This new album from 88-key-meister Neil Cowley is the perfect album to feature on the Kind Of Jazz website.
Why? Well, it’s kind-of a jazz album, but then again, it’s not really. And that’s what makes it so fun. Always sitting on the outlying rim of the jazz star system anyway, Neil Cowley’s music has always been creative enough not to require, or be constrained by, traditional labels.
Indeed, as he admits in an interesting blog post in The Guardian recently, he’s never considered himself a jazz artist as such, and in this modern age of Spotify, shuffle and iTunes and cross-over artists like Robert Glasper, older music labels such as jazz or classical are losing their power to compel or, in the case of jazz, avert.
While not fusion in the accepted use of the phrase in jazz, this album is a fusion: of dance-style rhythms, classical trips, clear-as-a-bell melodies with evident pop sensibilities, and the prog-influence of the concept album. And it works damned well with this tight-knit band of Cowley on piano, Rex Horan on bass and Evan Jenkins on drums.
Concept albums in jazz/contemporary instrumental music are a rare beast - I recall Chick Corea’s Elektric Band did one about a space captain, inspired by Scientology - so it’s a brave musician who wholeheartedly adopts this approach as Cowley’s done, with this musical story based around the liberation of an ape-man called Lincoln who, Planet of the Apes-style, escapes from a laboratory. You can read the fascinating back story to the album at a dedicated website, which is really cool and helps provide a larger context for the album.
So to the main thing, the music. Describe it? Atmospheric. Detached. Moody. Minor-key introspective. Gripping. The concept adds another layer to Cowley’s familiar sell-em-by-the-pound melodies and endlessly developing harmonic patterns pounded out on the keys. A track like opener Weightless exemplifies this capacity for a Cowley tune to grow and develop from a sparse, dry seed to a fully-developed jazz tree, busting out all over the place musically but with the same, essential simple music pattern always evident. Second track Hubris Major is all about thick, ball-busting chords left hanging in the air, with the simplest of beats framing them, along with an innovative use of synth-bass to provide some depth.
Governance, track three, is reminiscent of Cowley of old. A simple pattern or motif picked out on the piano, comped by the drums and bass, then developed, with little in the way of artifice or unnecessary bunting - you find a good chord pattern, then squeeze all the lovely juice out of it. No filigree touches necessary, unless they advance the tune. Fourth track The City and the Stars is so exciting, there are no barns it could not storm. The rest of the album carries on in the same fashion. It is fu@&*ng good, ‘scuse my french.
This is a spendid foray into the unusual. In today’s timorous music world where focus-groups and spotify playlists drive drone-like listeners to the latest pap dross, here’s an artist who’s brave enough to say: “Instrumental concept albums about a thinking ape space adventurer? Why not?”
Indeed, why not? Let’s have more concept albums, jazz musicians everywhere!