Neil Cowley lives somewhere in that new-jazz/pop cultural twilight zone between the Bad Plus and E.S.T. His résumé includes a performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 at Queen Elizabeth Hall when he was 10, and tenures in London funk/soul bands like Brand New Heavies and Zero 7. He writes all his own stuff, and his pieces are clever collages that manage complex structure within small spaces.
Cowley can come up with stunning effects. “Little Secrets” juxtaposes loudness and quiet and intricate filigrees and even sequential ideas (rare for Cowley) in a unique design. “Displaced” is a simple, bright melodic figure that becomes its chords and turns into a dark chant.
The risk of Cowley’s music is that (like E.S.T.) he seems motivated by a single dominant impulse: the search for incantatory power through repetition. Those who listen to this music in states other than altogether sober might find euphoria rather than monotony in ritualistic indulgences like “Degree in Intuition” and “Clown Town.”
The upside of bands like Cowley’s is that they bring a younger audience into jazz. The downside is that they misuse the acoustic-piano-trio format by reducing it to what amplified rock bands do better: create an aura of pure static energy with the illusion of movement through groove.