Quartet sees him in the company of the multiple award-winning pianist McCreadie, who graduated last year from the Glasgow conservatoire, 2016 Young Drummer of the Year Tom Potter, and bassist Ali Watson, recipient of a Dewar Arts Award in 2017 and – like Potter – currently studying at the Guildhall school in London.

Carmichael’s own success in the award stakes came last month when he scooped a £2,500 Peter Whittingham jazz development award which will allow him and his band to record, produce and promote their debut album, which he hopes to release by the autumn.

It should be worth waiting for. Described as “one to watch” by Jazzwise magazine and as “world class” by his course director, Tommy Smith, Carmichael’s playing combines muscular drive with a richly lyrical and melodic sense that takes on board Scottish folk influences. The township-inflected bounce of his composition Safari, for instance, contrasts with the gorgeously toned The Airport, which sings with Caledonian melancholy.

Carmichael describes as “inspiring” meeting up with fellow students such as McCreadie in Glasgow (and earlier, when, along with Potter, they were in the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland’s Jazz Orchestra). He also namechecks bassist and composer Mark Hendry and Graham Costello, drummer and leader of the jazz fusion outfit STRATA. “There were some very talented people around.”

Another manifestation of this burgeoning scene is the jazz-rock-folk big band Fat-Suit, with whom Carmichael has recently been touring although he’s not a regular member.

We’re talking in a café just round the corner from the red brick bulk of the Conservatoire. The neighbourhood is one of musical convergence, with Scottish Opera’s Theatre Royal just across the street while beyond rises the Italianate sandstone of the National Piping Centre, formerly Old Cowcaddens Church. Carmichael’s interests are similarly eclectic.

Growing up in Lenzie, East Dunbartonshire, he has come a long way since a letter was circulated at his primary school, offering lessons on saxophone, clarinet or flute. “I didn’t really know much about the saxophone, I just liked the word, so I ticked that box and did a wee music test and got it. I was maybe 11.”

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He started lessons with Allon Beauvoisin, baritone saxophonist and member of the award-winning horn quartet Brass Jaw.

“I didn’t know much about jazz before that, and Allon gave me a disc with different things to check out.” The first thing that really made him sit up, he recalls, was a sax solo by Beauvoisin’s Brass Jaw bandmate Konrad Wiszniewski in an adaptation of the Beatles’ Drive My Car. “I was like… wow!”

By 14 and attending Lenzie Academy, Carmichael was playing in the East Dunbartonshire Schools Jazz Orchestra, then the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland’s jazz orchestra (NYOS Jazz) and the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra. It was at NYOS Jazz that he met the English saxophonist Iain Ballamy when he guested with the youth band.

“That was an amazing experience because before that the only jazz I knew was the American sort of thing but Iain brought all this original, folky kind of music and I thought, ‘Ah, this is my kind of thing.”

Carmichael’s earliest influences had been such greats as Adderley, Coltrane, Parker. “Then I got into more modern saxophonists like Michael Brecker, Seamus Blake – and obviously Tommy [Smith]. He’s one of the best and it’s great to have someone like him here at the Conservatoire.”

More recently the distinctive sounds of Scandinavian jazz have hooked him, which is why he’s off to Oslo for three months. He’ll be taking time off in March, however, having booked Quiet Money studio in Hastings, where McCreadie made his award-winning album, Turas. Carmichael’s album will feature entirely his own material: “I’ve been composing since I was 16 or so and now I feel I’ve developed a personal style; we’ve been gigging a lot together and I feel we’ve got a distinct sound – melodic, folky jazz, but when we solo it’s obviously from a jazz background.”

That folk strand is important to him. “I see it as a project to be properly good at trad. I’d love to be able to just turn up at folk sessions and play sax.”

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Tenor sax in a trad session? It might raise a few eyebrows, he agrees, but amid Glasgow’s bubbling musical crucible, nothing should surprise us. 

The Matt Carmichael Quartet plays Jazz at St James, St James Church, Leith on 1 February. Carmichael and McCreadie play Celtic Connections at the City Hall Recital Room on 2 February. See www.mattcarmichaelmusic.com