Patrick Widdess reports on The Neil Cowley Trio – The Junction 2, Cambridge, 16 May 2010

Junction 2, The

The Neil Cowley Trio is the latest phase in a career that has been going for nearly all of Neil Cowley’s life. Classically trained as a child he soon turned to pop music, cutting his teeth on the London pub circuit. His break came with a four year stint in The Brand New Heavies. He went on to work widely as a composer and producer before forming The Neil Cowley Trio in 2006.
The trio has proved an ideal vehicle for Cowley’s love of improvisation and experimentation backed up with his classical training. The trio quickly picked up a BBC Jazz award in 2007 and their third album Radio Silence has met widespread critical acclaim.
Their performance at the Junction is everything you’d expect from such an accomplished group. Neil looks intent perched at the grand piano moving his fingers over the keys, staring at the empty music stand as if trying to remember how the tune goes. Whether he remembers or not the music builds in energy, shifting in mood and tempo. The other members, Richard Sadler on double bass and Evan Jenkins on drums provide a tight backing. Cowley and Evans seem to be competing at times trying to throw each other off with sharp stops and starts and tempo changes but nothing can undermine the synergy that has built up between the three players allowing the music to flow freely between a rich variety of jazz styles.
Between numbers Cowley is jocular with the audience berating his piano like a substandard band member “I think it came from Les Dawson’s attic,” he quips, demonstrating an out of tune key. The nickname Les Dawson sticks for the rest of the show.
It’s remarkable any of the keys are in working order by the end of the first set that culminates in a furious whirlwind of intricate runs, jackhammer chords as he bears down on the pedals as if trying to do an emergency break on a speeding juggernaut. The interval offers everyone a much needed chance to get their breath back.
The second set opens with catchy number His Nibs. Gerald, from the new album jumps and jolts playfully with fiendishly intricate licks. They oblige a couple of newly weds with a request for Pinball Number Count, a groovy number from the early days of Sesame Street.
For all their imagination and energy their records may be filed under specialist but as a live act they can engage a much wider audience with great rapport and sense of humour. The trio thrive on stage and Cowley’s compositions burst with a passion and spontaneity that doesn’t come across on record. They deliver a captivating show and finish early, leaving the audience with an appetite for their music not yet satisfied.

Writer: Patrick Widdess