Over the course of four albums now, Neil Cowley’s power piano trio has irked the jazz purists to a considerable degree of success. Having trained as a classical pianist before becoming a highly successful session pianist for hire with the likes of Brand New Heavies and Gabrielle, Cowley certainly arrived at improvisation and jazz composition via a fascinatingly circuitous route. More recently, he has worked with the ubiquitous Adele and Emile Sandé, something that certainly makes him more widely heard than most young British jazz pianists.
For the most part, his own music largely jettisons the smooth, honey-drenched sound of some of his former employers in favour of something crisp, direct, immediate and powerful. He is not afraid of deploying a consistent backbeat wherever it proves effective. Some will see his brash, aggressive approach to jazz unsophisticated – for others, it may just prove to be a gateway into this sometimes mysterious and mystifying music.
On the trio’s excellent first album Displaced, Cowley got the balance just right between artful writing and pop-inspired immediacy. In doing so, he set the bar pretty high for the future. The compositions on The Face Of Mount Molehill are not always quite as memorable or imaginative (and do sometimes veer towards the sickly sweet), although it does have some moments of graceful poise and pounding insight.
On this album, Cowley has drafted in the Mount Molehill strings to execute his own string arrangements. Another significant presence is Brian Eno collaborator Leo Abrahams, who adds manipulated guitar and atmospheric effects. Sometimes the results are lush and lavish, but the overall wash at other times threatens to overwhelm Cowley’s usual rhythmic exuberance and melodic charm.
Here Cowley seems to be dealing mainly with developing themes. His lines are sparing and patient and these short pieces don’t always allow enough time for them to develop. The meticulous arrangements and finely tuned production values also finally remove all trace of the interaction and empathy between individual musicians that might serve as a useful definition of jazz. Quite what musical space Cowley is in here is hard to define. This may well be no bad thing.
The project is at its most successful when most strident and confident, for example the hugely enjoyable Rooster Was A Witness or the sprightly, staccato theme of the title track. At moments like these, Cowley’s consciously restricted choices yield inspired, spirited and energising results. Mini Ha Ha is slightly bizarre and playful with its sampled laughter – more quirky experimentalism may have worked well. Of the many more reflective moments, La Porte is probably the most texturally and melodically interesting and is brilliantly effective when it suddenly bursts into a flurry of improvised ideas. Cowley undoubtedly has wide musical language and considerable technique, but he opts to render these in service to a broader, considered aesthetic.
Nevertheless, at times here it does seem as if Cowley is being too polite or too transparently emotive. Meyer (an elegy for Sarah Lund’s partner in the first series of The Killing, perhaps?) sounds a little like it could soundtrack one of those bold, sweeping shots of the beautiful, icy, desolate landscape in an episode of the BBC’s Frozen Planet, whilst the breezy Motown shuffle of Hope Machine seems a little forced.
More positively, Cowley has crafted a coherent, carefully planned suite of music here with a strong conceptual framework and a remarkably consistent sound. He is a skilled musician with a committed mission statement – to craft an accessible, perhaps even mainstream sound and use it as a conduit for more expressive ideas which may be unfamiliar to parts of the audience he reaches. There will be continued debate over whether it is really jazz or not – it’s certainly rigorously edited and organised. Such discussions should not blind jazz experts to Cowley’s manifest talents.