Neil Cowley Trio + Portico Quartet
Koko, Camden
Sunday, 20/7/08

Two of our jazz scene’s rising names graced the stage at Koko, a venue normally reserved for the very latest disposable indie bands. Kudos must go to the iTunes festival programmers: even though the total number of acts performing at the month-long free event is 62, they could quite easily have overlooked jazz altogether – and they would have gotten away with it.

Both the Portico Quartet and the Neil Cowley Trio have proven popular with open-minded music fans, aptly illustrated by crowd demographics. The cavernous multi-level auditorium was full of young faces, nodding heads and tapping feet. Cowley’s anthemic attack of the piano and humorous approach are key factors in his trio’s recent success.

A typical tune will see them build up and break down a melodic idea in various ways, often smashed out in clustered, crunchy chords and accompanied by a rocky backbeat. Stomping rhythmic vamps on the piano alternate with dynamic or textural shifts in a pattern which could get a little boring if changes were not perfectly timed. They are, and the effects euphoric – as in ‘His Nibs,’ recently dubbed iTunes Single of The Week for good reason.

Another example was ‘Clown Town,’ which does justice to its name – it sounds like the twisted theme tune of a drunken clown stumbling around. ‘Clumsy Couple’ could be more of the same thing. But it’s not all about the comedic aspect of songwriting. The trio can resist the urge to pounce; they are capable of maintaining a more nuanced mood and exploring it in itself, rather than using the gentler dynamic as a throwaway device to develop the opportunity for a grandstand finale. It’s still not exactly balladesque, but that is part of the appeal.

In a live setting the trio stretch out more than is evident on CD. There may not be a lot of bona fide improvisation, but there is a great degree of collective interaction around the groove – they work together as an incredibly tight unit. Cowley is an agile master of the keys and has learnt to make the most of his powerful technique, combining it with wit and charisma to create one of the most accessible jazz groups to emerge for some time.

Published @, 24/7/08.