Curios, Vortex Jazz Club, London

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The collaborative acoustic trio Curios is the vehicle for the technically dazzling, melodically gifted pianist/composer Tom Cawley. Following the likes of the 1980s UK big-band Loose Tubes, this 1998 Young UK Jazz Musician of the Year places jazz in a melange of traditions, and his music tends to be episodic rather than developmental. But his skills as an improviser and the cinematic potency of his compositions make him a stand-out, while his fresh-faced, almost blokey enthusiasm is free of the sort of knowing Brit-art gloss that can easily be read as condescending.

Cawley’s compositional inspirations are the immediate concerns of family and friends. Several referenced his children’s daily routines – swimming lessons, nappy-changing, play – and had fetchingly self-explanatory titles – “Sharks and Dolphins”, “Joseph’s Mud”, “Little Hurricane”. A further three were sourced from Cawley’s personal enthusiasms: motor sport, football – “Squat Little Man” for his favourite player, Diego Maradona – and his preferred songwriter, Rufus Wainwright, in a piece entitled “The Chosen One”. For such upbeat and personal subject matter, the music is surprisingly rich emotionally.

The evening opened with “Very Loved”, a deliberate, almost solemn mid-range pedal point from Cawley, juxtaposed with a sparse upper register harmonisation of hovering notes from acoustic bass. The piece gathered momentum, the baroque harmonies and mallet-driven textures yielded to Latin inflections, a rock pulse emerged, the tempo increased and the clarity of Cawley’s articulation took centre stage, before returning to the original theme.

This compositional approach was sustained throughout. Occasionally the outset would be a rhythmic impulse or Cawley’s search for the lost chord, but generally themes had strong melodies with clear harmonic structures that might later be jettisoned. At one point the trio sang a chummy monastic chant, though the band looked happier delivering the jazzy musical accompaniment.

With so many changes in mood and tempo, it could all have become bitty and lost focus, but this didn’t happen. This was partly because Sam Burgess on bass and drummer Josh Blackmore are sensitive collaborators, impressively so on new and as-yet-untitled material, but mostly because of Cawley’s strength of vision.

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