Neil Cowley Trio
Brighton Dome Corn Exchange
Thursday 9th October 2014
The lights go down and three figures emerge on to the stage, one of them tripping over something and swearing. There’s just enough light to see them in front of their instruments. Then the light show commences. Top marks to the lighting technician for not just putting on a great display but also anticipating the ebbs and flow of the music, creatively illuminating the backdrop with shadows and getting the lighting volume just right.
But what about the music? Selwyn Harris has interviewed Cowley a couple of times for Jazzwise and uses expressions such as ‘hummable melodies’, ‘blokey humour’, ‘clubland high-lows’ and ‘pub-rock piano’ when talking about the Neil Cowley Trio. They saved these elements for the second set, their ‘greatest hits’ set, with the opening set dedicated to music from their latest album Touch and Flee, which focuses on what Cowley has called ‘long melodic paths’, moving away from making music based on simple hooks and riffs.
They began with Kneel Down, a slow and soporific meditation, which is in no way representative of the music the band usually play and followed this with the short and quirky Winterlude, with drummer Evan Jenkins teasing the audience with brief glimpses of a swing feel. The third number, Sparkling, is probably the tune most likely to become a future ‘greatest hit’ as it’s a more representative piece, though still in keeping with the concept of the ‘long melodic path’.
It became obvious, to those familiar with the album, that this set was a play-through of Touch and Flee from start to finish. To those unfamiliar with the album, the set was broken up by a brief explanation by Cowley, together with some trademark ‘blokey humour’ about a review written in the Guardian.
Though much has been made of their use of simple hooks, my favourite tune from the album, Bryce, is what I think the Neil Cowley Trio do best – slow, contemplative tunes that take you on a journey – and their live rendition was a great illustration of this. The sensitivity of Rex Horan’s bass playing evoked a Baroque-style delicate, emotional resonance, not just on Bryce, but later on the evocative piano-bass duet The Art.
The second set began with two numbers from the under-rated album The Face of Mount Molehill, followed by a selection of his most-loved tunes, such as His Nibs and Rooster Was A Witness. For me, the highlight of this set was their rendition of the beautiful ballad Box Lily, which is the ‘secret track’ from their 2010 album Radio Silence.
Some will bemoan the lack of improvisation in Cowley’s music but there is certainly spontaneity and intensity, and each member’s personality comes across in their playing and there is little indication that they’re holding anything back. The sound of the group as a single unit illustrates the chemistry between all the players. This wasn’t simply ‘The Neil Cowley Show’, designed to show off the piano genius of one man, but a group outing, full of interaction, intensity and honest performances. And at the end of of the show, all the members of the trio were happy to greet fans, sign albums and pose for photos.
Neil Cowley, piano; Rex Horan, bass; Evan Jenkins, drums.
For more on the Neil Cowley Trio:
Thriving on a Riff: Neil Cowley interviewed by Selwyn Harris, Jazzwise February 2012.
Laughter and Tears: Neil Cowley interviewed by Matt Phillips, Jazzwise May 2013.