The Church of St John The Evangelist, Iffley Rd, Oxford was the most beautiful setting for a gig I can remember attending. Lit up from the darkness of night with a golden glow from the outside, the illuminated exterior acted as an enticing aperitif for the main course that lay within. The formidable, imposing interior of this 19th century church was to host one of the most enjoyable concerts I have had the pleasure of witnessing for many a year. On the eve of his 45th birthday, pianist/composer Neil Cowley, with his regular partners, bassist Rex Horan and drummer Evan Jenkins, and with additional synths and effects from Dom Monks, the stage was set in these most austere of surroundings. Ironically, or not – who knows, from 1886 to 1980, the complex of buildings that form part of St Stephen’s House, a theological college, was the mother house of The Society of St John the Evangelist- known as ‘The Cowley Fathers’. Cowley was the first religious community for men founded in The Church of England since the Reformation. Fitting then, that on this night, another Cowley; Neil, would be the man to make the stone statues weep and the saints become sinners with his perfect blend of graceful elegiac passion, and fire and brimstone.
The Neil Cowley Trio is now 10 years old. With several albums under their belts, it is perhaps surprising, but true nonetheless, that this was the first time I had experienced them performing live. I realise now what I’ve been missing out on. OK, so it’s fair to say that not all gigs are in such a delightful setting as this one. Although that does beg the question; Why not? For an act such as this with double bass, drums, synths and of course, a gorgeous grand piano, the acoustics were simply stunning. The audience could hear every gentle note, every nuance, every tender touch. And when the band ramped up the energy and hence, the volume, the power and clarity of the sound inside the church was mind-blowingly awesome. Listening to music as emotive as Cowley’s, in a setting such as this, is perhaps the closest a heretic like me will ever get to a religious experience. Neil Cowley has been around the block enough to know and understand what works well when performing live. Having toured and recorded extensively with bands The Brand New Heavies and Zero7, as well as playing piano on a number of Adele’s recordings, he has that rare gift of being able to bring jazz, classical, cinematic, ambient and anthemic rock music into a popular, likeably listenable context, without losing any of his well-earned integrity. Add to this the fact that he appears to enjoy a natural charisma that allows him to embrace and enjoy an excellent rapport with his audience, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that his performance tonight would startle, astound, and touch me in a way that only the best live performances can.
The trio’s recent release “Spacebound Apes”, is a concept album that is largely a laid-back, ambient affair, with its Sci-Fi storyline underpinning an emotional roller-coaster ride for Cowley’s fictional character ‘Lincoln’. The set-up for this gig was enhanced by a large screen showing visuals and animations created by artist Sergio Sandoval. I understand that the trio’s recent gig at The Union Chapel in London also featured a special light show. I’m assuming this wasn’t feasible here in the church. As the band prepared themselves, the iconic image of the spacebound ape appeared on the large screen. An intense, throbbing ambient hum began to fill our ears as its deep, resonating sound filled the spaces between the church’s old stone walls. And as the bowed bass and textural drums blended beautifully with the perfectly integrated synths, the first few notes from Cowley’s piano brought the hairs up on the back of my neck with an esoteric electricity as the audience was led from the opening track “Weightless” into “Hubris Major”. As the trio+1 moved through the next two tunes “Governance” and “City and the Stars”, I was struck by just how accomplished this trio is. The togetherness that 10 years of recording and performing brings, was clear for all to witness. Incredible musicianship hand-in-hand with a joyous intensity radiated out from the band. And I could feel it. The quick-fire interplay, the sweeping romanticism, the lush lyricality, the inventiveness and the playfulness, I could feel it, hear it, and see it happening right in front of me. This is what live music is all about. The rapturous “Grace” is undoubtedly one of the best tracks on the album. But performed live, with Cowley performing it solo at the piano, the tune took on a whole new meaning. Aided by the church acoustics, this most beautiful of tunes must have found its way into even the most hardened of hearts. For me, it was a highlight of the evening, as I closed my eyes and allowed this gorgeous piece of music to take me on my own emotional journey. The atmospheric “Echo Nebula” was followed by a mixture of sharp, intoxicating pop/rock/jazz through “Sharks of Competition”, into the more somber, thoughtful and often dramatic themes of “Duty to the Last”, “Garden of Love” and “Death of Amygdala”. The final tune to grace the album and indeed, the first half of this show, was the soul searching “Return of Lincoln”, a poignant and powerfully emotive end to this live rendition of “Spacebound Apes”. I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the studio album, although I did feel that there was a little something missing. Whatever that ‘something’ was, it’s gap had fully and quite astoundingly been filled on listening to this performed live. There was just so much power and intensity to the music, mixed with the strength and character of the performance, that as the lights went up for the interval, I found myself having to draw breath for a few minutes, just to take in what I had just seen and heard.
If Neil Cowley’s quick-witted humour reared its head on the odd occasion in the first half, it certainly came to the fore much more in the second half. There can’t be that many brilliant musicians who could quite easily give up their career to become a stand-up comedian, but Cowley is one of them. The wonderful thing is, it just seems to be so natural to him and it adds a warmth and rapport with the audience that puts a smile on everyone’s face. I’m not a person given to impromptu fits of laughter, but even I was relaxed enough to chuckle out loud at some of his comments. The pianist announced with a dry sense of humour that the second set would be a chance for the band to enjoy playing “their hits”. And so, with the trio having changed into much livelier attire, as they walked back on ready to perform the next set, Cowley promptly placed a toy dinosaur onto the piano. Those that knew the pun would have known that the first tune would be one of the fan’s favourites, “Dinosaur Die”. The music throughout this set was filled with hi-octane energy as the trio worked their way through some of their classic material in charismatic style. Cowley’s skill at being able to lead his trio through startlingly lyrical and melodic passages into rousing powerplays of exuberance and excitement is a rare gift indeed. It reminded me a little of the first couple of times I saw Esbjörn Svensson Trio perform live. There was that same kind of tingling anticipation as a tune began to build, with its inevitable crescendo of sound leaving the listener breathless. Cowley’s tunes come to life in a live context, with a feature of tonight’s performance being the intelligent use of synths/live electronics, seamlessly integrated into the acoustic setting. Watching him pour over his piano with an equal pleasure and wonderment coming from the visually intriguing stellar antics of bassist Rex Horan and drummer Evan Jenkins, it genuinely looked and sounded like these three guys were communicating telepathically to create a quite unique sound emanating from their very own mindfully exploding universe. The tunes “Sparkling”, “Slims” and “Rooster Was A Witness” all shone with luminous splendour. And then came three more tunes that continued to raise the hallowed roof; “Mission”, “His Nibs” and “Fable”, during which I have to give special mention to bassist Horan. The trio at this point of the evening were in total flow. Completely at one with their music and their surroundings, intuition kicked in and they effortlessly went onto a different level altogether. The music now was a blinding spiritual tour-de-force like a faith healer bringing his congregation to a climatic finale. During this sequence, there was a segment of quite astounding beauty where, as the music went softer, waiting with a nervous anticipation to gradually build, Horan produced the most stunning bass solo I think I’ve ever heard. Even seeing the great Arild Anderson didn’t compare to this. I’m sure you know how the old joke goes; How do you know when there’s about to be a bass solo?.. You can see everyone heading for the bar… Well not on this occasion. (And yes there was a bar, in the church. I do like this contemporary, chilled-out God that resides here tonight). A mixture of haunting bowed bass, gorgeous melody, and stunning, energetic technical ability all combined for the bassist to produce the most affecting, emotive and jaw-droppingly stylish solo anyone could wish to hear. It almost brought a tear to my eye. (It did actually, but I wouldn’t want to admit to that – it must have been the eery synths in the background, or the sensitive percussion, or the haunting piano… surely it must!) Following equally enthusiastic applause, the trio encored with the crowd pleasing “She Eats Flies”. A glorious end to a fabulous concert.
During November and December The Neil Cowley Trio are performing throughout Europe. Early next year they’re back in the UK as they embark on a country-wide tour. My advice would be to go see them as soon as possible. They are undoubtedly one of the best live acts on the scene today. It’s not really jazz, it’s not really classical, it’s not really chill-out, it’s not really pop, it’s not really rock. It’s definitely not heavy metal or dance or trip-hop. Although… that said… Maybe they should be described as Esbjörn Svensson meets Keith Jarrett meets Brian Eno meets Philip Glass meets Coldplay meets Massive Attack meets Gustav Mahler meets Beethoven meets… Whatever. They are The Neil Cowley Trio. Go and see them play live. You’ll be hugely entertained. You won’t regret it. Honestly. Even their merchandise is good. Oh, and guys, great beards!