Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Do Pianists Dream of Ginger Sheep?

Neil Cowley Trio – Loud…Louder…Stop! (Cake Music, 2008)

Talented pianist Neil Cowley has had an unpredictable and versatile career trajectory, from performing Shostakovich’s 2nd Piano Concerto at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the age of 10, to session keyboardist for Brand New Heavies and Zero 7. Clearly, his own passions are free from the strictures of classical performance and sterile studio production though, as his debut trio album ‘Displaced’ demonstrated with impressive brio. If the European model of the contemporary piano trio veers towards the meditative and serene, Cowley has clearly learnt a good deal from the more irreverent approach adopted by US iconoclasts The Bad Plus. This is music with verve and panache, but also with the hard-hitting power and rigorous focus of rock music. In Cowley’s more than capable hands, it’s an appealing combination.

As with many contemporary jazz acts, the track titles alone are spectacular. What could possibly have inspired Cowley to compose a tune called ‘Ginger Sheep’ - a particularly surreal form of insomnia? Even better are ‘Clumsy Couple’ and ‘Streets Paved With Half Baguettes’. There are very few rock bands with this level of wit and creativity. Were it not for the relentless imagination and intensity of his music, it would make me yearn for Cowley to knuckle down and write some lyrics.

Some elements of Cowley’s approach will no doubt direct purists to question whether or not this is jazz. It’s a totally unimportant question when the synthesis is handled adroitly. The rhythmic simplicity and urgency of ‘Dinosaur Die’ echoes the conventions of indie-rock, yet the song’s insistence and gradual crescendo suggest it has more in common with the techniques of minimalism. It carries the listener on a journey from introverted reflection to outright anger – the kind of emotional transition rarely mustered by rock bands. By way of contrast, the track immediately following (‘Scaredy Cat’) incorporates elements of gospel and blues. Cowley is certainly aware of the mesmerising power of rhythm, but also of the emotional clarity that can be found in the elemental language of the blues.

Cowley is at his most irreverent and witty on ‘Ginger Sheep’, a track exploring offbeat emphasis, borrowing heavily from both Ska and European folk music. It’s fun, but ultimately lightweight and insubstantial. Much better is the more intricate ‘We Are Here To Make Plastic’, which confounds with its numerous time signature changes and off-kilter rhythms, also simmering with creeping unease, before collapsing into a playful section that exhibits Cowley’s breathtaking technique and manual dexterity. It then veers, again tangentially, into a more relaxed improvisation, with plenty of breathing space. All this happens within the space of a mere five minutes, pithy and concise by jazz standards.

The album’s home straight is a good deal more sensitive, and highlights Cowley’s more delicate and vulnerable side. It makes for essential respite from the heavy-handed hammering elsewhere, although careful listening reveals similar rhythmic and harmonic preoccupations simply being explored further through stylistic variation. Cowley also remains very heavy on the sustain pedal throughout even these more pensive moments.

There are some impressive and very immediate statements on this bold album, but sometimes the emphasis on driving rhythm or clear melody is a little limiting. I’d like to hear Cowley exercise his improvising chops a little more, or even take the music in a more abstract direction occasionally. It would also be good to hear more chemistry and interaction between the players in the group, an element of the music explored to greater impact on ‘Displaced’. Richard Sadler and Evan Jenkins seem reduced to much more of a controlled supporting role here and sometimes the compositions are so much in service of a rock music ethos that the long passages in slow four sound rather tepid and conventional. Also, so much is ‘Loud…Louder…Stop!’ about Cowley’s own exploration of single ideas that some of it does not reward closer scrutiny. Nevertheless, when these explorations are at their most intense, it’s an engaging and original listen.

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