Radio Silence-- Neil Cowley Trio

The Neil Cowley Trio has been compared to such groups as The Bad Plus, E.S.T., the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, and the Ben Folds Five (less the vocals), all of which are presumed to have broadened the audience for jazz to one extent or another. Cowley himself may be best known as a supporting pianist on singer-songwriter Adele's two hit recordings, 19 and 21. While his trio, with bassist Richard Sadler and drummer Evan Jenkins, is very popular in his native Great Britain, it is relatively unknown in the U.S. The trio's third CD, Radio Silence, has only recently been released in the U.S., despite originally appearing overseas in 2010. Radio Silence mixes elements of jazz, rock, pop, and classical to create music that only increases in appeal upon repeated listens.

The opening "Monoface" interweaves textures possessing sinister undertones and exultant arrogance in a way that is both seamless and hypnotic. The title tune "Radio Silence" begins subdued and contemplative with intuitive interaction between the three musicians, before an effective contrasting crescendo that soon dissolves after a dramatic silent pause back to the melancholy theme.

"Vice Skating" contains rolling, sometimes jolting thematic material that is attacked by the trio with an assertive oneness. Cowley's classical training is evident in his controlled yet ample technique, while his jazz sensibility allows for a relentless freedom of choice that provides an exciting edge and conviction. "A French Lesson" has an enticing intro by drummer Jenkins that leads to the pianist's teasing Ahmad Jamal-like improvisation, which cleverly utilizes space and a jabbing single-note style. Both Jenkins and Sadler's punctuations are in keeping with the heady mood being set and help to sustain it.

The trio rocks out on the joyous "Gerald." Cowley's catchy and fluctuating set of repeated figures, and Jenkins' pounding, infectious beat can't help but please the ears. "Desert to Rabat" features Cowley's adamantly struck chords mixed with more restrained passages in a swirling but increasingly pensive development. This track ends much too abruptly, however, to truly satisfy.

The ongoing riff at the start of "Stereoface" reminds one of the old Charles Lloyd composition, "Sombrero Sam," and Cowley's solo even has a bit of Keith Jarrett playfulness to it. This performance swings and sways in a very danceable way. "Hug the Greyhound," like the preceding "Stereoface," is a rollicking romp. The trio is anything but pretentious, portentous, or presumptuous here. This is a very tight trio working a groove to the limit, and all three are sensational.

The concluding "Portal" has an irresistible, trance-inducing riff that fully captures one's attention. As the dynamic level is raised, the effect is nearly overwhelming until a sudden subsiding returns the piece full circle, to only intensify once more for a rousing finale. But wait, there's that tantalizing softly-played riff one last taunting time. Mood swings, anyone? The Neil Cowley Trio are masters at it.

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Scott Albin