Scottish tradition and jazz | Matt Carmichael interview

RE:VIVE primarily covers electronic music. But the concept of “reuse” of heritage materials is prevalent in every musical genre. So every now and then something pops up whether it be drone Irish folk music or an opera based on a punk band’s archive that grabs our attention and we have to dive deeper. This time, it’s a saxophonist from Scotland. 

Matt Carmichael is a young rising star in the jazz world. At 22, with one album out, Where the River Will Flow he’s already made a lasting impression. It’s not his adept playing — and he’s very skilled — even though he was a finalist for the BBC’s Young Jazz Musician competition in 2020. No, it’s his unique compositions which derive direct influence from the traditional music of his home country: Scotland. 

Jazz saxophone and traditional Celtic music aren’t so removed from one another. Woodwinds are key instruments in traditional music (trad) including the tin whistle and of course, bagpipes. Jazz and trad are commonly played in ensembles, sometimes of people who’ve been playing for years and other times impromptu improvisational jams where musicians have a foundation of standards from which they can explore. Like Lankum, another group (albeit from Ireland) who are translating their love for sludge and doom drone rock through traditional Irish music, Carmichael takes the essence of Scottish music and reformats it in a jazz setting. 

His music channels that feeling of space that somewhere like Scotland oozes as anyone who’s driven through the Scottish Highlands has experienced. The vastness, the isolation, the magic and the humility that people must have to live in such rugged topography. 

Inspired by his music and its fusing of the old and the new we spoke to Carmichael. 

What was your first introduction to traditional music? 

Um, I guess nothing distinctive. I guess the first thing I can recall is in school. Everyone had to do social dancing to learn how to dance in P.E.. You had a block of football, athletics, and then you’d have social dancing. So every year you had to learn to Cèilidh dance. Everyone hated it, I think. I don’t think I really enjoyed it at the time, but I think that’s the first. And I guess being around Cèilidh dancing is kind of the first and memory of that sort of thing. And I think we went on a school trip to see this amazing festival, Celtic Connections. It’s only in Glasgow every year. 

But I didn’t really get into it until I went to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where there’s a traditional music course and I started to meet traditional musicians and I also began studying jazz music before going on to college. It was kind of a lot of discovering it by myself and that was quite exciting. But then I found when I got to college and everyone’s like, oh, check out this jazz record, check out that jazz record. It kind of turned me off jazz a bit just because it was so intense and lots of people were telling me to listen to it. So that’s also kind of when I got into traditional music and that kind of opened up a new way, I guess, just like a love for that music.

What were the elements of traditional music that drew you in? 

I think the sense of joy. I mean, the melodies, a lot of them are just major diatonic melodies and they feel really uplifting and feel good to me. I guess the excitement. I’m trying to think of actually…the fiddle player in my band and when I first saw him play. The way he was playing tunes and like he was playing but he was improvising; going off the tunes and kind of being very free with it. 

And it reminds me of the excitement I felt when I first heard improvised jazz music and just seeing all this potential within the whole realm of improvisation within folk music. And it’s centered around the melody, maybe in a stronger way than in jazz. So that really excites me. Yeah, the uplifting nature of the melodies and the fiddle and certain types of whistles. I heard this whistle player named Brian Finnegan, his album. Someone showed me that a few years ago, and that was really exciting as a saxophone player. I guess it’s kind of a similar-ish sort of world with maybe some of the fingers and all these ornamentations and ways of expressing the whistle. So that was quite eye opening. 

Have you sat in on a trad session in a pub yet?

I’ve never actually taken it [the saxophone] to a pub. I’ve played a lot with traditional musicians in a private setting. But I have never actually brought it down to the pub. But I’d be up for it. Also, I guess you might get some funny looks from some people who have never seen a saxophone, depending on which location you went to. But I spent a lot of time privately playing with folk musicians. No, I should do that. I should do that. 

Does the Scottish landscape play a big role in your composing?

I write music every day. I sit at the piano and write tunes and stuff but I’m not necessarily thinking of a particular landscape or a particular thing. I’m just kind of letting my feelings go. And then it’s kind of when it comes to naming tunes, I kind of, I guess I think about what they evoke, certain areas of the landscape, and then they kind of attach to names to maybe memories or experiences or what I can visualize how the music sounds.  

But when writing I’m not actually thinking of landscapes or anything. It’s very much a meditative sort of thing to me. There’s no pressure to come up with anything. I just kind of find it relaxing. I’m not making money from practicing piano, so it’s just kind of relaxing for an hour or so and just tunes come out and then voice record them all. 

You did your ERASMUS in Oslo – what was your biggest takeaway from your time there? 

It was really interesting. I guess with my jazz folk thing, there’s a strong jazz folk history there in Norwegian and Scandinavian jazz. I feel like that’s the backbone of their jazz. It’s not necessarily the history of the American jazz music. It’s kind of their history, the Scandinavian jazz sound. There are a lot of people there who are playing jazz in an American style. 

But I think there’s a focus on artistry. Like there’s a lot of really, really cool unique original projects with less focus on caring too much about the tradition of jazz. So that was kind of a different approach. I very much have a background in the tradition of American jazz but I didn’t view myself as an American sounding musician. But so when I went over I was like, oh, I sound much more American. I realized I’ve got all this sort of stuff in my playing that they didn’t necessarily have there.  

I had a great time there and met really nice people who are really interesting and creative; creative minds that were very much about the artistry of what they want to do and not necessarily feeling pressured to conform to the history of any sort of music. Ironically, a lot of the musicians there were wanting to get away from this Scandinavian jazz sound. So to them that’s like the old classics. Then they come off something new and they don’t want to be referred to as Norwegian jazz. Some of them were a bit tired of that sort of reference. 

When you play live, do you notice a younger crowd or do you notice other, young Scottish musicians reviving traditional styles with their own voice?  

I guess my audiences are really mixed at the moment. It depends on the location of the gig. Like, if I go and play somewhere in the middle of England, like a small town, it’ll be a really old audience. But the other week I played this festival called Love Supreme Festival, which is full of young people who were really into the music. I think music is kind of…I think it’s got the potential to reach older and younger audiences, and it seems to resonate with both, which is kind of encouraging. And yeah, I’m not the only person doing this jazz and folk thing thing. Like there’s Fergus McCreadie.

He is your piano player, right?

Yeah, he does his solo stuff as well. And there’s another guy called Norman Willmore who does it. He has more of a free jazz influence. His music is really cool as well. So I think I’m not I’m not the only person who’s doing it and there’s loads of people who’ve done it before. But I think it’s just like anything, everyone brings a unique take on it. It’s not something I force. I don’t think, oh, I should revive this. I should bring these two things together. It’s kind of naturally how my music sounded. And people are like, oh, it’s just jazz and folk. That’s kind of that’s how it’s been sort of labeled, but it’s just how I started writing then this sound with strong melodies, with some folk influence and jazz. It’s just what came out. 

Are you surprised by the success?

I mean, it’s not like a ginormous success but it is nice. It was nice to hear that people resonated with it and it seemed to connect with people. I kind of always thought my music had the potential to connect with people in a way. I know my vision for the way I wanted it to be perceived by people who had not necessarily heard jazz before. I liked to find a way where there’s intelligence in the music and stuff but that the emphasis is kind of on the emotive qualities and melodies. And I think that’s kind of what helped make it resonate and maybe and go a bit further than it would have. 

But I was surprised it went better than that. I didn’t know what to expect and then lots of opportunities have come from it. Like if you asked me three, three or four years ago if some of the things that have happened recently with…yeah if you told my old self some of this stuff that would have happened that would have really come…it wasn’t on the horizon. So yeah,  I’m happy with how things are going and excited to see where it goes next. 

Pre-order Matt Carmichael’s upcoming album here.

Photo by Camille Lemoine