(An edited version of this review appeared on LondonJazz last week. With fewer photos.)
Part of the Spitalfields Music Festival, this gig felt more like a rock than jazz gig. It was standing-only in a large, barn-like space in Shoreditch; the audience seemed decades younger than most jazz crowds; and there were large stacks of speakers on stage. And they started dead on time, unheard of for a jazz gig… (So I missed the first fifteen minutes!)
Neil Cowley Trio were first up, and they lived up to the billing of their second album, “Louder… Louder… Stop!” They were loud, and they tailored their set to their louder, more rocky numbers. This was high-energy music, and they got people dancing at the front – not your usual jazz crowd! Cowley’s physical, percussive piano playing and Evan Jenkins’ powerful drumming dominated the sound, sometimes overwhelming new bassist Rex Horan’s playing. By concentrating on their more dynamic, louder tunes from all three of their albums as well as some new material, the trio sounded a little one dimensional – including some of Cowley’s more subtle, contemplative pieces would have added a bit of variety. But it was hard to fault their performance – this was a great set.
Polar Bear have a completely different aesthetic: from the start, their set was dominated by Seb Rochford’s off-kilter drumming – his bass drum laid down patterns pushing the music along. They created brooding ambient jazz-dub soundscapes, the double-tenor sax frontline of Mark Lockheart and Pete Wareham often working as much against each other as in unison. This felt like crazy reggae created by Ornette Coleman: slow and intense, but still danceable. Much of the time Tom Herbert’s bass was lost in the mix, though he played an extended solo.
Polar Bear’s music felt cutting edge and experimental at the same time as harking back forty years to early Pink Floyd or Popol Vuh: they sounded like the soundtrack to an apocalyptic movie, dark and moody. There was humour there as well, as “Leafcutter John” Burton added a range of textures, from choppy guitar through electronic noise to complementing the saxes by playing a balloon – a playfulness that was startling in its effectiveness. Polar Bear create a curious mixture, but it worked superbly on Tuesday night.