Neil Cowley Trio

The UK City of Culture musician-in-residence brings his own brand of exhilarating jazz fusion to the Black Box

It is the first night of the 2013 Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, and a large crowd of jazz fans have packed into the Black Box on Hill Street to see UK City of Culture musician-in-residence, jazz pianist Neil Cowley, perform with his famous trio, which is made up of Rex Horan on bass and Evan Jenkins on drums.

The trio have long attracted the attention of the jazz world with their own unique brand of crunching, rock-drenched jazz, and tonight they draw liberally from their acclaimed 2012 album, The Face of Mount Molehill. As one might expect, this concert is a real rollercoaster ride, characterised by exhilarating bass lines, faultless beats, and Cowley’s endlessly inventive piano playing.

The gig begins in reflective mood with the song ‘Clumsy Couple’, which opens with slow, yearning piano from Cowley, with bass and drums joining in to produce a beautiful soundscape. This reverie is quickly broken, however, as a driving beat brings the song home with an explosion of sound. The second song, ‘Rooster was a Witness’, is one of the catchiest from the band’s most recent album.

Cowley is a charming presence throughout, and jokes that he has been warned not to mention his work in ‘Stroke City’ while playing in Belfast. Over the next two hours or so, as the focal point of a gig that is full of warmth, intensity and humour, he tells how he has been touched by the lives of people in the Maiden City, including a YMCA choir of children, some of whom are very ill.

Cowley explains that his fellow band members have just arrived in Northern Ireland. He drafted them in to help with one of his music workshops. 'The children were aged six to 13 and were really sweet,' he says. 'All they wanted to do was sing Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’, which we don’t really do, but we ended up learning it. They sang it and it was really gorgeous. There was so much heart and passion.'

Heart and passion is something that the Neil Cowley Trio have in abundance. Cowley, a trained classical pianist who also works as a session musician for the likes of Adele, clearly enjoys playing with his two Antipodean colleagues. Their type of performance can be operatic in its grandeur, spiked with staccato rhythms. Cowley’s urgent piano playing is often reminiscent of punk – punk performed by Chopin.

They are one of the most visually captivating jazz acts around. When he is in full flow, Cowley is all movement. His right leg often appears to be acting independently of the rest of his body, moving in time with the rapid, unrelenting tempo.

The bearded Horan, meanwhile – who looks like he has wandered in from the Cambridge Folk Festival – is a bundle of restless energy as he plucks the strings ever more furiously. And Jenkins, who has played with the likes of Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, plays some wonderfully manic drum solos, which threaten to bring the house down. But he too shows his sensitive side with delicate brushwork on the more elegiac tracks.

As the gig nears its end, Cowley introduces the lovely ‘Box Lily’, a wonderfully intense track about his daughter, who was born three months prematurely and weighed in at just one pound, 11 ounces. 'It is a sad song with a happy ending,' he explains. 'It was written when she lived in a little plastic box. She is now five years old and a pain in the backside in all the right ways.'

At that time, Cowley could hold his little daughter in the palm of his hand – tonight, that's exactly where he has the audience with this poignant and beautiful tribute to the fragility of life.

After such a full-on, emotionally draining gig, you are left wondering how the band summon up the energy to sign the obligatory CDs and DVDs as the satisfied audience form an orderly queue. But they do – because they are professionals, happy to perform anywhere, anytime, to give everything for the music.

The 2013 Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival continues until May 12.

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