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Take Five With Neil Cowley

AAJ Staff By

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Meet Neil Cowley: As a ten-year-old child prodigy he performed a Shostakovich piano concerto to a full house at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. Having answered an ad in Melody Maker at seventeen, he entered the world of pop, and by 21 had performed to over five thousand at the Royal Albert Hall. In 2002, Q Magazine described his music as "beautiful and delicate," while The Independent on Sunday added "sweeping and epic." Yet just two years ago, London-born pianist-composer Neil Cowley was locked in a damp dark room with a few keyboards and an Apple Mac, desperately "trying to extract creative art from within." An experience he refers to as "lonely and depressing."

Neil Cowley turned his back on the Royal Academy at an early age, choosing instead to record and tour with some of the best soul and funk bands of the day, including The Brand New Heavies, Gabrielle, and Zero 7, until, in 2002 he formed his own band, Fragile State. As one half of the production duo, Cowley produced two critically acclaimed albums that set the world of jazzy chill-out music alight. Yet when the record company dissolved, the act went down with the ship, and with it, his heart and soul. Cowley continued to make music, yet found the experience of extracting music from a computer chip unbearable. So, he called on the oldest friend he had, his dear old piano, and set forth with a renewed enthusiasm to present creativity without technological hindrance. Cowley began composing, embarking on late night sessions of piano discovery.

The result is Displaced, an outstanding album of original recordings that present Cowley as a thoroughly modern player with an impeccable touch. As a pianist, Neil Cowley is dazzling, and as a composer, he is stunning. With Richard Sadler on double bass, and Evan Jenkins on drums, Cowley has assembled a masterful jazz trio whose bursts of energy and emotional infectiousness underpin Cowley's tremendous flair for creating beautiful, sometimes forceful melodies.

Having rehearsed the material for one week, The Neil Cowley Trio recorded Displaced in one take over two days at Real World Studios. For Cowley, the tunes on Displaced had to tick the boxes of the past masters that live on his shoulders: Shostakovich, Ahmad Jamal, Frank Zappa, Erroll Garner, Taraf de Haidouks. "I love a chord!" he says. "My chords always come before my melody. Each chord has to have its own life and story and touch on something I feel. The melody is often how my fingers play around those chords."

Displaced is an album of emotional integrity, and one that will surely become contender for Jazz Album of the Year. One thing is for sure - The Neil Cowley Trio has produced an album that demonstrates what should be at the core of all music making: Playing for sheer joy!

Instrument(s): Piano

I knew I wanted to be a musician when... I realized aged fourteen that you could get into "adult places" if you had a keyboard under your arm, and around about the same time came to the conclusion that I could make people dance. Previous to that I wanted to do anything but.

Your sound and approach to music: Within the trio it sounds like three guys in a bag. With an ear to the peaks and breakdowns from my electronica past, the music come in waves of energy, sometimes "edge of the seat" delicacy, and at other times with rock-like power. At gigs it is important to feel everyone's involvement within the music. From each band member through to a guy sitting at the back of the auditorium

Your dream band: Ali Farka Tour on guitar; John Lee Hooker on guitar and vocals; Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass; Robbie McIntosh on drums; Chaka Khan and Siedah Garrett on backing vocals; Frank Zappa as business manager.

How you use the internet to help your career? MySpace has involved a whole new generation in our particular brand of jazz. Via this site we have welcomed surfer dudes and techno-nerds to our gigs, some of whom would never have considered attending a jazz gig before in their life. It is an invaluable tool in getting the trio heard in new places. MySpacers have the option to vote with their fingers. Our music is there for them to listen to (or not) and so far the response has been incredible. I take a policy of not inviting friends to join our page; I leave it to other people to invite themselves. This way we only get genuine fans. Gig attendances have on some occasions been fifty percent MySpace friends. An amazing reward for hard spent hours managing the page!

CDs you are listening to now: Ali Farka Toure, Savane (World Circuit/Nonesuch, 2006); Charles Earland, Anthology (Soul Brother, 2000); Beta Band - The Three E.P.'s (Astralwerks, 1998); The Sundays - Reading, Writing and Arithmetic (DGC, 1990); Bernard Hermann - Taxi Driver: Original Soundtrack Recording (Arista).


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