The impact of ambition and competitiveness in a creative pursuit can be double edged. As a spur to action, an attempt to fulfil potential it is surely a positivethink of the mutual admiration and competition between say Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney in the mid-1960s for example. But there are times when a competitive nature can be destructivea need always to be "right," to force your ill-considered views on others irrespective of the facts and, frankly, to be a bit of an entitled drag. Neil Cowley, let's be quite clear, is not a drag. Not even slightly. He has just made what could just be the album of his career, pushing himself way beyond the commonplace 'album as a collection of tunes played live' and the occasionally seen ' album as collection of tunes linked to a vague scarcely defined concept' into the territory of a full blown multi-media smorgasbord. Quite how Mr Cowley thinks he is going to make any money in these austere times for our music is anybody's guess, but his ambition must be sincerely and heartily applauded.
So on top of the humble CD and download there is a website, tumblr blog gradually revealing the back-story to lead character Lincoln, sheet music book with animated illustrations by DC Comics artist Sergio Sandoval, and an enjoyable if slightly goofy knockabout video for rumbustious lead track "The City and the Stars." The story of Lincoln is the conceptual thread that is intended to link the eleven pieces togetherat the time of writing the blog [http://lincolnsdiary.tumblr.com/] has yet to rise above the intriguing, but there is clearly much more to unfold. From a reviewer's perspective anything that dares to differ from the daily procession of releases claiming that what a soul great really intended was for their music to be recast as elevator music on a home organ, must be celebrated.
If "The City and the Stars" video, featuring the band as gang in matching outfits traversing London's tube network, were viewed in isolation it might suggest a return to the banging trio dynamic of Cowley's excellent second album Loud Louder Stop from 2008. Yet that would be to miss the musical breadth and subtlety of the albumremember that Cowley has a varied and individual path outside of jazz from the downtempo dance music of his own band Fragile State and Zero 7 to session appearances with the likes of Adele and the Brand New Heavies. Opener "Weightless" is a good example of this breadth moving from the opening electronic pulse into a chiming piano line, suggesting disorientation, the piece builds cinematically over deep, sub-bass notes and electronic effects into an atmospheric solo from Cowley. It's a great ambient jazz piece that is a million miles from the propulsive trio style that made Cowley's name. "Hubris Major" is another piece in this vein, although here Cowley's main piano theme is more 50 Words for Snow than say Moon Safari.
Mention must also be made of the delicate, almost hymnal "Grace" a mostly solo piano piece, albeit one where the piano sound is heavily treated to emphasise the feeling of isolation, alienation and melancholic emotion. In many ways the collection has more in common with the cutting edge modern classical fusion of say Max Richter's Sleep than say Keith Jarrett, but have no doubt of the quality, delicacy and improvised elements of Cowley's playing. If the driving rhythm and oblique piano riff of "The Sharks of Competition" is underlaid with an effect that sounds like a dial-up modem or ZX Spectrum, the emotional pull of album closer "The Return of Lincoln" alone should make questions of genre purity irrelevant. This is music of the highest quality and might just be the finest album of Cowley's career to date. Highly recommended.
Weightless; Hubris Major; Governance; The City and the Stars; Grace; Echo
Nebula; The Sharks of Competition; Duty to the Last; Garden of Love; Death of
Amygdala; The Return of Lincoln.
Neil Cowley: piano; Evan Jenkins: drums; Rex Horan: bass;
with guest appearances from Leo Abrahams: guitars, FX.