Review: Neil Cowley Trio plus Polar Bear (Spitalfields Festival)

Neil Cowley. Photo credit: Patrick Hadfield

Neil Cowley Trio plus Polar Bear
(Village Underground, Shoreditch, Part of Spitalfields Festival, June 21st 2011, Review and photos: Patrick Hadfield)

This double bill, part of the Spitalfields Music Festival, felt more like a rock than jazz gig. It was standing-only in a large, barn-like space in Shoreditch, the crowd seeming a decade or three younger than typical jazz audience, the speakers were stacked high on the stage. The gig also started dead on time.

Neil Cowley Trio were first up, living up to the billing of their second album, “Louder… Louder… Stop!” They were loud, and they tailored their set to their more rocky numbers. This was high-energy music which got people dancing at the front. Cowley’s physical and percussive piano playing and Evan Jenkins’ powerful drumming dominated the sound, sometimes overwhelming new bassist Rex Horan’s playing.

A few more of Cowley’s more subtle, contemplative pieces would have added a bit of variety. But it was hard to fault their performance – and they were clearly giving the audience exactly what it wanted.

Mark Lockheart and Tom Herbert of Polar Bear
Photo credit: Patrick Hadfield

Polar Bear have a completely different aesthetic: from the start, their set was dominated by Seb Rochford’s off-kilter drumming – his bass drum laid down patterns pushing the music along. They created brooding ambient jazz-dub soundscapes, the double-tenor sax frontline of Mark Lockheart and Pete Wareham often working as much against each other as in unison. This felt like crazy reggae created by Ornette Coleman: slow and intense, but still danceable. Tom Herbert’s bass was always somewhere deep in the mix, and it was good to hear him emerge from it and take an extended solo.

Polar Bear’s music felt cutting edge and experimental at the same time as harking back forty years to early Pink Floyd or the German band Popol Vuh: they sounded like the soundtrack to an apocalyptic movie, dark and moody. But there was also humour, with “Leafcutter John” Burton adding a range of textures, from choppy guitar through electronic noise to complementing the saxes by playing a balloon – a playfulness that was startling in its effectiveness. Polar Bear cre ate a curious mixture, but it worked superbly on Tuesday night.

Categories: miscellaneous

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