Sunday, 5 May 2013

City Of Derry Jazz And Big Band Festival Diary, Part Three

Ska, boogie, rock, electronica, brass, drums, piano, you name it: absolutely every taste is catered for on the Saturday jazz trail in Derry-Londonderry

As I stroll through the front doors of Bound For Boston, I immediately hear the strains of Madness' "My Girl". It's the clearest indication possible of what to expect from Middlesbrough based musicians The Ska Beats and their wild front man. They're like Madness on stage and madness off it, a hugely welcome and satisfying injection of funk, energy and charismatic showmanship. If only there was more room to dance!

Outside Cafe Del Mondo, the sun has come out for Greggi G & His Crazy Gang and their own, easily recognisable blend of jive and boogie. Mixing elements of Johnny Cash, Elvis, John Lee Hooker, Jerry Lee Lewis and even Paddy Nash, they create a fine concoction of lively, easy-going swing, a kind of Enchantment Under The Sea dance in the 2013 sunlight. Meanwhile, the "rock band" crowd are being catered for up in Mason's, where the Oisin Cannon Band are performing songs by the Beatles, Paul Simon, The Kinks, The Who, The Rolling Stones and much, much more.

Next stop, Sandinos' Back Bar, for one of the best musicians I have heard all weekend - trumpet man Linley Hamilton. His medium tempo brass solos are simply irresistible, giving you the refreshing feeling of slipping into a comfortable bathrobe. Along with drummer Dominic Mullan, bassist Damian Evans and keyboard player Johnny Taylor, he provides a smooth, soothing series of notes, the perfect calm before the Neil Cowley storm.

And what a storm it is. After the one-strap, gentle electronica of Derry-based GRIM, aka Laurence McDaid, pianist Neil Cowley and the rest of his jazz trio - bassist Rex Horan and drummer Evan Jenkins - step onto the Nerve Centre stage to be greeted by rapturous applause. The sight of a dinosaur toy - a model raptor, to be exact - on Cowley's piano (later revealed to be a mascot) is the earliest hint that this will be no ordinary jazz set. It will be more like the Rapturous Raptor Rap, except with instruments only and - thankfully - no Robin Williams in sight.

The UK City Of Culture's musician in residence, and his band, provide a thunderous euphony of contrasting jazz styles. Jenkins' drumming is loud, clear and consistent. Horan's bass reminds one of some of the best film music there is. On the early evidence, one could do much, much worse than hire these guys to compose a movie.

It's pretty clear why Cowley feels so comfortable in these surroundings. As he himself puts it, Derry-Londonderry "feels like home... you don't know how much I've been affected by it. I've got a whole new vocabulary!" And said vocabulary extends to not just the slang he has been using, but the music he plays. By the time he plays "Hug The Greyhound" the overall effect is near phenomenal, with Cowley banging the piano keys like a man possessed while Jenkins tries out a series of unexpected, delectable drum beats. Cowley may not quite have the musical reputation of Billy Joel, Bruce Hornsby and Sir Elton John, to name but a few, but his tempo, commitment and humility surely exceed them all.

Quite simply, the whole gig is a joy to watch, with Cowley and the band's modest sense of humour equally as appreciative as the full, real and epic sound they are presenting. It's like watching three forces of nature descend on you at once, a tenacious, inventive and persistent performance that is definitely worth experiencing again at Music City later this year.

As my day concludes, I wander over to the Derby Bar and wonder - how can Fiona Trotter possibly live up to what I've seen? Well, live up to it she does, albeit in a very different, lower-key manner. The best of George and Ira Gershwin, and more, gets an impressive vocal workout in the corner of the bar, while drummer Rebecca Montgomery (read our interview with her here) effectively displays her ease with all kinds of speed, movement and rhythm. In short, Trotter and her band are very good sports, and hearing them is a fine way to round off a hugely enjoyable night.

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