“Wow!” mouthed Neil Cowley to his bandmates Rex Horan and Evan Jenkins, over the warm applause that greeted the appearance of Cowley’s eponymous trio on the stage at Porgy & Bess. The Londoner was clearly pleasantly surprised by the fact that he had attracted a near capacity audience to Vienna’s premier jazz club, especially since, as he himself admitted, “the last time we played here, there weren’t that many people.” Looking back through the archives, I found that their previous visit was in October 2012, just a few days after my great musical hero, Peter Hammill, had graced the same stage and complimented the venue on its Fazioli grand piano. Although Cowley didn’t make any specific comment on the Fazioli himself, it certainly sounded (to my untrained ear) like an instrument more than capable of reflecting the twists and turns of Cowley’s effortlessly variegated playing.
Back in 2012, of course, I was shamefully ignorant of Cowley’s music, a situation only rectified last year when I reviewed his then new album Touch and Flee for The Quietus. That record has remained a firm favourite with me since then, so it was a sheer delight to hear it performed straight through as the first set of this concert. With Horan issuing moody runs on double bass and Jenkins a dartingly creative presence behind the kit, Cowley’s virtuoso mastery of the keyboard left me slack-jawed with admiration. Frequent words, smiles and glances between the three of them testified to the rock solid status of the trio as a unit, not to mention the pianist’s occasional bursts of laconic humour between tunes. Live as on record “Sparkling” was a gorgeous highlight, its timeless summery beauty inscribed deep in its surging, blissful melody. The jaunty “Couch Slouch” lightened the atmosphere considerably, while “Mission” built on a rickety toy piano intro to reach a stirring, animated conclusion.
Cowley promised to “play the hits” in the second set, and he wasn’t joking. Not that he’s likely to trouble the charts any time soon, but riproaring tunes like “We Are Here To Make Plastic” and the stunning closer “She Eats Flies” were as winning and immediate as anything I’ve heard done in the name of jazz. Elsewhere, the pianist dedicated the fleeting and delicate “Box Lily” to his prematurely born daughter, who had spent the first three months of her life in an incubator. Head bowed in thought, hands gently giving shape to the flecked radiance of the piece, Cowley was momentarily revealed as a loving father as well as a gifted pianist and composer. Although undercut by his trademark wit and humour (“she’s now seven and she’s a right pain in the arse”), it was a deeply poignant and tender moment in a concert filled with wonderful things.