Tag Archives: Neil Cowley

Neil Cowley Trio. Glasgow, June 2014.

A bit of a quandary: I really enjoyed this gig at Glasgow Jazz Festival; I really REALLY enjoyed it. But I was also a little disappointed. The Neil Cowley Trio are one of the bands I have seen most often in the last few years, and I have high expectations. Featuring music of their new CD, “Touch and Flee” – this was their first gig playing the new tunes – the band said they were a little apprehensive to start with, and they took a while getting into their stride.

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The new material seemed less riff-driven and formulaic than their earlier recordings – more contemplative and poignant, perhaps, but also less exuberant. The compositions seem to have a bit of self-doubt added to the mix: they are a bit more abstract, the themes emerging slowly, uncertainly, before catching.

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Once they had got their teeth into the gig – new and old tunes – they gained an energy boost, after which they were sailing. Whilst Cowley’s very physical piano-playing commands the attention, the trio seem very much a band, the contributions by drummer Evan Jenkins and bassist Rex Horan are central to the sound. The dynamics of the earlier tunes, epitomised by the title the trio’s second CD, “Loud Louder Stop”, came the fore.

They were spread across the large stage at the Old Fruitmarket, which can’t have helped their early apprehension. There is a lot of humour in their music, too, as well as a narrative drive: Cowley introduces each tune and hints at the stories behind them.

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The audience were very appreciative, warmly demanding an encore. Cowley explained how much the festival meant to the band, having given them a gig early in their career.

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival. July 2013.

July’s Jazz Festival was understandably busy. Ten gigs in ten days, with a couple of extra, excellent outdoor events, too. It was a fun time.

I tried to balance newer and old music, musicians I knew (and knew I liked) with people I’d not heard before; and a range of styles and groups. I won’t cover every gig I went to, but I’d like to cover those that worked well, or didn’t.

The festival opened fire with the Brian Kellock Copenhagen Trio. Kellock is a great pianist, with a chimeric skill in mixing genres and styles whilst presenting an engaging whole. His music twists and turns as he moves from stride to Monk and references more modern, keeping the bass and drums in their toes – and there was clearly a fair bit of joshing going on between the three of them.

Kellock filled some very big shoes when, a few days later, he took the place of Stan Tracey, who had pulled out of his quartet gig with Bobby Wellins due to illness. So it became the Wellins Quartet, with Clark Tracey on drums and Andrew Cleyndert on bass. This was a fun gig, but Kellock seemed subdued – at least compared to his form earlier in the festival – and it felt a bit as if the band were going through the motions. Good, but not outstanding.

The festival was beset with illness, losing the last night headliner Pharoah Sanders as well as Tracey. This was a big disappointment, since Sanders is one of the remaining firebrands from the 1960s avant garde, and not having seen him live for many years I had been looking forward to seeing how he had settled into life as an elder statesman.

The Italian/Sardinian-Scottish connection in Stone Islands had been forged at last year’s festival, when Scots trumpet Colin Steele and pianist Dave Milligan teamed up with reedsman Enzo Favata. That was one of the surprise hits last year, and their return with an extended band this year was eagerly awaited. My expectations worked against them, since I thought they were excellent, but I was still disappointed! Tinged with a folk feel and featuring saxophonists Martin Kershaw and Konrad Wisniewzski, this ten piece had some of the anarchy of Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath. They made a great sound, but didn’t quite capture the magic or excitement of last year’s debut.

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Despite the familiarity of a band I had seen four or five times in the last year, the Neil Cowley Trio put on such a high energy show that they couldn’t fail to excite. Very much a band, each member is integral to the sound, from Evan Jenkins’ powerhouse drumming, through metronomic Rex Horan’s bass playing to Cowley’s passionate piano. Their tunes move from subtle to intense to loud, and they do it all very well. This was just a superb gig, the power of a rock band with the intricacy and emotion of – well, a jazz trio.

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They were just beaten as highlight of the festival by the Festival Orchestra’s performance of Duke Ellington’s Concert of Sacred Music. I had mixed feelings ahead of this gig. It was a must-see because it was a rare opportunity to here this music played live; but I was worried it would just be played note for note. And the involvement of a classical choir meant it might not sound like jazz at all. The Ellington recordings of his sacred music can feel like a missed opportunity, a little bit too sacred. This gig was, however, a joy from beginning to end. Directed by Clark Tracey, the band and choir swung like the clappers, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus clearly enjoying the added freedom from their more usual classical constraints. Joined for several numbers by dancer Junior Laniyan, whose own percussive take added to the driving drums of Tom Gordon, the band were magnificent. The whole gig was like a hymn to Ellington and an earlier age. Absolutely wonderful.

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Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival. September 2012.

In September I made my bi-annual trip to the Islay Jazz Festival. The boat across was full of jazz pilgrims, many of whom recognised each other from previous years (many of whom I seem to be on a nodding relationship), and musicians (and many of whom I seem to be on a nodding relationship, too – it is always strange to be greeted by musicians). It was a rough crossing – the first trip over I remember the boat rocking (and I’ve been to Islay five or six times). The skipper’s docking was poor – I could have parked the boat better!

The highlight – well, highlights, since there were two of them – were the sets by the Neil Cowley Trio. Cowley plays big venues, usually – I last saw the trio play at the QEH in London in March which holds 900. On Islay, they were playing to 80 or so at each venue.

First up was an hour’s set at Lagavulin (the festival’s sponsors – without whom I guess acts of the stature of Neil Cowley Trio wouldn’t get as far as the Hebrides), the opening gig of the festival. I was sitting in the front row, just a couple of feet away from Cowley’s high energy piano playing.

They crammed a lot into their hour, playing with great dynamics and covering much of their repertoire. Cowley is a very physical, percussive pianist, lifting himself off the piano stool with the force of his playing. Bassist Rex Horan and drummer Evan Jenkins are well matched to Cowley, whether they’re rocking out a groove or adding sensitive texture.

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Their second gig the following evening was different: much longer, there was less urgency but an equal intensity. It was a more relaxed, less frenetic gig. But equally enthralling. I was again in the front row – strange that there are so often spaces left in the front of gigs! Cowley was more chatty than before – very affable and entertaining – but it is the music that really speaks: powerful and compelling.

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The first Cowley gig was followed by the Fredrik Kronkvist Quartet, loud modern saxophone. It had everything I like – fast saxophones, good bass, great drums – but after the intensity of the Neil Cowley Trio, I didn’t have ears for the quartet. It wasn’t their fault – but I felt as if I had spent all my energy for the night.

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Kronkvist’s rhythm section made up a piano trio the following lunchtime. One of the things about Islay that makes it so interesting is way they make use of imaginative venues: in this case, the RSPB visitor centre. Though not a distillery, Lagavulin was handed around, making sure we were warmed up after a morning exploring the Loch Gruinard RSPB reserve.

The music was exactly what was needed for a lunchtime gig: pretty mellow, a bunch of standards and a couple of originals. And it was really fun – emphasising once more that it wasn’t the band at fault the night before.

The lunchtime gig on Sunday was lead by pianist Brian Kellock playing (mostly) tunes by Ellington and Strayhorn. The first set was a trio with Kenny Ellis on bass and the ever-excellent Stu Ritchie on drums. Kellock spanned styles with panache, playing a great set. The second set added Colin Steele on trumpet and Laura MacDonald on alto – Steele’s fiery trumpet sparking of MacDonald’s more tempered, cool sax. Another fine lunchtime gig!

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For a small island, journeys on Islay can take a while. The afternoon session was at Sanaigmore: literally the end of the road. And in keeping with the adventurous choice of venues, this was an art gallery turned jazz club for the day. This was a performance by a one-off band, a trio of Mario Caribe on bass, Michael Buckley on tenor and Snorre Kirk on drums. An interesting line-up, ostensibly lead by Caribe (who is the only musician to have played at every Islay festival), and they played some interesting tunes: “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, for instance, and “Smile”, which Buckley took pleasure in telling us had been written by Charlie Chaplin. This was a fun gig, the musicians trying things out in relaxed surroundings.

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The final gig featured Steele again – another tradition, apparently. His quintet were only excellent form, despite it being the first outing for pianist Euan Stevenson (Steele stalwart Dave Milligan had to cancel at the last moment). Steele has an affinity for Islay – he composed a suite performed there a few years ago (it appears on his album “Stramash”), some of which was played in this gig. With Buckley on sax, Ritchie on drums and bassist Calum Gourlay, Steele played a typically exuberant set to close the festival – this was barnstorming stuff, and a great way to close the festival!

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Neil Cowley Trio and Polar Bear. London, June 2011.

(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.

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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.

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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.

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The Neil Cowley Trio. Edinburgh, May 2008.

The last of the handful of gigs I went to recently was the Neil Cowley Trio, another in the cellar that is the Jazz Bar.

I saw the trio play eighteen months ago in London, supporting another band, and I’d been impressed, so when I saw they were playing in Edinburgh as part of the Triptych Festival – spread over the cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen (I am never sure if they intend one to venture all over the place, racing from Aberdeen to Glasgow and back to Edinburgh, or just attend events in one’s home city) – I made sure to catch them.

A jazz power trio – their latest CD is called “Loud Louder Stop”, apparently after something an unfavourable reviewer wrote about their first album – Cowley’s music is somewhat riff-heavy, and occasionally formulaic; but it is also engaging and exciting, and they make a really good sound together.

Evan Jenkins on drums is steady, pushing the band forward – more rock than jazz (not many dotted triplets there!) – and freeing up bass player Richard Sadler to play more melody.

This was a really enjoyable gig; Cowley comes across as a really nice guy – he has a good line in London-patter – and the band held the audience enthralled.

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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.