October 25, 2021

Neil Cowley Trio, The Venue, Leeds

Neil Cowley ends a song and asks the audience’s permission for a joke. He sets up his video camera, trained on us, and asks us to sit in stony silence with one sarcastic hand-clapper. Then plays the end of a piece, we do our stuff and he has an unusual upload for his web blog. That’s the note for the evening – a playful and witty one.
In the intimate confines of Leeds College of Music’s “The Venue”, a disparate crowd of chin-scratchers gathered to soak up the piano attack of Neil Cowley and his trio. The template is well-set over his three albums of a very rhythm-based approach led, of course, from the piano. With a minimalist accompaniment of double bass and drums, there is plenty of sonic space and the band use the extreme dynamics possible in a quiet venue to the max. It’s a very accessible sound – plenty of exploration and jazz interplay but always with a rhythmic play that you can get ahold of – why this gig was not sold out, I don’t know.

Kicking off with the stormy chords of the title track of the new album – ‘Radio Silence’ – the band head rapidly off on a wander through the mechanics behind the tune, work round to a speedy almost-boogie-woogie before Neil brings it back to the theme. And that’s the pattern for the evening; some tune, some delving and a play with the rhythms – it’s a lot of fun and there are times I wish it was a standing venue so I could shuffle around. Neil is dressed in a dark suit, a number one crop and sits hunched at the piano, closed eyes, moving to the beat while pulling jazz faces. The bassist, Evan Jenkins, pony-tailed, bows and plucks the massive instrument, while the drummer, Richard Sadler, grins and needles Neil. There’s a lot of playing about and trying to catch the other out on an improvisation – it’s fun and keeps the audience awake. Neil introduces each of the pieces with a dark but engaging sense of humour.

I hear some elements of the acoustic work of US band, Medeski, Martin and Wood (MMW), hearing similar territory to The Dropper. Percussive piano means it is all about the rhythms. The tune is, in effect, the rhythmic variation and melody is the frills. The funky break-beats of ‘Gerald’ prove the point before ‘Box Lily’ disproves it with a more conventional melody – a piece for his daughter and her first taste of life in an incubator. The ‘hit’ is ‘His Nibs’ – a single from 2008 that he played on Jools Holland before he plays a track that travels into still silence before thumping back to life with loud chord patterns. Hunt The Greyhound is a witty game of beats and ‘Ginger Sheep’ is, Neil claims, “like crap ska”. It’s all a bundle of energy and winds up, at the end of the second set, to a ferocious cloud of cymbals and thunder with individual piano notes being picked out at full volume.

It was a good ‘un and the album is well worth a punt.

 

Ross McGibbon