Neil Cowley is a jazz musician who doesn’t listen to jazz. Frederick Bernas talks to him about his 20-year career on the piano stool.
When their debut album Displaced was released independently in 2006, the Neil Cowley Trio received mixed reactions. Conservative critics with a penchant for old school hard bop and pure, mainstream jazz were quick to ridicule the newcomers as noisy, obtrusive, brusque showmen who didn’t improvise enough. However, dissenting voices were soon drowned out by an expanding legion of younger fans that flocked to the piano-hammering Cowley, relishing the raw energy and colourful emotion of his music.
“At early gigs, we had – bless them – the old blue rinse brigade show up quite a lot, put their fingers in their ears, and leave quite early,” says the pianist over a coffee in Chiswick, before a recording session with Adele at Metropolis Studios.
Since beginning his performance career aged 11, Cowley’s musical journey has been long and zig-zagged, with stops or U-turns at almost every junction. “I joined a pub blues band when I was 14,” he explains, “and from that point I wanted to do it for a living – it was sexy, you got into pubs underage and girls loved you. From the blues band I was introduced to contemporary black American music and discovered funk, soul, R&B and all that stuff.”
Cowley went on to join seminal funk outfit the Brand New Heavies, wearing flared trousers, playing Fender Rhodes and embarking on two world tours. “It was absolutely awesome, a pop spectacular way of living, a bit unrealistic in a way. It was a massive way to start and I’ve tried to diminish it into a world I can control ever since.”
Work with Zero 7 followed the Heavies gig, but after a period of busy touring it was time to settle down. He became one half of the critically successful chilled electronica group
Contemporary, indeed. Cowley’s group is the latest in a growing list of piano trios with the conventional jazz line-up that are pushing boundaries and breaking through the confines of the medium. The Bad Plus, the Esbjörn Svensson Trio (R.I.P. Esbjörn) and NY-based Israeli Avishai Cohen are among the frontrunners, but Cowley hesitates when asked about inevitable comparisons. “Strangely, I saw Esbjörn Svensson in 2002 and since then I’ve not listened to one single record, for fear of being subliminally influenced. Everyone says they hear those influences, whereas actually I avoid them like the plague because I don’t want to sound like them.”
The Trio’s second album, Loud… Louder… Stop! pays tribute to one of the aforementioned stuffy jazz purists – its title is a quote from a less than complimentary gig review. Cowley explains how “this guy saw us at the BBC Jazz Awards (where they won 2007 Album of the Year) and didn’t see what the fuss was all about,” before telling of how the group dealt with this apparent blow. “We thought ‘yeah, that’s genius really, it does sum up the band, he’s absolutely right and we’re not ashamed.’ So we named the new album Loud… Louder… Stop! and there’s a track called ‘Dinosaur Die’ which references that kind of thinking.”
The wit and cocky bravado which turned flak into flair has also worked its way into the Trio’s musical persona. A strong rapport exists between the three members; Cowley talks of the “usual smelly-men-on-tour antics” and a “collective sense of humour” they revel in. “We all get each other’s gags and jokes and that comes out on stage quite a lot. Throughout my early years I was dead scared to show any humour on stage – I thought it wasn’t credible to be flippant – but now we absolutely relish it. We relish coming out and not taking it too seriously, whereas before I took it extremely seriously. It’s good to be yourself on stage.”
This exciting live presence has won the Trio, which also features drummer Evan Jenkins and bassist Richard Sadler, a series of popular gigs in non-jazz settings. Recent appearances have been as diverse as Glastonbury, the Roundhouse (at Gilles Peterson’s ‘death jazz’ showcase), the Pizza Express Jazz Club (well, why not?) and Koko. Yes, the leading indie kid stomping ground. “We played at the iTunes festival,” Cowley explains. “It is odd, but they love it down there; they even put us up as Single of the Week. They can see the crossover potential, as it has something of the power trio about it.”
Herein lies the key to it all: crossover. Crudely speaking, it is a frightening power that can equally commit unspeakable crime (think jazz + pop = smooth jazz) and serve as a force for good (funk ÷ dub + poetry = hip-hop) in the artistic world. With Cowley’s highly varied career, it was perhaps inevitable he would end up pulling it all together into a complex amalgam of different genres: “I really don’t know what it is. On our MySpace page I put ‘neo-classical soul for shoegazers’ – it’s got everything we listen to in it. The format of the band is the jazz trio, but I hardly listen to jazz.”
Essentially, then, it is a jazz trio that doesn’t play jazz. Cowley appreciates that the band’s title has “made the battle harder” as it adopts the traditional naming system of jazz groups, but doesn’t seem overly fussed. “Obviously people are going to pigeonhole us because that’s what they do. Ultimately, they need to fit you somewhere in HMV, they need to put you in a section. You just need to put up with it and break on through – it’s all fusion really.”
And being bracketed does have its advantages. “There are a huge number of venues to play within jazz,” states Cowley, “so if you are someone who wants to play live, which I do, there’s no better genre to be part of. It’s having a revival in that sense – there are a huge number of places you can play and gigs you can target.”
“Our favourite pastime is converting people. We played at Glasgow Jazz Festival a few weeks ago and they put up a video of interviews with the audience. One guy said he had to drag two mates down to their first ever jazz gig and they were kicking and screaming; then they saw us play and were completely converted, they loved it.”
This widening appeal testifies that the modern mainstream can understand Neil Cowley’s music; a broad experience across different styles is arguably his strongest compositional tool. From driving, urgent, uplifting anthems to brooding, melancholically conscientious meditations, he uses a rich palette of mood and feeling with a distinct streak of confident humour. The Trio’s brash “balls-out” approach has emboldened with every gig – the blue rinse brigade certainly won’t be back for a while.
Published in London Tourdates magazine, 24/7/08.