Photos: Bríd O’Donovan
My first thought in approaching Triskel Christchurch for the second time this weekend was whether there would be a bigger turnout than on Thursday (for the excellent The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock, read Kieran’s review of that gig here). The answer was yes, with the pews more than half full, and a smattering upstairs in the balcony as well. The profile was also conspicuously more mature in nature, and although there were groups of men in clusters, overall the audience seemed to break down more or less evenly between men and women, a welcome fact in itself.
The show was prefaced with an introduction from Triskel Director Tony Sheehan, to mark the first anniversary of the opening of the venue. He expressed warm thanks to all the stakeholders, and to the 80,000 odd who had passed through the doors attending some 260 events in the last year. And as if to confirm the new status of the venue, he mentioned that Lyric FM were recording the concert for later broadcast. So far, so feelgood.
The band strode out, a jazz trio joined by a string quartet. I’d guess few jazz trios feature a mohawked double bass player with dreadlocks tied in a ponytail (Rex Horan, albeit dressed very smartly in suit pants and tie); this was just one of the ways they would defy convention through the evening. Being sketchy at best on the jazz scene, I first heard of the band just a few weeks ago, when their album, The face of Mount Molehill, arrived from an English pop publicist. This in itself was a sign of the broad reach of the music, something which would be confirmed by the gig. (Actually, Cowley has performed session work for Adele, among others, so in fact his playing has been heard by a wide audience already.) I was hooked by the album straightaway, so needed no persuading to make myself available to review this show.
Cowley began on solo piano with the gorgeous opening track from the album, ‘Lament’, delicate and intimate to start but opening out into a big, heartfelt, pop-style ballad – just without vocals. And as the bass and drums sidled up for company, Cowley adjusted his braces to launch without delay into the energetic ‘Rooster was a witness’, on which the strings joined with long, swooning strokes.
Three of the quartet then departed temporarily, leaving the lead violin Julian Ferrarreto (co-arranger of strings on the album) to accompany on ‘Slims’, a lovely spacious tune with Horan’s great, limber bass playing centre stage, which culminates in a Bruce Hornsby-esque (the only word for it) refrain. This isn’t to put it down – I love the way Cowley and band managed to suggest and accommodate a wide spectrum of influences, making them their own in the process.
Next, they were paring down to a trio, for a tune about a friend of theirs who looks like a greyhound. It was offbeat, less contemplative, sounding much more like what you might expect from a conventional jazz trio, ripping it up, complete with comedy (or was it?) gurning from the drummer Evan Jenkins. And as they struck up another tune from a previous album, showcasing lush piano arpeggios with skittering brushed drums and wide open spaces, it became obvious what a departure in sound the new album is for them.
After the interval (observing jazz etiquette), they resumed with the beguiling ‘Skies are rare’, which came across like Radiohead’s ‘Everything in its right place’ turned inside out and made uplifting, with the help of widescreen strings. Between tunes, Cowley rose to his feet to take the mike, assuming the air of an endearing MC, his wry humour calling to mind David Baddiel a little (he looks like him too, with tidy beard and specs). In return, the crowd seemed to treat the band with familiarity, the easy rapport helped greatly by the background information on the music supplied by Cowley. (They have also played Triskel before, in the old auditorium, now the TDC, which helps.) This rapport was what you might associate more with a pop setting, far from the stuffy, aloof atmosphere that certain jazz gigs can offer. Here were performers bringing their music to the audience, conscious of that dynamic and grateful for the attention.
When ‘Mini ha ha’ went off into atonal territory, I did feel for the unused, onlooking strings. However, the awkward moment was brief, and the exception to the rule. Sensitive, often quite simple, playing mostly prevailed, arrangements always in service to the tune, with an appealingly democratic vibe among the band, guest strings included (as a sign of not standing on ceremony, Cowley even tuned the piano himself at one point). They were also flexible enough to move between great bass-driven groove beasts, folk-style tunes with shifting time signatures or power pop, all at the drop of a hat. In addition, it was clearly a sympathetic room for this music, in which (as with all rooms) some gigs work better than others. (I would question the stage layout, where the quartet were partly obscured behind the trio, but you can’t have everything I suppose.)
They finished the set (before two later encores as a trio) with the rousing title track from the new album, an irresistible tune which has a hint of Michael Nyman on uppers about it. That is to say, uplifting music to dance to. A fitting way to end a thoroughly satisfying gig.