I make this the sixth album from Neil Cowley and the duo that make up his Trio, Rex Horan and Evan Jenkins (not counting EPs, iTunes live sessions and so on). The PR for the record trumpets Neil as “Adele’s Pianist”, which he is, among many other things. It’s him twinkling the ivories on the proper intro for Chasing Pavements, for instance. He’s also had a hand in Birdy’s recent career-high album, been Derry’s Musician in Residence as they were last year’s European City of Culture, and, perhaps most importantly of all, he had a telegram read out at my wedding. Albeit it was a telegram berating me for being so keen on getting early review copies of his band’s albums, but still. As a side note, Neil wasn’t the biggest man to have a telegram read out at my wedding. Neil is quite a reasonably-sized chap. Adebayo Akinfenwa, on the other hand, well. I think you could fit three Neil Cowley’s into one Adebayo Akinfenwa. However, when it comes to the modern jazz pianist, Neil Cowley is an almost peerless heavyweight and the maturity and nuance of his band’s new album, Touch and Flee will only serve to cement and enhance that reputation.
I’ll admit took me a while to “get” this album and as a result. I missed the album’s June 9th release date for posting this review because I didn’t know what to say about it. And then, all of a sudden, it seemed, I “got” it. This is a great album. It will go down as a classic. It is the best jazz album of this and most other years. Now I shall tell you why.
Beginning with the beguiling Kneel Down, there is an immediately noticeable development in the band’s style and approach. While all the sounds are immediate, Kneel Down unfolds laconically, rather than with the insistence of the Trio’s former jams, as an elastic bass riff is juxtaposed with chiming piano chords. It immediately sets out the stall for the album. Whereas power and bombast in some parts, and smooth balladry in others, were previously Neil Cowley Trio’s stock in trade, this time, there is an almost concert-hall feel to the work. These nine pieces are symphonic without being grandiose, a contrast again to the previous album, The Face of Mount Molehill, which employed a string section to add orchestral flourishes. This time, the synergy between Cowley, drummer Evan Jenkins and Rex Horan is all that is required to make these songs soar.
Noticeably absent here are the, for the want of a better phrase, faster and louder songs. That is not to say that the album lacks intensity by any means, but it is symptomatic of the increasing maturity in Cowley’s writing that he never resorts to ivory-thumping. Instead, as on Winterlude, a groove builds and builds without ever reaching an expected crescendo, Sparkling, well, sparkles, as major and minor chords intertwine and compete, all adorned by trademark flowing arpeggios. Gang Of One, again, twists and turns all over the place, simmering with buried angst, before resolving into the kind of funk groove that makes me want to walk like an Egyptian (unlikely in my case). It’s great. A high point of the album. It is followed by another, as Couch Slouch’s staccato rhythm slinks into play. By this point, mid way through the album, the listener already knows this is a different kind of listen. Heads are nodding, feet are tapping, subtle air drums are being played (if they’d only stop being so clever and changing time signature all the time and catching me out). Bryce is a mournful, almost cinematic piece, which, yet again, begins in a kind of “all come apart” fashion before finding itself around some beautiful Horan picking. Always feeling like it could devolve in to a Bad Plus, Nirvana-covering hullabaloo, it never does, instead opting for beauty and substance, allied with style. As with the rest of the album, the mix-positioning of the rhythm section, making you feel like the players are in the room with you as they play, really enables you to feel every cymbal splash, every time Rex leans in to a note. It’s as close to having them play in your living room as any of us are ever likely to get.
Never ones to be pigeonholed, the band then unveil Mission,a song pushed along by what sounds like a toy organ. While the song is good in and of itself, it works best as an introduction to the majestic Queen, “Touch and Flee”‘s high point and defining moment. Beginning with the hushed brushes of Evan Jenkins, what develops in the next six minutes or so is the kind of song that musicians dream of writing, playing, sharing in with an audience. It is perfect. Each section builds on the last, at once both taking the song to places you can’t imagine it would go and also satisfying that inner sense we all have when listening to the greatest music of “it’d be great if they did this now”. This is the song on the album that not only sounds the most like Neil Cowley Trio of old, it is the song that sets the course to the Neil Cowley Trio of the future. The section which begins at 2.27 is the kind which renders all other music totally irrelevant. You can already imagine crowds sitting, eyes closed, at one with the band as they sway in gloriously intense concentration as something transcendent is brought to live. This band do gradual builds better than any I have ever heard, and Queen is the greatest of them all. I cannot wait, I cannot WAIT to hear this song live. Best of all, it doesn’t go crazy, everything is under control, but it’s also the most intense and invigorating six minutes of music you’ll hear this year. I promise.
As the album concludes with The Art, a largely Cowley-focused legato end-credits, one is left to marvel at having sat through something truly special. For a relatively short album, so many ideas are packed in that it feels like hours have passed. Anyone who thinks they can write songs should listen to this band. This (ironically for guys who seem much more interested in beards than the divine) is music which has touched something of the divine. Neil Cowley Trio have made their jazz album and it is damn near perfect.
And to think I didn’t like it to start with.
You can stream Mission from the album here