Neil Cowley Trio – The Face Of Mount Molehill (2012)

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photos courtesy of Red Cat Publicity

Part George Winston, part Ben Folds, part the Bad Plus, the Neil Cowley Trio is a mighty mixture of elegance, attitude and wit. This week, we will be treated to more of that alchemy when this English band of three unveils its fourth album The Face Of Mount Molehill.

A quick follow-up to last year’s Radio Silence, Molehill is much how SER’s Nick Deriso described last year’s predecessor, with a “dynamic, contemporary, collaborative feel throughout.” But Adele’s pianist made a few adjustments for the new record. Replacing Richard Sadler on bass and retaining Evan Jenkins on drums, there is now string accompaniment for the first time, and on nearly every track. Furthermore, Leo Abraham adds guitar to four songs. Producer Don Monks was careful not to allow either of these accouterments to disturb the basic vibe of the trio, a smart decision. The orchestral backgrounds add emotional heft to somber tracks like “Meyer” and “Skies Are Rare,” not bog them down in overbearing, sticky sweetness.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: While Cowley’s prior album Radio Silence doesn’t always remind you of Adele/Cowley triumphs like “Hometown Glory,” it remains a strikingly cohesive improvisational triumph.]

Cowley is nominally a jazz pianist, but never strays far from his classical upbringing, typically preferring full chords to get his melodies and percussion across over right handed tinkling. Cowley alone wrote all but one tune, but he lets his band thrive democratically. The driving rhythm of “The Face Of Mount Molehill,” not just the drums, but collective propulsion, attest to that. And on “Hope Machine,” Cowley even lets Jenkins’ drums take the solo spotlight underneath the melody.

Cowley can also be unpredictably unpredictable at times, too. He follows up a Windham Hill tone poem “Lament” with the bustling “Rooster Was A Witness” (video below). “Mini Ha Ha” isn’t just all laughs; a chuckle is set to rhythm, but the song soon segues into a gentler, ruminative mood. “La Porte” is where he uncorks his modern jazz acumen, a shifty, nimble number that pop musicians masquerading as jazz cats couldn’t pull off.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: ’21’ could have been a game changer for Adele. Instead, it’s just another weigh station for a gifted young singer still searching for the right set of songs.]

Overall, The Face Of Mount Molehill isn’t truly jazz — some call Cowley’s music “post-jazz” — but the bridges it builds to jazz from the more widely accepted, contemporary music forms makes a great gateway for those coming from the softer side of the indie camp. Even if that crowd doesn’t explore any further out than Cowley, The Face Of Mount Molehill makes as good of a final destination as it does a trip.

The Face Of Mount Molehill, by Naim Jazz Records, will be sold at retail outlets everywhere on September 11.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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