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Pianist and composer Neil Cowley has been named musician in residence in Derry for next year’s UK City of Culture festivities in the city.

Backed by the PRS for Music Foundation, local venue the Nerve Centre, and the City of Culture artistic team, Cowley, whose latest trio-plus-strings album is The Face of Mount Molehill, will be working with local musicians to perform new music primarily at the Nerve Centre.

The Cowley trio is known for its strong hooky melodies and energy-laden riffs, which appeal to rock and jazz fans alike. “What we do live is perhaps a step up from the record,” Cowley told legendary US jazz magazine Downbeat in the autumn ahead of his well received Barbican date when the basic unit was augmented with the Goldsmiths strings for Cowley’s biggest UK jazz gig to date. “We’re very much about a collective output. We’re about melodies, and the collective energy we produce.”

Cowley, who turned 40 last month is also known for his work with superstar singer Adele and was pianist on the smash hit ‘Rolling In The Deep’. The Cowley Trio is a popular draw on the international festival circuit, and toured in the US recently. At the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, Cowley presented newly arranged versions of songs from his debut, the BBC award winning album Displaced, including a magisterial version of the tune ‘How Do We Catch Up’. Cowley’s trio is built around what’s been dubbed an “Estuary sound" and with the pianist are original drummer Evan Jenkins, who is from Wellington in New Zealand, but who has lived and worked in the UK since 1994, and recently recruited Australian bassist Rex Horan, who replaced Richard Sadler, the player who appeared on the first three albums with Cowley and Jenkins. Horan has been living in the UK since 1997 but met Jenkins four years earlier in Western Australia, when they were both students in Perth. They then hooked up with various bands and now with Cowley make a formidable team that should enliven the Derry scene during a very special year and bring jazz to the fore.

Neil Cowley, pictured above

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The Jazz Café in Camden Town may have just been sold by its owner HMV along with nearby venue Barfly, a big Manchester venue the Ritz, and the east London Groove Armada-associated festival Lovebox in a £7.3m deal to a soul-less private equity firm.

But that won’t make any difference to the soulful legend set to appear at the venue next week. It may even spur her on. Because in a swan song, maybe, for a club that has become a fun plaything for corporate financiers in recent weeks, it’s the great soul and R&B singer from Detroit, Bettye LaVette coming in to play a rare date.

She’s celebrating 50 years in the music business as a performer, released a pulsatingly different new album Thankful N’ Thoughtful, and she’s written a gripping autobiography A Woman Like Me, with David Ritz.

A librarian she is not. Like Jimmy Scott, who Ritz has also written about, Bettye LaVette has had more than her fair share of ups and downs over the years and was a star and then wasn’t, then kind of became one again for a variety of reasons which the book goes into readable detail about.

On Thankful the Detroiter teams with Craig Street, the producer who turned Cassandra Wilson’s career right around in the 1990s when he worked with the Mississipian on the superb Blue Light Til Dawn in the 1990s on which Wilson moved beyond her comfort zone for the first time to absolutely devastating effect. His touch, and that voice, makes LaVette’s latest ready-made for jazz fans to dip their toes in soulsville once more.

LaVette because of the nature of the kind of soul and R&B she thrives on (roughly Tina Turner land) maybe didn’t have to make such a leap with Street, and as she dips in and out of different styles gives each of them her own emotively compelling life force.

The tracks are an astute mix of genre-denying tunes, and I have been hitting replay on Bob Dylan’s ‘Everything is Broken’ and the leftfield folk singer Patty Griffin’s song ‘Time Will Do The Talking’, which is just remarkable. Who would have thought such alchemy could have been achieved? It’s the measure of LaVette as an artist that this has occurred at all.

There are plenty of other goodies rattling around on the album including material by the Black Keys, Tom Waits and Neil Young, and LaVette manages even to breathe new life into Gnarls Barkley’s done-to-death ‘Crazy’, in itself a neat trick.

LaVette’s band on the record is Chris Bruce, guitar; Jonathan Wilson guitar, banjo; Glenn Patscha, piano, keys; Jennifer Condos, bass; JJ Johnson, drums, percussion; Steven Bernstein of Sex Mob on ‘Yesterday Is Here’; and Douglas Wieselman, reeds on the same track.

I’m not sure who her band in Camden will be on the night just yet. Doesn’t really matter to an extent. But do yourself a favour: and get down to Parkway before the equity fund people ruin the place for good. With the festive season and January gloom around the corner, and before changes kick in at the venue, it might just be the last time.

Stephen Graham

Bettye LaVette pictured top. Photo: Marina Chavez

Tickets: http://venues.meanfiddler.com/jazz-cafe/full-listings/featured-gigs/7673/bettye-lavette

Nat Birchall
World Without Form
Sound, Soul and Spirit ***
Nat Birchall has got to be the generation X and northern English version of Alan Skidmore. You can’t just say that about anyone, not when sincere and detailed study and contemplation of John Coltrane is at issue. Anyone who tries half- heartedly to make the scene, unlike Skid or Nat, just won’t cut it. World Without Form never says it’s a Coltrane tribute, as Alan Skidmore records sometimes do, but it’s pretty clear throughout these seven tracks. There are twists and additional elements though, and in a nutshell these are involved with the contribution of pianist Adam Fairhall who can blow up all Matthew Shipp-like at times, something very different to McCoy Tyner’s work with Coltrane; and then there’s the vibes, bells and shakers of Corey Mwamba, adding a piquancy and altered view into the majesty of the Coltrane sound. World Without Form follows last year’s Sacred Dimension. Like Guiding Spirit and the earlier Akhenaten it came out in the same stylistic vein (with added Pharoah-isms sometimes) and was released on Matthew Halsall’s Gondwana Records, a label that has a north-west England base and revivalist DJ instincts. Halsall has been quoted as saying that Birchall’s music is “spiritual, soulful and honest”, which is a perfect way of putting it. This new release on a new imprint of Birchall’s own has more emotion than Sacred Dimension, and with the different arrangements an openness and power that after a while allow you to move on from thinking just about Coltrane. I still think Birchall has not travelled far beyond his comfort zone and that there are great things still to come from him in the future. Yet, as with Skidmore, he is doing everyone a favour with this crucially important jazz, bringing the music to a new younger audience. As a conduit to the spirit of Coltrane Birchall can do no wrong.

Stephen Graham

Out now

The Nat Birchall Quintet play Matt And Phred’s in Manchester on 4 January. Birchall pictured above