It's rare to hear a new group create a sound so unique from the get-go that antecedents are rendered irrelevant. British pianist Neil Cowley's trio is on the verge of something very significant with Diplaced. More forceful than EST but less clunky than The Bad Plus, the Neil Cowley Trio has plenty to appeal to fans of these more youthful and, for the moment, better-known alternatives to the mainstream piano trio.
A talented child prodigy who performed classical concertos at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall at the age of ten, Cowley has been looking for his voice ever since. With a background in funk and soul, and two chill-out jazz records with the collaborative Fragile State, it was only with the unexpected dissolution of that group that Cowley found himself returning to acoustic piano, and it's a good thing he did. While the occasional electronic texture surfaces here and there, Displaced is primarily an acoustic jazz trio with a contemporary bent.
Capable of lithe linearity and finessed flourishes, Cowley is equally engaged by the more dramatic sound of block chords, and it's this penchant for exploring strength and dynamics as equal partners to elegance and grace that makes Displaced flow as a unified whole. Bassist Richard Sadler is as comfortable interacting with his mates as he is hanging onto a repetitive groove. Drummer Evan Jenkins is as impressive with a backbeat as he is a more textural, orchestral approachrecalling, at times, The Bad Plus' David King, but demonstrating greater restraint when called for.
Cowley writes tunes that traverse the broadest possible spectrum. Compositions like the initially riff-based "How Do We Catch Up evolve gradually, with a series of movements that never loose their interconnectivity. Cowley gets plenty of room to solo throughout, but never overstays his welcome, creating focused improvisations that tie in naturally with every song's core. When the trio locks inas it does oftenit bristles with an energy that would seem unbridled if it didn't switch gears so seamlessly.
The overall feel is one of vigorous confidence, but the trio also recognizes the power in understatement. The title track is a temporally elastic tone poem, where the ebb and flow feels unforced and natural. And while this is a group that rarely looks back, there are some references to the mainstream tradition, especially on "Pair of Teeth, which swings in its own way. The staggered rhythm of "Clown Town has its roots in American Quartet Jarrett, but with a greater sense of humor.
Displaced has been available in Europe since last year, but its release now in North America is both welcome and overdue. An exciting new group with a great future, The Neil Cowley Trio is a piano trio for all age groups. Filled with improvisational élan and interpretive interplay, it displays a youthful exuberance that's consistently reflective of its polystylistic foundation.
Personnel: Neil Cowley: piano; Richard Sadler: bass; Evan Jenkins: drums.