Review: Neil Cowley Trio, Gateshead




Neil Cowley stretches beyond traditional jazz boundaries and demonstrates his considerable compositional chops at the Sage Gateshead, reports Fred Grand

Having been lucky enough to catch the trio’s scintillating Barbican show last week there was absolutely no way I was going to miss the local leg of this tour, right here in my own back yard.

By my reckoning this was Cowley's third visit to Sage Gateshead, and although Hall Two is a fraction of the size of the cavernous Barbican, it is a good deal more intimate, offering almost unrivalled sight-lines and acoustics for this type of music.

Seamlessly fusing elements of classical, jazz, rock and pop, Cowley negotiates a skilful conjuring trick and manages to reach beyond jazz's traditional constituency. Purists may well scoff at the relative paucity of improvisation in his music, but I very much doubt that he'd ever want to be the kind of guy whose stock in trade was to test his mettle on Autumn Leaves or Round Midnight. Like so many of his generation he is using original material to convey honest and often autobiographical feelings, and whilst it would be interesting to hear what a more hard-core improviser like Michael Wollny or Jacob Karlzon would do with his music, part of me thinks that any attempt to stretch these near perfect forms would only distort and diminish them.

Just as in London the first set presented the trio’s new album Touch & Flee in its glorious entirety. Deliberately conceived as "listening" music, it builds on the successes of 2012’s ambitious Face Of Mount Molehill project. It is worth repeating that Cowley is first and foremost a supremely gifted composer, and while bassist Rex Horan and drummer Evan Jenkins may outwardly represent the more traditional vestiges of "jazz", any attempt to judge this music against the old head-solo-head rubric would spectacularly miss the point. Nevertheless there was a notably heightened sense of space, organic movement and dare I even say improvisational élan evident on standout pieces such as Kneel Down and Sparkling. Cowley’s off-beat humour brought a smile to the oddly metered Winterlude, Couch Slouch and Gang Of One, and the ballads rank amongst the richest he’s ever composed. More cerebral than the Cowley of old perhaps, but as the evening progressed it became clearer just how consistent his identity as a composer has remained across the years.

It was sarcastically dubbed as the set in which we’d hear "the hits". Each of the pieces was in fact chosen by fans voting on social media. By and large the fans had got their selections right - Slims and Rooster Was A Witness (from Molehill) were ever so slightly revoiced and sounded magnificent, Degree In Intuition was turned inside out, and the poignant Box Lily (written for Cowley’s extremely premature but now healthy six-year-old daughter) was almost painfully beautiful. Elsewhere the rising crescendos and post-rock energies for which Cowley is still best renowned were very much to the fore, but his darting double-handed lines on We Are Here To Make Plastic did much to dispel any notion that he lacks the ability to spin a linear improvisation. A breathless meltdown on She Eats Flies provided the encore and drew a standing ovation, inadvertently answering that seldom-asked question of how a collaboration between Jerry Lee Lewis and Emerson, Lake & Palmer may have sounded. Capping a spell-binding performance in the finest theatrical style, Cowley’s über-tight trio had entertained and provided much food for thought.


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