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Neil Cowley: A Rock and Roll Take on Jazz

Bruce Lindsay By

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It's not an observation based on hard evidence, but the jazz world seems to be more awash with piano trios than it has been for many years. Whether it's a whim of fashion, a response to economic recession, a reaction to the over-digitization of music technology, or something else entirely, is far from clear. But there do seem to be a lot of them about, and many of them are extremely good.



So how does a piano trio ensure that it has something new to say—and a new way of saying it? How does it stand out from the host of similar line-ups? What's the secret? The Neil Cowley Trio appears to have worked it out. The UK-based group has a genuinely distinctive sound and some of the most original tunes on the contemporary jazz scene. Pianist and composer Neil Cowley was happy to discuss the band in a phone interview from his home in the county of Surrey, in south-east England, shortly before the release of the Trio's third album, Radio Silence (Naim Jazz, 2010).

Cowley began the interview fresh from playing with his four year-old son: "I'm a little out of breath" he explained, "but I'm invigorated." He was also, as he said, "good to go," and proved to be an enthusiastic and engaging interviewee with some fascinating insights into his own work and his place in contemporary British jazz.

Cowley's emergence on the British jazz scene is surprisingly recent. His early professional career was spent in the rock, pop and dance scenes where music was becoming increasingly reliant on technological advances—and then, around 2005, he experienced an "epiphany" that was to bring him back to his acoustic roots. "I was in a band called Fragile State, which was my own creation with one other guy [Ben Mynott]. It was very much a production outfit. In 2001 I was playing with a pop, chillout, band called Zero 7—and during that year I started Fragile State along similar lines in my little bachelor pad in Putney. I invested in some computer equipment and software and produced an album that was surprisingly successful. Then I met my future wife and moved out here to Surrey near where she lived. I managed to set up a studio at home and did a second album, mostly in my spare bedroom. This album also went well but at that point the record company went bust and took all our royalties with them.

"It had been really hard to make that album anyway; I found that trying to get music out of myself within four walls was really tough. When the record company went bust it gave me an excuse to reevaluate what I was doing. What I really loved was playing live for people, and I had all this technology between me and that performance, so I decided to strip everything down and go back to my roots." Cowley's musical roots were those of a classically-trained pianist, but rather than moving back to that genre he moved into jazz. "My confidence was right, the time was right and so the Neil Cowley Trio was born."

The Trio was soon to make a major impact on the British jazz scene, but neither Cowley nor his fellow band members were established jazz players. As he explains, the Trio's members came to jazz from different traditions. Cowley himself has no formal jazz education: "As far as jazz is concerned, I'm self-taught. I was taught classically then aged 15 or 16 I found myself surrounded by musos and they started to introduce me to all these musicians from Steely Dan to Pat Metheny and Miles Davis—all these things I had to catch up with, really. I spent a lot of time at home, doing that classic thing of learning to play by ear, replaying and replaying pieces on an old tape player and transcribing them. But I never entered the world of jazz as such; I was always on the periphery. I felt that I was a rock and roll pianist with a jazz knowledge that I never came clean about."

Cowley's "do-it-yourself" approach is in stark contrast to many of the leading jazz musicians of his generation. It's a position he is well aware of: "There's a whole generation of players who've benefitted from formal jazz education. When I could have gone to college the only place offering jazz was Leeds College of Music. In fact, they offered me a place when I was 16 years old—they'd got my age wrong somehow—but I'd just left the Royal Academy of Music in slightly horrible circumstances. I'd had enough and I walked out in mid-term. My local council [responsible at that time for providing grants to students] was extremely upset with me for walking out and so they offered me £100 to pay my fees and living costs for a year in Leeds and that was it—I had no choice and went straight to playing in pubs for a living."

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