Neil Cowley Trio – Radio Silence – Naim Jazz Records NAIMCD 147, 55:59****:
(Neil Cowley – piano; Richard Sadler – bass; Evan Jenkins –drums)
Pianist Neil Cowley is not a typical jazz keyboardist. The English artist studied classical music at the Royal Academy but has extensive contributions to the UK acid jazz, downtempo and soul scenes: he has recorded or toured with The Brand New Heavies, Zero 7 and Adele, among others. Radio Silence is Cowley’s third trio project (initially issued in Britain in 2010) and first to be released on U.S. soil via the Naim Jazz label.
Cowley’s music has gotten some criticism for some shortfalls in improvisation and a reliance on pop-slanted hooks. That is not to say, though, that Cowley waters down his original compositions. But Cowley’s music is partially inclined toward those who may not already like jazz and Cowley has a Generation Y appeal similar to The Bad Plus, the Esbjörn Svensson Trio or crossover artists like Christopher O’Riley and his classical-meets-alternative music arrangements. This is music with a hipster sophistication and new millennium accessibility.
On Radio Silence Cowley once again enlists drummer Evan Jenkins and bassist Richard Sadler, who do wonders on the nearly-hour long, nine-track collection, all but one cut written by Cowley (“A French Lesson” was composed by all three artists). The pieces shift from poetically personal to assertively aggressive with some specific emphasis on Cowley’s roots: there are moments which evoke British pubs, English suburbia and other environs. The most overt of these hints comes during the funk-sliced “Hug the Greyhound,” a Vince Guaraldi-esque jaunt which echoes British music hall traditions as well as jazz. The arrangement has a light, burlesque trait and showcases the trio’s versatility, precision and empathic skill: there is musical fortitude beneath the droll veneer. There is a related élan and joie de vivre to character sketch, “Gerald,” which affectionately illustrates the bonhomie of a geeky friend who likes to have a good time on weekends. It starts with a basic rock-styled drum beat and someone’s shout-out of “one, two, three, four!” From there the threesome demonstrates an energy and wired wit which Cowley fans have come to expect. This is the most obviously rock-reclined track, highlighted by Cowley’s dynamically repetitive piano riffs. Cowley’s easygoing charm can also be found in an online, making-of mini-documentary which reveals the album’s production process.
Early Cowley reviews have mentioned the stylistic connections between Cowley and Svensson. While most of those associations have faded away, the sympathetically groove-flecked “Stereoface” does seem to share some of Svensson’s modernist preferences, with a charismatic melody which Cowley improvises over while Sadler and Jenkins provide a restrained but persistent groove. While opener “Monoface” may have a corresponding title to “Stereoface,” the piece is pure Cowley. It commences with a foreboding keyboard dissonance (which cycles through the arrangement), a barely audible electronic-sounding vibration and evocative percussion. And then it thumps awake with a main theme which steadily escalates in pitch and crescendos and sharply conjures what Cowley states is “the sudden and stark realization, that someone you love is no longer close to you.” While the tune has a simple structure it is also very effective. “Vice Skating” also is filled with Cowley’s characteristic chord progressions. On this one, Cowley’s lyrical stance displays his classical music training as well as his pop/dance music background, with quality keyboard motifs and a sometimes off-kilter bass/drums rhythmic foundation. But for the most part, the tune glides along with an affable expressionism.
The trio closes with Cowley’s masterful, seven-minute work “Portal,” which develops from a minimalist piano solo intro on through to a commanding, percussive section and then subsides back to quietly durable. The contrasting undercurrents of Cowley’s piano and Jenkins’ brushes offer a convincing utilization of the trio’s panoramic outlook. In a common rock music custom, Cowley also slips in a hidden, bonus track, of a live performance of poignant “Box Lily.” An unedited version is also available to view and hear online.
TrackList: Monoface; Radio Silence; Vice Skating; A French Lesson; Gerald; Desert to Rabat; Stereoface; Hug the Greyhound; Portal; Box Lily [hidden track]
– Doug Simpson
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