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Neil Cowley: A Rock and Roll Take on Jazz

By Published: April 26, 2010
Cowley's playing style may not be the result of formal jazz instruction, but his talent is clear. Despite this, he remains refreshingly modest about it and wonders if a hidden world of jazz is somehow closed to him: "It's all a mystery to me: I didn't have that opportunity [of formal jazz tuition] and so I still feel that there's this knowledge I've not been privy to. Whenever I'm confronted with people who've had a formal jazz education I go very quiet and think they probably know something I don't. And they're probably looking at what I do and thinking 'What a pile of nonsense.' But I play from within and I play with my heart and soul and that's all I've got in my armory—I just hope that comes over."

Neil Cowley Trio, from left: Richard Sadler, Neil Cowley, Evan Jenkins

Years of classical training must yield some benefits for Cowley, though: a grasp of musical theory for example? Not so, he responds: "I can read music, obviously, but theory was never my strong point. What classical education gave me was fantastic technique—and I'm extremely grateful for that. I had a wonderful piano teacher called Miss Jean Anderson, from New Zealand. She was like a second mum and she taught me to express how I felt—that was the best gift ever."

The Neil Cowley Trio was born in 2005. The original lineup of Cowley, bassist Richard Sadler and drummer Evan Jenkins is still in place. "I'd been playing little private function gigs for friends, and friends of friends, playing jazz standards and trying to teach myself that library of music. Richard had been the one who encouraged me to do that. I shared a house with him in about 1998 and he'd said to me that if I ever started a trio, he'd buy a double bass—he was a bass guitarist but he didn't own a double-bass. He introduced me to the music of Ahmad Jamal

Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad Jamal
and I introduced him to Erroll Garner
Erroll Garner
Erroll Garner
1921 - 1977
and Dudley Moore
Dudley Moore
, who was a complete surprise to him. As we did these little gigs we bumped into Evan more and more and decided that he would be our man if we ever got serious. Finally, in 2005 when the record company collapsed I had just enough money with the help of a backer to go into Real World Studios. We rehearsed for two weeks then recorded."

The recording session, lasting two days, became the Neil Cowley Trio's first album, Displaced (Hide Inside Records, 2006). The link with Real World Studios, established by Peter Gabriel, continued and the band's third album, Radio Silence was also partly recorded there. For Cowley, the attraction is more than just the quality of the sound: "It has got an amazing sound to it, but if I'm honest the studio's piano isn't the best and for our second album [Loud, Louder...Stop (Cake, 2008)] I actually hired in a piano. That was my reservation about doing all of Radio Silence there: I didn't have great faith in the piano. But actually, it records quite well in retrospect. The studio does have a fantastic sound and some fantastic equipment, but also when we did the second album we met our current producer, Dominic Monks, who was the in-house engineer there—so there is a thread of associations between the band and the studio."

Cowley initially chose Real World for a different reason—its environment. "I picked it for the first album because I didn't want to have to travel round the M25 [the motorway that surrounds London] every morning to get to some place in time to start recording at 11.00am. I wanted an idyllic place where you could wake up and have a wonderful breakfast and then record—I wanted the environment to be right, and Real World has a fantastic environment."

Displaced was a very successful first album, garnering rave reviews and winning the 2007 BBC Jazz Award for best album. The success was perhaps even more surprising because none of the trio had a jazz background—in the words of the Guardian's jazz critic John L Walters, they had "risen without trace..." Like Cowley himself, Sadler and Jenkins had diverse musical backgrounds, as Cowley explains: "Evan was educated in jazz at Perth Conservatoire [in Western Australia] so he's the one with the formal jazz education. He's a New Zealander, but spent his teenage years in Australia, and after the Conservatoire he swore he'd never play jazz again. He loves his rock. Richard is more diverse, he's happy in blues bands, but he's probably done more general jazz gigs than Evan or me and probably has the fondest love for jazz of the three of us. But no-one in this band is 'on the scene'—what I imagine is the British jazz scene, anyway. We're all outsiders, as it were."

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