Cementing his position as a dazzling composer of extraordinary talent, Cowley and his trio scale the gargantuan summit of Mount Molehill where they explore the heights of everyday trivia, and score it to a soaring overture of epic proportions. Nourishing his fondness for grand, commanding sounds, Cowley has begun a love affair with orchestration. Having spent the past year writing and arranging specifically for his trio and strings, he records, for the first time ever, with a string ensemble. The music is expansive, dynamic and deeply engaging. With the addition of soundscape textures from guitarist Leo Abrahams, (renowned for his collaborative work with Brian Eno) the Face of Mount Molehill represents a substantial shift in direction. Comprising 12 original tracks, the album takes the listener on an exciting musical journey from pomp and splendour to poignant, lyrical episodes; from sprightly and whimsical to powerful, rhythmic melodies. It would be far too simplistic to slot this thrilling music into the jazz pigeonhole; sure, it is instrumental but these songs without words have the power to break down standard perceptions of genre. Their sheer emotion and energy touch lovers of all music. The Neil Cowley Trio are known for their remarkable and engaging live performances, which always maintain a quirky sense of humour at their core.
The preferred way to judge this album might be to view it beside pianist Neil Cowley’s existing output. He must have been wondering where he was heading next, after refining a particularly hectic form of prog-jazz riffing. Now, Cowley’s calmed down. Most listeners will expect a return to the nervy, dense, and struttingly compressed melodies of his first three recordings.
The trio’s leader has evidently chosen a certain degree of simplicity. This session is more relaxed, with far fewer events on its horizon. Cowley’s compositions are even less conventionally jazzy than before, but they’re also not massively bloated by a rock or classical diet either: it’s as if Michael Nyman was operating a jazz piano trio. There’s minimalism, but it’s the minimalism of sheer melodic space, and a refreshing sort of simplicity. Another way of developing further is to add a dramatic string section, and to doctor his own piano sound with ambient effects, often as if its interior reverb has been magnified. The guesting guitarist Leo Abrahams also thickens up the atmospheres.
Cowley might be trying to turn his instrument into a harpsichord; there’s that kind of jangling attack. Following a gentle opener, the second tune, Rooster Was a Witness, does indeed feature a slight return to prog bounding; but this time around, the beats are predominantly metronomic and driving. During the course of the album, there’s a single solo apiece from each trio member, at least in the traditional jazz manner. It could be said that Cowley is continually soloing inside his tunes, but the bass (courtesy of new member Rex Horan) and drums mostly keep to a sturdy backbone role.
Occasionally, the style rests at the brink of retro-kitsch, but seemingly intended with high seriousness: epic doings, sometimes twitching, jolting or rolling. Cowley is mostly aiming for a more linear interpretation of jazz, subtler in its dynamics. On a couple of tracks – Mini Ha Ha, and the title-track – Cowley utilises jittering samples at the irritatingly primitive end of the range. The impish chortles and robot stutters are neither 1980s antique nor modern minimal: they just end up sounding clumsily dated and unintentionally odd when surrounded by such lush strings. It’s likely that all of these traits are deliberate, but it’s not so certain that Cowley’s taste-making always succeeds, despite the overall optimistic vitality of his tunes.
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