fri 25/05/2018

Neil Cowley Trio, Union Chapel | reviews, news & interviews

Neil Cowley Trio, Union Chapel

Neil Cowley Trio, Union Chapel

Intergalactic chill settles over brilliant new concept album 'Spacebound Apes'

Spacebound Apes: too much space, not enough apeSisi Burns

For more than a decade, Neil Cowley and his trio have built a fervent and substantial following for their prog-jazz compositions of frenetic loops and engaging melodies. With a jazz trio’s organic movement and intimacy allied to a rocker’s bolder rhythm and melody, and touches of contemporary classical piano, his band occupies an important, and underrepresented, space in the repertoire. The new album, played in its entirety last night, has provoked much acclaim for the boldness of the concept, though in largely discarding his characteristic playfulness for a more conceptual focus, there is a risk he loses an important animating principle.

Originally inspired by Arthur C Clarke’s The City and The Stars, featuring a kind of everyman protagonist called Lincoln, the story Cowley narrates is an ambitious one about love, destiny and identity. Musically he has reinvented himself with spaced-out electronic effects, closer to Max Richter than jazz. Chilly, chiming piano chords, ethereal harmonic bass notes and otherworldly electronica (“Hubris Major”, “Echo Nebula”) evoke the distant part of the journey and its dehumanising science. More typically Cowleian forthright melody on “The City and the Stars” and “Sharks of Competition” bring some sweat and tears to the emotional palette, but the balance, overall, is towards a distant, sci-fi ambience.

Cowley is (of course) an excellent pianist and his regular band (Rex Horan, bass, and Evan Jenkins, drums) know his plans intimately. Jenkins maintained momentum with a driving beat, while Cowley and an excellent Horan span intergalactic moods. The album borrowed Brian Eno's Leo Abrahams on guitars and FX, though indisposition meant the producer Dom Monks stood in last night, impersonating convincingly.   

The song titles are mostly abstract ones about the nature of space travel (“Weightless”) or descriptions of space (“Echo Nebula”). In Lincoln’s Diary, which Cowley has been publishing as a blog (alongside the book and interactive website that make up a diverse interactive experience), there’s plenty of very moving detail that could have driven a more emotionally intense music. More of the pounding dissonance of “Sharks of Competition” could have placed us in Lincoln’s own experience.

Lincoln the ape, by Sergio SandovalFor example, Lincoln realises that his love interest Emmy is merely an algorithm created by researchers in an attempt to “bypass love’s effects”, and free the mind from its constraints. The tracks detailing this part of the story, “Garden of Love” and “Death of Amygdala”, are cool, spacious, and atmospheric. They express the scientific quest to purge the inconvenient mess of passion, but by this point in the story, an angry heartbeat or gut response would make a welcome change of tone. The whole suite feels a little as if we’re looking at Lincoln from afar, through a very long telescope, when we needed to see the whites of his eyes, and feel his pulse.

The event was a one-off through-performance of the album, and a “specially designed light show” was advertised as an immersive experience. The church interior provided just the right amount of acoustic support, while religious and science fictional depictions of the otherworldly had a strangely effective resonance. Cowley has commissioned some excellent illustrations from Sergio Sandoval (see above), which work well in the book and online, though it’s debatable whether it was worth projecting them onto a (smallish) screen above the stage.

Four men with beards launching an intergalactic yarn in a church doesn’t necessarily sound like north London’s most unmissable night out, but Union Chapel was crammed, Spacebound Apes was well received, and the audience snaked down to Highbury Corner to get in. A shorter second set consisting of old favourites served to underline the dramatic new change in direction. What “His Nibs” and “She Eats Flies” lack in conceptual atmosphere, they (more?) than make up for in up-close emotional drive and intimacy. As a project, Spacebound Apes is remarkable in scope and originality, but it’s curious Cowley didn’t use his expertise in visceral, organic composition to put us, more often, in Lincoln’s quaking shoes.

@matthewwrighter

In discarding his characteristic playfulness, there is a risk he loses an important animating principle

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Average: 3 (1 vote)

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