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Culture NI Review (Ian Patterson): Neil Cowley Trio

Culture NI Review (Ian Patterson): Neil Cowley Trio

The jazz-meets-rock of the Neil Cowley Trio sounds like EST without the solos, or The Necks on steroids. The group’s highly rhythmic, melodically defined tunes are sometimes better suited to dancing than the seated formality of many of the venues it plays.

At its most energized and frenetic, pogoing or moshing wouldn’t be an inappropriate response. So what’s the Neil Cowley Trio doing performing at the second City of Derry International Choral Festival?

Cowley and Derry have formed a special bond since the pianist served in the Nerve Centre as official musician in residence for Derry’s year as UK City of Culture in 2013. If not quite given the key to the Walled City, Cowley – along with double bassist Rex Horan and drummer Evan Jenkins – has, at the very least, been made an adopted son.

In December last year, the trio premiered the suite ‘The Eighth Gate’ at the Guildhall. It was Cowley’s ‘small gift’ to Derry in acknowledgment of the inspirational time he had spent working with the city’s young musicians.

That performance featured the internationally acclaimed Derry chamber choir Codetta, reunited this evening with the Neil Cowley Trio for double-bill performance in the storied St Columb’s Hall.

The first half of the show features tracks from Touch and Flee, the trio’s fifth studio recording. Jenkins’ three-note snare drum motif announces ‘Kneel Down’. Bass and piano waltz briefly in unison before Cowley releases the understated melody.

From quiet stirrings the trio’s momentum builds towards an epic soundscape founded on a stabbing high-end piano mantra, powerfully rumbling bass and crashing drums. It’s a trademark high-intensity opening, but what follows from the new album has less punch and crunch than previous collections and more subtlety and stylistic variation.

Cowley’s bluesy piano dominates the tantalizingly off-kilter jazz-funk of ‘Winterlude’. The trio then treads lightly but with characteristic groove on ‘Gang of One’, and the pianist unleashes his extraordinary chops on ‘Slouch Couch’ – another infectious tune of spare architecture.

Horan’s lyrical bass is at the heart of the slow-burning epic ‘Mission’, with Cowley plying one of his hypnotic piano motifs over Jenkin’s rock-steady beat. The drummer switches to brushes on ‘Queen’, a gripping trio narrative featuring jangling two-handed piano of elegiac grandeur.

The 30-strong chamber choir Codetta then files onto the stage for Cowley’s composition ‘The Eighth Gate’. Stemming from a quasi-baroque piano and bass intro, the trio plots a lazy blues course that’s given wings by the silken layers of the choir. Codetta also illuminates the appropriately titled ‘Sparkling’, a powerfully cinematic composition that crowns an engaging 45-minute set.

The second half of the evening features Utopia & Reality, an international chamber choir made up of singers from Italy, Norway, Slovenia and Sweden, and conducted by Urša Lah and Ragnar Rasmussen. The choir arrives in full voice via the lateral aisles – a simple but effective piece of choreography that sets the tone for its performance.

Through the medium of modern fairy tales – two pieces from Russian composer Nikolaj Idelnikov’s Cordial Talks and two from Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Song of Our Time – the 19-piece choir adresses themes of consumerism, war and suffering.

Given the subject matter, it’s hardly surprising that the pulsating rhythms and interlocking waves, sung in the original languages, carry a compelling gravitas. Soprano Beate Mordal shines as soloist. An undoubtedly contemporary choir, Utopia & Reality’s language nevertheless draws from folkloric and church vocabulary – Gregorian included – whose roots burrow down through the centuries.

For ‘The Last Cry of the Accordion’ the choir fans throughout the hall, creating an enveloping quadrophonic sound with bass, tenor and soprano voices sharply defined. Austrian composer Lojze Lebic’s eerie ‘From the Stone in the Water’ features staccato phrasing, whispered then delivered with roof-raising gusto – like an operatic witches Sabbath.

The second half of the choral program introduces conductor Ragnar Rasmussen’s original compositions. ‘The Fight’, based on North American Indian legend, simmers with tribal chanting and baying-wolf cries, with Rasmussen doubling on Irish flute and an Arctic frame drum. ‘Wachet Auf!’ is a powerful incantation that begins in the European church tradition and finishes with rousing tribal harmonies.

Cowley and Horan lend subtle baroque accompaniment to the lush layers of the choir on a moving rendition of Johannes Sebastian Bach’s ‘Air on the G String’. Without pausing for applause, Rasmussen leads the choir into Swedish composer Thomas Jennefelt’s ‘Warning to the Rich’.

The choir prowls through the audience like evangelical preachers, belting out the Biblically-inspired text in a heady harmonic maelstrom. It’s a stirring finale to a marvelous program, and the Neil Cowley Trio rounds off the evening with a storming greatest hits show in the St Columb’s Hall Ballroom, converted for the event into an intimate jazz club setting.

From the thundering opener ‘Dinosaur Die’ and the riotous ‘His Nibs’ – the perfect procession fanfare for a mad king – to the delightful Madness-flavored pop groove of ‘Hope Machine’, the trio churns out pumping rhythms, infectious piano motifs and good vibes by the bucket full.

The closest thing to improvisation is Horan’s bass solo on the set closer ‘She Eats Flies’. The Neil Cowley Trio, however, is all about the force of the collective voice and it goes out on a furious, bone-shaking groove that the piano keys do well to survive.

It’s really here, running through older material, that the shift in Cowley’s writing towards something more akin to chamber music – as witnessed in the early-evening set – is put into sharper relief.

The City of Derry International Choral Festival is only in its second year but with world class choirs and imaginative programming it has already established itself as one of the key events in Derry’s cultural calendar – an event to look forward to and relish.

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