REVIEW: Jazz and classical fusion provides a night of folkloric brilliance at Future Yard

Jazz and Contemporary Classical meet with a strong Scottish, Irish, and Eastern European folklore aesthetic.

That’s how I’d sum up two quite remarkable bands, singularly racking up awards aplenty, who have come together on a wet winter night in a packed-out Birkenhead venue, part of a nine-gig tour.

I didn’t need to worry about disparities in style or sticking to convention as it all proved to be an absolutely thrilling collaboration, albeit genre alert – not for the purists. Housed in an impressive multi-functional space – Future Yard, a hip 280 capacity gig venue, indoor bar, outside garden space, rehearsal studio, and a funky coffee shop all in one place.

They even have craft beer/vinyl record markets here several times throughout the year. So the mashers and collectors are sorted.

A retro vibe of an oasis, but also forward-thinking with its eco aspirations. It aims to be one of the first carbon neutral grassroots music venues in the UK, handily close to Birkenhead railway station.

I’d like to say I came on my push bike or home-charged electric motor vehicle filled with a bunch of mates but alas the train (not plane) had to do.

No single use plastic at the bar either. With carbon neutral being the future, I checked out their plant-based, low-waste menu and with guarantees of supporting the planet and my tastebuds I ordered what they described as a sustainable pizza . Napoli meets Birkenhead they said and who am I to argue. No chance of losing my bearings either with a pizza name like ‘MerseyRita’.

I’d imagine pianist Fergus McCreadie would approve as his three albums to date all feature art depicting nature, peace or pilgrimage and references to the natural environment run through all his works.

It also feels rather apt to have the title of ‘The Unfurrowed Field’ for this tour as it’s one of Fergus McCreadie’s song titles and it’s back to the theme of nature again.

So once I’d done feasting and decided I couldn’t fault the environmental ethos and tasty grub, and leaving nothing behind, I headed through another door of the maze they call Future Yard, for the main event.

The award-winning Fergus McCreadie Trio and similarly acclaimed Manchester Collective, did not disappoint, fusing strengths and styles resulting in a heady and utterly compelling mix.

I wasn’t sure what to expect but it proved to be most effective, challenging the idea that Jazz and Classical are separate entities as they weaved and amalgamated each other’s discipline with multi-layered conviction, all housed within a strong atmosphere of folk.

Each band at times holding court, but neither in the shadow of the other.

Pianist Fergus McCreadie caught my eye last month as part of the fusion band Corto Alto. He’s becoming a leading voice on today’s young and vibrant jazz piano scene gaining many plaudits.

His recent third album Forest Floor, with his tight trio of bassist David Bowden and drummer Stephen Henderson, here again tonight, was shortlisted for the 2022 Mercury Prize and won Scottish album of the year 2022.

Similarly Manchester Collective as a classical string quartet made their London Prom debut in 2021 and have just won the Royal Philharmonic Society’s prestigious ensemble award in 2023.

Their aim is to reshape classical music by edgy contemporary means, and they more than justified that tonight, as well as having a penchant for re-interpreting classical masterpieces.

They too have released three albums to their name. It seems rather fitting therefore that both bands have come together seeking to test genre boundaries by creating the powerful hybrid we have tonight , their own type of ceilidh.

Fergus McCreadie has a light, ethereal touch to his playing opening with his own song Stony Gate from his forthcoming fourth album ‘Stream’ and a selection from his ‘Forest Floor’ album. Delicate, lush and soothing piano parts until the frenetic bits which were hearty with a robust tone as he upped the tempo then back again to softer dynamics.

He’s a convincing pianist, vibrant but not showy, expressive on his own terms. Quite an unassuming demeanour but wielding an almost supernatural power, a real Jedi of the piano.

A beauty to his playing which is hard to articulate. Epictetus the Greek philosopher sums it up when he said, “Nature gives us one tongue and two ears so we could hear twice as much as we speak.”

His fingering and timing on the keys in perfect unison with the string players. You can feel the attention to detail technically and musically between both trio and quartet.

It felt like a carefully orchestrated and innovative collaboration with lots of folkie tones and even some improvisation seemed to sneak in that felt very instinctive. Rakhi Singh, the female director and violinist, from the Manchester Collective commanded plenty of leading parts as did fellow violinist Donald Grant, supported by violist Simone van der Giessen and cellist Christian Elliott.

They were beautifully accomplished players and dramatic in their execution of the strings. Pieces seemed to unfold like flowers, the way they opened, climbed, and then morphed into something else.

The double bass and drums provided the perfect backdrop, holding it all together, solidifying, bridging and showcasing both piano and classical stringed instruments. The arrangements from both bands were stunning with long and short notes, quick and slow attacks from the strings, in true staccato or legato fashion.

All impacting the overall essence and feel of the playing. Fergus McCreadie’s song, the Unfurrowed Field was revamped in a startling transformation from the gentle original to a dramatic frenzy of a track with distinct key changes and differing time signatures.

Intensity was built, at times, to almost jolt you but eloquence was never lost. The string section providing lots of texture and expertly played some very dramatic passages. Each player seemed to know how to add to the feeling of the ensemble without undermining that sense of give and take.

The communal energy continued to flow throughout the night, playing off each other with enthusiasm.

The rhythm section keeping the entire thing moving and handling the dynamic changes in the music with aplomb. They are certainly fine birds of youth and talent this lot, and are absolutely flying.

Much more grace than just plumage. As I headed home I reflected on a night filled with such rhythmic and virtuosic energy in a small but stonking venue that promised a blueprint for a greener tomorrow.

I think I’ll go for a nice soak in the bath when I get home, in awe of the magic I’d just witnessed, but not before Future Yard gives me a subliminal reminder, “don’t forget now, tub part filled.”

Image: Fergus McCreadie

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