When it comes to music the name Neil Cowley has become synonymous with modern jazz, and the amazingly talented pianist and composer has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry including Adele.
Last year Neil was an unmissable figure in Londonderry – not just because of his towering stature and distinctive style – but as a champion for local young talent during his time as City of Culture’s Musician in Residence based at the Nerve Centre.
Neil was closely involved with the Music Promise programme and worked side by side with young musicians during a series of workshops and live performances that gave them the opportunity to learn from one of the very best in the business.
And when the curtains fell on our Culture year, rather than disappearing off the radar again, Neil has just been waiting in the wings for an opportunity to come back to Londonderry, as he revealed before his return to the city and the Nerve Centre for the City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival, taking place May 1-5.
Neil will be working with a group of 30 young people as part of the Nerve Centre’s Music Hothouse programme, preparing them for a special evening of live performance in the Craft Village on May 3.
His role as mentor will involve passing on some hints and tips about appearing live on stage – and true to his own frenetic style, he will be teaching them more about improvisation than a choreographed performance.
“I actually came back to the city in February and March on a social visit, because I have lots of friends in the city after last year, and basically I was missing them,” he revealed. “The hospitality in Derry is unbelievable and it was so good to catch up with everyone.”
He added: “I’m not sure I have the answer actually about what will be happening in the workshops – I suppose like jazz it will involve a bit of improvisation. When Marty McGill asked me to do the workshop I really wanted to come back and pass on some tips about performance as I’ve experienced it. For example, how to react to certain situations that arise during live performance, and how to react to ideas that happen spontaneously between musicians on stage.
“With pop, rock or classical music the performance tends to be very much set in stone, but the language of jazz allows things to happen on the spur of the moment, and is very much driven by passion and spontaneity. Obviously these young people are just starting their musical journey, so they are a bit more self-conscious which can affect their performance.
“I’m a great believer in keeping things simple as jazz can be intimidating. I endeavour to simplify it greatly – I would rather they played one note or one line and enjoyed it, and just worked collaboratively, than throwing a whole load of complex notes at them.”
When talking to Neil his passion for his art – and indeed the young people he has been working with over the course of the past year – is compellingly infectious and inspiring. And despite his own career commitments it’s quite clear that his heart lies as much with passing on his music as performing it.
“I hope that the kind of music I play is a bit more accessible to young people. Jazz can be quite intimidating, but I suppose my music is influenced very much by rock and pop which makes it a bit more understandable as a language for young people.
“These kids are just starting on their journey so it’s so important to build their confidence gradually and create an enjoyable learning experience for them. I think it’s so important to just learn to listen to the music first and understand it before playing. But one thing is guaranteed – the workshops will be good fun with plenty of fireworks.”
With the Neil Cowley Trio’s new album Touch and Flee coming out in June, Neil will be busy touring non-stop after his visit to the city, so he’s really looking forward to a few days of entertainment during the Jazz Festival – and is counting his Londonderry concert date in October as one of the high points of his tour.
“I’ve established so many lovely relationships with everyone I’ve worked with here – so basically they just have to pick up the phone and ask and I’ll come back. I gained so much from my experience as Musician in Residence at the Nerve Centre that I feel I will always have something to give back.
“I’ve included a lot of Northern Irish dates on my tour – which is very much down to my time spent working here - and of course there will be one in Derry in October which I’m really looking forward to. But in the meantime I’m looking forward to the Jazz Festival and a few days off to enjoy it.
“When Derry does music it does it to an absolutely ridiculous degree, it’s basically part of the language in the city. So I know the jazz festival will be a brilliant, brilliant experience, and there will be a lot of laughs to be had!”
The Hothouse workshops will take place over Easter Week, until April 25, and the places have already been snapped up, but you can catch the live performance with Neil Cowley and the Hothouse groups in the Craft Village on May 3rd.
The City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival is run by Derry City Council, and sponsored by Diageo, Department of Culture and Leisure and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.
For further information about the Hothouse event go to www.cityofderryjazzfestival.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.