The pianist’s playfulness captures the imagination.
Chris Parkin 2010
There’s little doubting Neil Cowley’s credentials (he performed a Shostakovich concerto at the Queen Elizabeth Hall aged just 10) but the pianist has faced some gentle criticism from the jazz world for not cutting loose from his stylish, hook-laden, groove-based awnings in recent years. But as elegant and catchy as this third album from the ex-Brand New Heavies keyboardist is, especially on the glassy, contemplative opener Monoface, it’s the playfulness bursting from the piano ace’s fingers that should capture the imagination here – and prove he’s not scared of getting fresh.
Along with some delicious flashes of the minimalist, ambient ideas picked up while training as a classical pianist, baring themselves as silvery piano motifs on the terrific title-track, Vice Skating and glacial album closer Portal, it’s Cowley’s feverish flights of fancy that really stand out. Similar in style to the striking piano play that marked out the highlight of his 2006 album Displaced, the tumbling lunatic Clown Town, and those covers of Revolution No 1 and Revolution No 9 he recorded a few years ago, Cowley is channelling his improv spirit with real refinement.
When his music breaks into a massive grin, like it does on the thumping joyful rocker Gerald, with its furiously repetitive piano riff that snags the mind, and on the almost cartoonish Hug the Greyhound, which sees him hammering wild yet complex piano notes as if he’s racing the lean, galloping groove to the finish line before falling over it in an exhausted heap, this is undeniably compelling stuff. And Cowley plays his improv style another way, too. On Stereoface, his light, percussive melodies and gently freeform ideas dot the soft groove-based funk patter brilliantly.
Giving his detractors ammunition, however, Cowley always returns to the middle ground, even mid-improv, and all too often he turns to the sort of safety-first sound that he should’ve been free of the day he quit offering his services as a session musician. With bassist Richard Sadler and drummer Evan Jenkins along for the ride and as reliable as ever, the latter laying down fabulous, expansive percussion, there’s no need at all for Cowley to deny himself more flashes of brilliance.