Neil Cowley Trio – The Face of Mount Molehill – Naim naimcd171, 45:39 [9/11/12] ****:
(Neil Cowley – piano, keyboards, string arrangements (tracks 2, 6, 9-12); Rex Horan – bass; Evan Jenkins – drums; Leo Abrahams – guitar (tracks 1, 4, 8-9); Tilly Cowley – laughter (track 6); The Mount Molehill Strings: Julian Ferraretto – violin (tracks 2, 4-12), string arrangements (tracks 4, 8); Stephen Hussey – violin (tracks 4-5, 8-9, 11-12); Danny Keane – cello (tracks 1, 4-5, 8-9, 11-12); Oli Langford – viola (tracks 2, 4-6, 8-12); Mandhira De Saram – violin (tracks 2, 4-6, 8-12); Giles Broadbent – violin (tracks 2, 6, 10); Miles Brett – violin (tracks 2, 4-6, 8-12); Amanda Drummond – viola (tracks 2, 4-6, 8-12); Ben Trigg – cello (tracks 2, 6, 10); Katie Woodward – cello (tracks 2, 4-6, 8-12))
There are plenty of Neil Cowley fans, but not all of them are jazz listeners. That’s because Cowley’s type of jazz is not always appreciated by all jazz people. It’s not that Cowley’s music is too outside, but rather his material appeals to the rock and pop crowd, the same individuals who have made likeminded groups such as The Bad Plus postmodern jazz favorites. Cowley’s resume is iconoclastic in relationship to jazz: a classical music prodigy (he performed at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall at age 10) who cites Frank Zappa and Ahmad Jamal as equal influences and has been in the soul-funk band Brand New Heavies, and the downtempo/trip-hop outfit Zero 7. A relatively roundabout training ground for a jazz artist.
In 2002 Cowley formed a trio with bassist Richard Sadler and drummer Evan Jenkins as a vehicle for his compositions. The threesome began to release albums a few years later. The Face of Mount Molehill is the trio’s fourth record, and was initially offered in England at the start of this year and become available in CD and digital formats stateside after Labor Day: this review refers to the U.S. CD version. This is Cowley’s second full-length to be distributed on the Naim label (the first was the U.S. reissue of 2010’s Radio Silence), and marks a change in direction. First, Sadler has been replaced by Rex Horan (who spent time in the UK neo-soul group Mamas Gun): Sadler will be missed, but the professorial Horan brings an enhanced rhythmic drive to an already energetic band, and his contributions are steady and muscular. More explicitly obvious, though, is Cowley’s adjustment in his perspective and his maturing musical palette. Cowley has not abandoned his panache for punchy refrains, pummeling chords and his patented, rock-keyboard apogees. During The Face of Mount Molehill, however, Cowley combines his core trio with a strings section and employs effects-laden guitarist Leo Abrahams, who has appeared on Brian Eno projects. Cowley’s augmented developmental variations are not completely a surprise: they are based on the trio’s live shows at the 2010 London and 2011 Cheltenham jazz festivals, where Cowley also used a strings ensemble. Cowley’s recording process, including music from The Face of Mount Molehill, can be seen and heard via a brief online making-of video.
The 12-track record opens with the affectionately poetic “Lament,” embroidered with strings and Abrahams’ ambient guitar traces, which form an understated backdrop. Another example of Cowley’s lyrical quality is the finely constructed “Skies Are Rare,” which features some of Cowley’s communicative piano work, a first-rate Horan bass improv, and lucid assistance from the strings, which rise up into the mix and then ebb back into the ether. Another elegiac track is the shortened finale, “Siren’s Last Look Back,” a suitably misty and philosophical denouement with a cinematic attribute.
The more aggressive and standout tunes are those which quicken the pulse, sharpen the edges and bounce the cerebellum (which readers should already know is where the brain’s toe-tapping, head-nodding motor control and pleasure center is located). Cowley enthusiasts will be attracted to cuts like “Rooster Was a Witness,” with its celebratory piano riffs, lively tempo, and a groove enriched by a pizzicato strings counterpoint, which is later given further melodic heft when the strings implement flowing bowing. This is solidly constituted and arranged, and has an expressive unity of élan and refinement best experienced by hearing it multiple times. The only piece when the trio goes it alone is the rollicking “Fable,” which is typical of Cowley’s characteristic, pounding keyboard clatter: heavy on rhythm and largely bereft of improvisational elements. The title track dials up the power level even more, with beat-propelled application of strings, bass, drums, clanging sound effects and piano. This is pure zeal with a rushed velocity which may leave non-Cowleyites wondering what just happened. One reviewer opined Cowley often pens “the greatest stadium-filling anthems that Coldplay never wrote.” That idea of “songs without words” is represented on the rousing and appealing “Slims,” where the strings twirl around Cowley’s recurrent piano phrases and Cowley and Horan are allowed a bit more space than on other cuts. Cowley’s cracked comical trait rears up during “Mini Ha Ha,” which commences with a crazy opening segment with his daughter’s sampled laughter, which showcases Cowley’s surreal sense of humor: the track then bravely but bizarrely refocuses to an unexpectedly sensitive conclusion highlighted by Horan’s serious resonant bass. Older Cowley listeners may not immediately welcome where Cowley’s muse has taken him. But The Face of Mount Molehill is a sincere, authentic display of Cowley’s sentiments, and conveys a lot more emotional significance than previous efforts: that type of feeling can’t and ought not to be disdained or misinterpreted.
TrackList: Lament; Rooster Was a Witness; Fable; Meyer; Skies Are Rare; Mini Ha Ha; Slims; Distance by Clockwork; The Face of Mount Molehill; Hope Machine; La Porte; Sirens Last Look Back.
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