Curious album cover: mannequin fingers on beardy hair, Britain’s best known contemporary jazz piano trio return with a pared down introspective album very different from the with-strings bravura of The Face of Mount Molehill.
A band that has popularised the collision between chill-out and dance music-inspirations and a post-EST sense of improvising with its own particular language, the Neil Cowley Trio know what it means to explore the possibilities of the piano trio when there is no obligation at all to swing.
Their last album, the fine live CD/DVD Live at Montreux quietly released last year, was a summation to a certain extent: the story so far gathering together large chunks of Cowley material since the band’s inception. Now nearly a year on since its release with nine all-new songs, no strings this time, although Dom Monks who produced The Face of Mount Molehill is again a vital part of the monumental sound of the record once again handsome, it’s a more reflective Cowley to an extent in the early part of the album. Sure it’s still very melodic and accessible but there is less blood and guts, even Evan Jenkins is that bit more restrained, and the improvising reaches land it has never found before.
The writing as usual isn’t easily pinned down, Cowley avoids jazz cliché and he improvises by building his tunes section by section, so it’s highly detailed structured writing grounded on strong themes, the best of which is the reverb-soaked opener ‘Kneel Down’. Cowley taps out a more chromatic crab-like direction on ‘Couch Slouch’ extending himself a little and allowing the trio more room. Sometimes there’s just too much piano, the bass and drums overshadowed by the sheer garrulousness of Cowley. But ‘Bryce’, like the opening tracks is more nuanced, and you can feel Cowley is trying to create a new space for the trio. It is a different sound.
The electronics at the beginning of ‘Mission’, the track that got a bit of pre-release radio play over the weekend, are a surprise, like an arcade game synthy commentary before the most powerful theme of the whole album emerges coated in glorious sonic detail. So a very different trio, more naked than Molehill for sure. Cowley’s writing has changed considerably and it’s less cheeky chappie and more the serious artist that comes across. The album needs a bit of living with given the changes: ‘The Art’ at the end yet another heavy statement of brand new intent. SG