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Neil Cowley: A Rock and Roll Take on Jazz

By Published: April 26, 2010
Clearly, "Radio Silence" was written with a theme in mind and the title isn't simply an arbitrary choice. Does this reflect Cowley's usual approach to composition? "The tunes are conceived on a little upright piano where I'm standing now, which is in my little studio at the end of my garden. It can be quite a lonely process and I have to be careful that they don't all end up sounding too melancholy. I do reflect on things; for example, 'Portal,' on Radio Silence was written as a result of buying the DVD box set of Carl Sagan's TV series Cosmos. I immersed myself in it for three or four days and came out thinking about how everything was astral and infinite and so the tune is about how small we are, about a sense of space. Then there's 'Gerald,' which I think really reflects this character I know who was in an old Blues Brothers covers band I was in—in fact I still keep in touch with them and play with them occasionally. He's just one of the most fascinating characters you could meet. But I'd be lying if I said that every title links to a piece. Sometimes I just sit scratching my head for days wondering what title might work for something. Then I might pick up on something that's happening and find a title, but there's no link between the tune and what's been going on."

There's a hidden track on Radio Silence, which appears a couple of minutes after the end of the "official" final track, "Portal." The tune is another beautiful, slow and reflective piece—which Cowley says is called "Box Lily"—so why is it hidden? Is there a particular intention behind the seemingly popular hidden track idea beyond simply annoying the listener? Cowley takes this complaint in the spirit in which it was intended before explaining the specific reasons behind the idea to hide "Box Lily:" "I take on board what you say about the hidden track. It was debated left, right and center. There was an ongoing battle about how many tracks were going to be on the album and I got to the point where I was tired of it. 'Box Lily' wasn't going to get on the album, but I thought it was a beautiful track and it became the only way that I could slip it on. So to your listening detriment it ended up as a hidden track. But I know what you mean about hidden tracks, it's just that it was my only option."

The "Box Lily" story demonstrates another aspect of the Neil Cowley Trio as a unit. It may be named after Cowley, but he's by no means a dictator—clearly Sadler and Jenkins have a genuine input into band decisions, to the pianist's credit. The discussion returns to Cowley's earlier comment that without Sadler and Jenkins' ideas his tunes would be rather melancholy. This melancholic feel is certainly not apparent in the recorded tunes: even the slow tunes have a very uplifting feel that raises the spirits. The up-tempo numbers can be genuinely joyous—perhaps the most insistent of these is another Radio Silence track, "Hug the Greyhound." Cowley laughs loudly at this: "Join the club! Evan finds it really insistent as well. It's hooky."

With the release of Radio Silence, the band will be touring heavily for much of 2010, with an extensive schedule of UK dates being followed by performances in Canada during June and a series of European performances in the Fall. "We're good to go right until Christmas" comments Cowley. How important is North America to the Trio? "I've had conversations about America before—in fact we discussed it at the time of the second album—but I think you have to give it your all in order to break through so we decided to leave it for a while. Then we went to the Montreal Jazz Festival and to New York during a visit and I had a sense of 'Oh, no. We're taking coal to the Geordies, we're taking jazz back to them. Are they going to like this pseudo-British nonsense we're taking to them?' But the response was unbelievable, so I'm now very committed to trying to make things happen for us in North America.

"In truth, the response from America has been more positive than from anywhere else I can think of. Australia was a great experience for us, the UK is a great stomping ground for us, but the Canadian response was just astonishing. I'm excited about those places and would love to give a strange, quirky, British version of what perhaps is jazz back to them."

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