Graham Reid | | 3 min read
In August 2009, to belatedly commemorate the 40th anniversary of the release of The Beatles double album (aka The White Album of ‘68), some Australian singers (including Tim Rogers of You Am I and Josh Pyke) got together with an orchestra to play the whole thing live.
Well, not quite the whole thing of course. It would be a brave or foolish soul who undertook the sound collage of Revolution 9, right?
So that makes British jazz pianist Neil Cowley one or the other -- because when Mojo magazine offered its tribute to the same Beatles set in a cover disc last year Cowley’s trio -- bassist Richard Sadler and drummer Evan Jenkins -- stepped up.
And their improbable attempt at the impossible is pretty good: it starts like a pointillist ballad then gets angular, pounding and shattering off into free playing. Don’t expect an echo of Yoko saying, “You become naked . . .” and so on, but this is a vigorous re-interpretation.
Cowley, 37, is arguably the brightest star in the British jazz scene since the heyday of guitarist Ronny Jordan and saxophonists Andy Sheppard and Courtney Pine in the late 80s/early 90s.
He studied classical, played with the Brand New Heavies and Zero 7, recorded three albums as Fragile State with Ben Mynott (disbanded 2005), and formed his own trio.
Their Displaced debut won the 2007 BBC Jazz Award, Mojo said it was the best jazz debut of the year (which probably isn’t saying much) and the Observer Music Monthly hailed it with five stars, comparing its energy to that of the early Clash. Others have noted that Cowley is almost anti-jazz because most people have a simple equation: jazz = boring.
The attack of the Cowley Trio strives to never be dull and their song titles have an increasingly Zappa-like quality: Pair of Teeth, She Eats Flies, Pinball Number Count and Taller Than Me all appeared on Displaced.
On their new album Loud Louder Stop we get Ginger Sheep, We Are Here to Make Plastic and Streets Paved With Half Baguettes Pt2.
As with many jazz players who came up in the rock -- and especially the post-punk era -- Cowley seems at pains to distance himself from jazz and work the more hip rock end of the audience spectrum.
I’ve always doubted the wisdom of that (those people are more fickle, it’s a pretty small demographic anyway) but right from the start of Loud Louder Stop -- the name taken from a comment by critic -- he delivers a statement of intent: His Nibs is pure piano-thrash, and not a lot more unfortunately.
Later Ginger Sheep sounds like it was lifted from a Madness album, all lively quirkiness, and again not a lot more. Cowley keeps his pieces short (they average around five minutes) and you do long for him to stretch out.
Apparently that’s a very “jazz” thing to say.
Certainly there are pieces on Loud Louder Stop where he gets under the skin of the music: Dinosaur Die starts as a gorgeous ballad which trickles into life over an almost tamboura-like drone then hits a powerful repeated figure of almost manic intensity and increasing density. It could have found a place on any edgy ECM album.
However Clumsy Couple attempts a not dissimilar progression but sounds heavy-handed, and the eight minute closer Streets Paved confirms Cowley’s signature style is of repeated phrases in a minimalist manner. Metalheads might call it a riff?
In places (the Monk-like Scaredy Cat) you do get to hear Cowley as a jazz musician, one engrossed by the music, but rather too often this is about surfaces, immediacy, effect and yes, riffs.