Neil Cowley Trio - Touch and Flee
(Naim Records. NaimCD206. CD Review by Rob Mallows
What do you do when, like Neil Cowley, you’ve created an exciting new sound and cornered the market in radio- and audience-friendly, chords-by-the-dozen, riff-friendly pop jazz?
Judging by the mix of sounds on Touch and Flee, their fifth album, you take a step back, breathe, take the piano out of overdrive and set out charting some new paths to extend the exciting musical journey the band’s been on over the last decade. You get a bit more introspective, evidently. And the sound becomes all the better for it.
You can detect a subtle shift in Neil Cowley Trio’s sound comparing opening track Kneel Down to one of their earlier hits, such as the thumping crowd-pleaser His Nibs. Kneel Down still offers up simple, luscious chords, but now separated by long quiet gaps over a simple drum pattern, miles away from the pyrotechnics of their earlier sound. Fans of his earlier work may be surprised at this as the choice for an opening track but it sends a strong signal - there’s a change in the direction Neil Cowley Trio see themselves heading in keeping the piano trio format relevant and on top.
More varied keyboard sounds, more space for the melody and a tighter overall band sound - that’s the formula they seem to be adopting. Bryce is rather lovely, a slow meander with little in the way of right-hand acrobatics but full of charm nonetheless. Mission is an oddity, kicking off with unexpected (for this band) electronic keyboard pulses before relaxing into a recognisable rhythm, with Cowley's incessant piano motifs now augmented with new contours. The last track, Art, is a ballad which demonstrates the musical territory the band feels it can now conquer. It’s no crowd-pleasing, up-off-the-piano-stool gig closer - it’s a tune to lie back and luxuriate in.
There still plenty of the recognisable Neil Cowley Trio sounds here: Sparkling is replete with the repeated arpeggios which evolve and build imperceptibly into something new, with the drums and bass providing the harmonic interest. But there’s more here, evidence of a band and artist evolving to ensure that keep their first-mover advantage without losing the fans who’ve come this far with them. The overall mix of tunes is rather good and - disturbing cover image aside - I found myself wanting to revisit the band’s earlier albums after listening to this great fayre.
The recording is also of excellent quality - Evan Jenkins’ drums sound lush with pin-point sharp cymbal sounds and Rex Horan’s bass has a lovely twang to it - Neil Cowley’s piano is mixed very well so it sits nicely between the two. Full marks then to producer Dom Monks.