Neil Cowley Trio and Nik Bartsch’s “Ronin”. London Jazz Festival, November 2006.

I went into the Purcell Room for a concert by two artists who were knew to me: I had decided to see new names to me, rather than old favourites – just to experiment with new things. It is a while since I have gone out on a limb, trying something new that I didn’t know. It made it very interesting, but only partly successful.

First up was the Neil Cowley Trio. Playing high energy, exciting and intense music, they are going to get really bored being compared with Esbjorn Svennson Trio – but it is a fair comparison (even their website makes it; though it also says they sound like the Clash – which they might, had the Clash ever played acoustic jazz, with a piano and upright bass and a really good jazz drummer*). This was a really good band: the three musicians communicated well – they were very together (some of the tunes had series of intricate stops and false endings; they were on top of the lot of them). It was great a gig; and Cowley came across as a very genial guy – he clearly knew a lot of the audience (which included his primary school teacher – “Where did you go wrong?”, Cowley asked) – and the music had a lot of humour and wit, too. I must get their CD.

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Second on the bill was Nik Bartsch’s Ronin: a very different prospect. They were billed as “zen-funk”, sufficient in itself to make me intrigued. A quintet, with Bartsch on piano, a six-string electric bass player, a drummer, a percussionist and a bass-clarinetist, they were clearly rhythm-heavy. And the clarinetist wasn’t playing harmony or melody, but simply adding to the rhythm – and the pianist was simply twiddling in the background – it was all a bit much. Dominated by the bass and drums, it reminded me of the intro to Massive Attack’s Safe From Harm** – and it sounded pretty good. But the next track sounded exactly the same; and the next; and the next. After a while, it was all a bit wearing – there was little dynamism, and frankly not much happened. It looked good – stark, Brechtian lighting (like a Bunnymen gig) – but it was ultimately unrewarding: it didn’t go anywhere, there was no build up nor release.

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It might have been different in a different venue – if people had been dancing, say – but in the seated only Purcell Room, it was all a bit flat. I left after about an hour, when it was clear that they only knew one tune, and they were determined to play it and play it and play it. Definitely a case where less would have been more.

It also struck me as curious to match Ronin with Neil Cowley – they created very different moods – why have Cowley as the support for Ronin?

* Topper Headon was reputedly a very good jazz drummer – apparently he could turn his sticks to any style; but although the Clash did play Jimmy Jazz (zed zed; zee zee zee), they never played jazz.

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