Neil Cowley is perhaps the most listened to pianist of 2011 – although not that many of the people that heard him knew it. Cowley’s easily identifiable percussive playing defined much of the character of Adele’s 21, and judging from his upcoming recordings with Emile Sandé and Michael Kiwanuka, it seems he is a session musician that is very much in demand. On The Face of Mount Molehill, the follow up to 2010’s Radio Silence, Cowley once again steps into the role of composer, this time accompanied by his own string arrangements. This is certainly an ambitious project to undertake, and orchestral additions always run the risk of producing a bloated, overproduced result.
Cowley’s strong grounding in classical tradition makes him a good man for the job, and fortunately the task is sensitively handled. Opener ‘Lament’ shows us that the trio’s augmentation with a string section has not led him to lose his knack for melody. His typically catchy, neoclassically-influenced motifs lilt up the keyboard, subtly underscored by muted strings and ambient textures. As Cowley’s breathing sneaks into the mix, it becomes clear that production values have not come at the expense of intimacy.
After easing us in with the plaintive opener, the trio remind us that they are an extremely well-oiled machine. Tracks like ‘Rooster Was A Witness’ and ‘Fable’ bound along with the kind of impeccable timing that is only possible in a group with great musical understanding of the kind which the Neil Cowley Trio possess in abundance, as anyone who as seen them in concert will know. Moreover, the rollicking energy captured here would not sound out of place on many rock albums. In fact, the “jazz” umbrella that the trio are so often pushed under can be a bit misleading, and can perhaps alienate some potential listeners. Although they do have all the trappings of a jazz group: an eponymous piano, double bass and drums ensemble playing instrumental music, Cowley eschews jazz harmony and extended improvisations in favour of bags of hooks and riffs. The coda in ‘Skies Are Rare’ teases the listener with a tasteful piano solo, a rare moment of flair. Perhaps Cowley is deliberately taking a “leave them wanting more” approach here, but one can’t help from hoping that he lets his hair down more in future.
The album also sees the addition of Brian Eno collaborator Leo Abrahams, whose ambient touches, like the strings, are subtly done. Particularly notable is ‘Mini Ha Ha’, featuring bizarrely maniacal laughter over the music, leading into a meditative outro. It is unfortunate though that some of the tracks fail to do Abrahams’ soundscapes justice. ‘Slims’ and ‘Distance By Clockwork’ comprise the mid-album dip, lacking any of the depth of feeling or originality that make some of their other compositions so interesting, and it would not be surprising the hear either on a banking advert some time in the near future. The quality picks up once again, however, and penultimate track ‘La Porte’ is close to being a perfect Cowley track, with its wide dynamic range and stop-start rhythms only complemented by the change in sound.
The Face of Mount Molehill finishes much as it started, with the soft and distant piano-led ‘Sirens Last Look Back’. As the reverb-soaked notes die away, the warmth of the record is truly felt. The changes made on this album are bold and effected with skill, and perhaps this, along with Cowley’s raised profile and accessible arrangements will help people to understand that jazz isn’t so scary after all.