Review: Neil Cowley/James Taylor, Glasgow
Fred Grand finds that the Neil Cowley Trio's readiness to adopt the stagecraft and energy of rock music helps them reach the parts that most jazz piano trios fail to reach
"Blimey, where'd you all come from? Last time I was here I played in front of about thirty people!" Festival pre-publicity branding Cowley as "the world's most listened to pianist", the result of his association with pop diva Adele, certainly seemed to have done the trick this time around in a packed Old Fruitmarket.
Famous associations aside, the burgeoning reputation of Cowley's trio is to a large extent built on their live shows, where a readiness to adopt the stagecraft and energy of rock music helps them reach the parts that most jazz piano trios fail to reach. Regular comparisons to Coldplay and Radiohead in the popular music press give more than a hint of where the trio position themselves - as likely to take the stage at Glastonbury or Ronnie Scott's, they're a perfect point of entry to jazz for the audience that Jamie Cullum seems to be successfully building on Radio 2.
Unlike the set that I covered in Gateshead earlier this year, the trio appeared without the Mount Molehill strings. By and large Cowley's anthems are already meticulously orchestrated, so they don't necessarily need augmentation. Tonight's set was more conventional Cowley fare, though several pieces from the new album were included in the set list. Some pieces, like Rooster Was A Witness, didn't even contain a solo, one of the reasons why the trio has been given a rather lukewarm reception in some quarters. Yet when Cowley, Horan or Jenkins do take the spotlight, they're more than capable of crafting a thoughtful and inventive solo. Rather-like E.S.T., strong writing and "in the pocket" interplay carry equal weight.
Another frequent criticism of Cowley's music concerns his tendency towards the fortissimo. It's certainly true that his cinematic anthems fully exploit tension and release, and it would be easy to imagine the aforementioned Radiohead or Coldplay setting some of this music to words. But that shouldn't disguise the fact that he'd played a set packed with nuanced light and shade, and in just a few years he has already knocked out more memorable hooks than many musicians will write in an entire career. By the time we got to the encore (She Eats Flies, dedicated to a spider at the bottom of his garden), Cowley was standing up and rocking out like Jerry Lee Lewis.
"I love Glasgow, it's got to be the most un-jazz of festivals," he commented at the end of his set. There was perhaps a slight hint of intended irony in that but there is nevertheless something very true behind his words. The festival's organisers are not afraid to present many different shades of jazz, and in so doing they are capturing an audience that would normally give the notion of a jazz festival an extremely wide berth. Keeping a solidly "jazz" core (albeit jazz of a more contemporary flavour), this is not a festival that is afraid to take risks and it is all the better for that.
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PICKING up on a thread left dangling from my review of Robert Glasper's set the previous evening – i.e. how to bring a younger audience demographic to jazz – Cowley clearly understands the market and is having a fair degree of success. Friday's "after hours" slot took the degrees of compromise several stages further. Running through to 3AM, a "pop-up" version of the city's Rio Club appeared in a small low-ceilinged basement of Merchant Square. BBC 6 Music DJ Craig Charles (he of Red Dwarf and Coronation Street fame) shared the bill with those doyens of acid jazz the James Taylor Quartet and local rare-groove ensemble The Federation of the Disco Pimp.
I stayed to catch 45 minutes of the JTQ, and it was Green Onions and Theme From Starsky And Hutch all the way. What was notable however was that the audience, average age just south of 30, were lapping it up. Offering a fairly good approximation of the organ combos of the late 60s and early 70s, Taylor understands that people like to dance, and in mining the roots of modern funk he has taken his audience back to the source. If there's a lesson to draw on here for Glasper, then it is surely that jazz is already the bedrock of so much popular music. If you strip away the layers far enough, you'll reach a point where larger and younger audiences will be yours.
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