The Eighth Gate

City of Culture musician-in-residence Neil Cowley bids a fond farewell to Derry~Londonderry

'The power of music has been evident here this year.' English jazz pianist and composer Neil Cowley is speaking to a capacity audience in the panelled splendour of the Guildhall, Derry~Londonderry, scene of his final concert as musician-in-residence for the UK City of Culture 2013 celebrations.

For Cowley it has been, and still is, emotional. He professes himself 'deeply affected' by the encounters he has had with Derry's indigenous musicians in the Nerve Centre and beyond, and to prove the point pulls several of them up on stage with him in the course of a 90-minute set celebrating his various collaborations.

The fusion between Cowley's trio and two members of the Derry/Donegal collective Balkan Alien Sound is particularly seamless. There's a wild, unkempt attitude in the playing of violinist Robert Peoples and bouzouki expert Martin Coyle, that makes a glove-like fit with the high energy levels of Cowley and his wing-men.

There is dynamism also in the opening section, where a group of female drummers joins the Cowley trio for an extended percussion improvisation. It’s anchored by the galvanic stick patterns of Cowley’s regular kit-man Evan Jenkins, who unleashes the raw power he has at his disposal when not constrained to balance off against his fellow trio members.

Much of the material in the set is new – so new in fact that Cowley is often flicking frantically to turn the pages of the music perched upon his Steinway. Between numbers, he banters jovially with the audience about taking regular time-outs back at home in England – 'Too many invitations to the pub’ in Derry, apparently – just to get some City of Culture-related pieces written.

Some of the new material has, in fact, a slightly unlived-in feel about it, inviting further expansion and refinement in the future. ‘Queen (of Derry)’, though, is an exception, a colourfully plangent person-portrait, which already has the bloom and confidence of a finished product.

‘Queen’ also gives a clue to how Cowley’s music may have been affected by his Derry residence. His normal groove, though not untuneful, is more rhythm than riff orientated. ‘Queen’, however, shows him giving his melodic muse more elbow room, allowing it to soften the brilliant angularity and élan which is his trio’s default mode of operation.

The new lyricism is even more in evidence in ‘The Eighth Gate’, the closing number and catch-all title for the loose selection of new music presented on the evening. There is more than a hint of Irish traditional inflections in the quirky, oddly poignant little piano figuration on which Cowley builds the arch structure of the piece.

Its delicacy is taken over and amplified by the trio’s bassist Rex Horan, a magnificently tasteful player whose contributions consistently compel attention throughout the evening.

Into ‘The Eighth Gate’ Cowley also weaves the wordless choral textures of Derry-based choir Codetta, in the second of two numbers they guest on. Once again you feel a broader palette beckoning, as the central section surges quasi-symphonically, the emotions of the moment, and of Cowley’s entire Derry sojourn, swelling upward and outward as his last gig comes to a conclusion.

The crowd are on their feet by now, acclaiming this prodigally talented yet endearingly modest musician. Should he happen to find his way back to the Maiden City sometime in the future, there will undoubtedly be a warm welcome waiting. For now, though, it’s ‘slán agus beannacht’ Neil, and thank you for the music.