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."

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 and I introduced him to Erroll Garner and 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."

The Trio's success is to be welcomed, but is work outside the trio still a necessity? "It is for the other two guys, more than me," says Cowley. "The Trio takes up all my time, just the running of it. But I want it to be like that, and there are a few financial leftovers from my past life that keep me going. Richard does a lot of gigs—he's got a very full diary and he always enjoys playing with other people. Evan's the same, but on the blues and rock end of the spectrum—lots of gigs and the occasional recording session. But I'm so lucky that they both see the Trio as their main focus—long may that continue."

Radio Silence is the band's third album—how does Cowley view its progression to this point? "I see the first album as a shot in the dark, a punt...and I think that we got very lucky in that it just sounds great. The second was a conscious effort to make a distinction between us and other areas of British jazz music. I think it was almost an over-conscious effort to define our sound. Also, I felt that we under-rehearsed it—I think it was three or four months away from where I wanted it, although I think it's a good sounding record and it did great things for us. I don't think the band played through the material enough live. So for Radio Silence there was a conscious effort to play the material live before it was recorded, 'cause we always seem to record tunes then six months down the line we go 'Oh, I wish we could record it now...'

So this album was all about getting as close to that point as possible before we recorded it. I left it as late as I possibly could and I'm much happier with the musical result of this record than I was with the last one. Although the last one had a great sound I can't go back and listen to it so readily. Whereas with Radio Silence I could listen to it a couple of weeks after recording and actually enjoy it. A press person said that it sounds like the most rounded of our albums and I think it illustrates how far the band have come and how comfortable we are in our skin. It affirms that this is the sound we have, the sound we make, and I'm proud of it.

"Where we go next I'm not sure: it does sound like a rather tidy three CD collection of this sort of sound. It's like we've arrived at ourselves, if that doesn't sound too ridiculous."

Radio Silence boasts a striking cover design—a sepia-toned photo of the three musicians staring intently at what seems to be a World War 2 wireless transmitter. The cover is impressive, and marks a slight change in direction for the band, as Cowley explains: "We summoned up enough bravery to get on the cover this time. We've hidden behind nice abstract pictures and forms before but now seemed the time to reveal ourselves." The cover design fits well with the album's title and gives the CD real impact—how much of the concept came from Cowley? "Without wanting to sound too arrogant, most of it" he says, laughing. "We had a meeting with the record company and with our designer, Dan Buckley, who's designed all my CD covers since 2000. I love Dan's work.

"This time, I envisaged us in this bunker, where we'd been for a few weeks—so we're a bit sweaty—and you can't quite tell which year we're in or even which country we're in but there's this feeling that we're an underground movement. But we couldn't find a bunker. However, I had some mates at a Royal Air Force camp, the name of which I'm not allowed to disclose, and so we ended up in a real bunker 60 feet underground. We went out shopping to find things from that '40s or '50s era, cigarette packets and so on, and a radio enthusiast helped us with equipment. Dan and the photographer got the feel of it and I'm really pleased with the result."

Cowley's cover concept is fascinating, but seemingly runs counter to the "Radio Silence" track itself, which is about the end of a relationship and the communication breakdown that accompanies it. Or is this not the case? "Not quite," explains Cowley, "well, nearly. It is about that feeling when someone you've previously been on the same wavelength as [you but] isn't any longer, and you're not communicating." Cowley thinks for a few seconds before revising his opinion: "It is alluding to a breakdown in a relationship—so yes, you're absolutely right. It's in complete contrast to what the cover says. Artistic license, I suppose."

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."

As a self-declared "outsider," what is Cowley's take on the British scene? "It's difficult to have a take on the scene. I'm not sure if it's paranoia-based or what but there is this sense that we're not part of it. So I ask myself why we're not part of it, or why we don't feel part of it and I think there are a couple of reasons. Firstly, we're not part of a collective—and there are a few of those—group of musicians who work with each other a lot, or hang around at [London jazz clubs] The Vortex or the 606 a lot, and we don't do that either. But what do I think of the British jazz scene? Crikey, that's a hard question because it's difficult to be objective. I'm not in a group of musicians that constantly encourages each other to go out and conquer...It is astonishing what's been achieved in the name of jazz in this country in the last few years, that's for sure, and our presence in European jazz festivals is quite amazing. I think the only reason we don't go out and conquer North America is the cost. It needs an enormous outlay just to get over to North America once. But that's not really your question is it?"

Cowley's response to the question about the British jazz scene is not untypical. Many British jazz musicians seem to find it difficult to define it or to explain their place within it. Cowley is unsurprised by this: "Isn't that funny. I reckon my response is probably quite typical: there are probably very few people who feel that they're part of it and know what it is. I remember Zero 7 being asked 'What's life like in the chill-out scene?' and they said 'What chill-out scene?' Do you know what—the people to ask are the PR companies or the managers, the people in the industry. They're the ones to ask because they're the ones that create it, I think."

In 2007, Cowley took part in an All About Jazz Take Five With... discussion. Asked to name his ideal band the pianist included John Lee Hooker on guitar and vocals and Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass. As his ideal band manager Cowley named Frank Zappa. Was his tongue firmly embedded in his cheek, or does Zappa genuinely stand out as the ideal man to take care of business? "It wasn't a joke, no. I worship Frank Zappa, and not always for musical reasons. His output is amazing—he's so prolific—but his ethic was always 'Up yours' to the record companies. He took care of his own business and after about the early '80s he got control of all his master tapes. He was a truly entrepreneurial musician. I've used that approach as my own model—I have my own record company and I've always tried to grab my masters back because the only thing I can back is myself. I don't have anything else to sell as James Brown would have said, so I really appreciate how he doggedly stuck to his guns and really took care of his business."

Neil Cowley also sounds like a musician who can take care of business. The Neil Cowley Trio is in safe hands and is creating great music.

Selected Discography

Neil Cowley Trio, Radio Silence (Naim Jazz, 2010)
Neil Cowley Trio, Loud, Louder, Stop (Cake, 2008)
Neil Cowley Trio, /php/article.php?id=25051Displaced (Hide Inside Records, 2006)
Fragile State, Voices From The Dust Bowl (Bar de Lune, 2004)
Fragile State, The Facts And The Dreams (Bar de Lune, 2002)

Photo Credits

Pages 1, 5: John Bullock

Pages 2-4: Courtesy of Neil Cowley Trio

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