Neil Cowley Trio: The Face of Mount Molehill
The Face of Mount Molehill
The danger of composing tunes with catchy hooks and enthusiastic infusions of a string ensemble for a jazz album is that it gets dismissed as gussied up pop music; not jazz, just jazzy. Either unaware or unconcerned with the risk, pianist Neil Cowley presents a series of warm tunes that wear their heart on their sleeve. It's not the first time that unguarded sincerity overcame risk and danger.
Cowley comes from a background more rooted in the rock, soul and funk of the UK scene, and that influence is evident from the first note. Here's an album with stylized grooves, fuzzy harmonies and rich melodies, and which could stunt double as a Badly Drawn Boy soundtrack. And, yet, Cowley finds a way to tether it to jazz. The trio is rounded out with Rex Horan on double bass and Evan Jenkins on drums.
The first track, "Lament," opens with an introspective countryside walk on piano, odd percussion like sounds off in the distant city, and strings like sunlight streaking across the path. It's a tune thick with imagery, and it's a theme that repeats throughout.
The second track, "Rooster Was A Witness," provides an immediate contrast, with anthemic piano riffs and up-tempo rhythms that have at least one foot in rock territory. Strings make an appearance with a swirl and gust of harmony, adding buoyancy to an already lively tune.
This leads into "Fable," which knocks up the pulse count even higher. There's a nice push and pull with the rhythm on this song, and it has the strange result of providing more of a cerebral engagement and much less foot-tapping than would be expected at first blush.
Here's where Cowley brings the sledgehammer down upon the heart-strings. During the next several tracks, he unabashedly sends the string ensemble out to lead the charge, the piano trio following behind, and sometimes by more than a few steps; piano and bass frequently sound distant, an effect that's likely not unintentional. It's also quite powerful. And when he adds the eerie vocal effects of "Mini Ha Ha," the strangeness only serves to enhance the beauty of the song.
On "Slims," Cowley returns with some piano bounce. Jenkins' drumwork provides a sharp edge to the song, while Horan's bass navigates the trail between.
"Distance By Clockwork" is the best candidate for purest distillation of the soul of this album. Cowley has constructed a song within a song. Cyclical piano lines that seem to lead to new solos and new circumferences, perpetually bisected by hopscotch drum rhythms, while bass eddies and curls at the edges. And, of course, sweeping waves of string ensemble, sometimes providing an undercurrent of harmony, sometimes dramatically washing over everything in sight. It's a composition that could have easily failed and been canned as melodramatic were it not for the fact that Cowley pulls it off.
The title track is the only weak link on the album. It repeats some of the motifs of earlier anthem-rock tracks, but with a bit too much exuberance, making it sound like it had been hurriedly assembled.
The album ends with a trio of compositions that come off as an extended goodbye. They are suffused with an undeniable finality, but just as the album had multiple thematic devices, it appears that Cowley wished to send listeners off with an au revoir in each of those sounds. It's not a bad thing or a bad idea, but the album may have been stronger with a more definitive, and prompt, final note.
There are going to be those who aren't thrilled with the direction Cowley has taken with The Face of Mount Molehill, claiming it to be less experimental, less daring. They'd be wrong. When measured in terms of sincerity, honest displays of emotion carry a lot of weight, and that kind of impact shouldn't be dismissed. This is an album that deserves to be respected for what it is and not what others wish it to have been.
Tracks: Lament; Rooster Was A Witness; Fable; Meyer; Skies Are Rare; Mini Ha Ha; Slims; Distance By Clockwork; The Face Of Mount Molehill; Hope Machine; La Porte; Sirens Last Look Back.
Personnel: Neil Cowley: piano; Rex Horan: double bass; Evan Jenkins: drums.