I was lukewarm in my review of Spacebound Apes by the Neil Cowley Trio earlier this week but I’m delighted to report that they have released an excellent cover of Month of May (an Arcade Fire song, I understand).
This was recorded as part of the Torch Song initiative, a ‘campaign against living miserably’, to promote awareness of factors that can lead to suicide.
We can all benefit from positive tunes that cheer us up, or in the immortal words of Robbie Burns make us ‘Cock up your beaver!’ (I know what you may be thinking- but it actually means something like ‘cheer yourself up!).
Spacebound Apes is one of those releases that I had very high expectations of. In 2014 I took a look at Neil Cowley’s last album Touch and Flee. At the time I wondered whether it would survive the test of time as a set that I would return to. It did and I have enjoyed revisiting it occasionally over the last two years.
I was delighted when I received a copy of the current set to listen to and I said I would try to review it immediately.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to turn this around quite as quickly as I had anticipated and well over a month has passed by.
I’ve finally got there after some difficulty and it is time to publish, if only to mark this down as ‘done’ and move on towards other projects.
Spacebound Apes is a concept album and this sets the alarm bells ringing for me. The 1970’s and 80’s saw the release of numerous musical extravaganzas in which rock musicians, who had often delivered strong earlier recordings, were allowed to develop themed albums where absurdity was often a highly visible passenger in the stagecoach of grandiosity. Thank heavens for honest to goodness soul, pub rock and punk which provided an alternative and eventually sluiced out the Augean Stables of pomp rock. Sorry if this offends but you can keep Topographic Oceans, Tommy, Tarkus, Olias of Sunhillow and each and every one of Henry VIII’S six wives and don’t expect me to start work on a musical interpretation of The Labours of Hercules any time soon.
Does music benefit from an associated comic book, animations, short films, costumed performers and other embellishments? I suppose it can do but, in live performance, a short verbal introduction from the artist can take us into the world of our own imagination that can be even more powerful than an unwanted and superfluous picture or projection.
While struggling with Spacebound Apes I wanted to make sure I was giving the piece a fair hearing and I went to see a live performance by Neil Cowley and his band. Introducing his show, Cowley was engaging and unpretentious. All three musicians were very talented and were listening intently to each other. The first section offered the current album in its entirety, with an accompanying slide show which helped to set the scene for the track that was being played.
The second half dispensed with the visuals, without losing anything. Tracks included Bluster and His Nibs. When Cowley announced that the last song was called She Eats Flies the title led me to assume that we were in for something that would disappoint. However, he disclosed that the ‘she’ in question was a spider the size of a Labrador dog that lives at the bottom of his garden. That simple explanation conjured up an image and added to what we heard without needing its own comic strip, back projection or articulated arachnid prop.
Time to take a look at the album, which concerns a 43 year old male who is having a mid-life crisis. I don’t know about you (and this excludes all younger and female readers), but I’ve been there, done that and, over time, the scars slowly healed. If you want to know more about the concept under consideration you can google the Spacebound Apes website. As for me, I’ll just follow my usual format of offering a brief listening note for each of the tracks on the CD:
Weightless ia a piece on which the piano trio are supplemented by electronics. I particularly enjoyed the bass playing here.
Hubris Major starts with a further electronic phase before Cowley’s piano and the bass drum move us through another of his delightful numbers on which Cowley really conjures a sense of space.
Governance is a track with a staccato feel seemingly conveying an image of monotony and stultification. It is definitely not something to jump out of bed to in the morning.
The City and the Stars, a dynamic track. On the video, Rex Horan plays an electric bass hung down low in a stance reminiscent of Peter Hook.
The next track, Grace, is a beautiful tune that has a hymn-like quality. It is the high point of the set for me. Take a look at the accompanying images:-
Echo Nebula presents us with another dreamy soundscape.
The Sharks of Competition led me to imagine a frenetic combination of Devo and Joy Division, which is OK in its place.
Duty To The Last. Brooding sense of menace gives way to the solemnity of an elegy.
Garden Of Love. Conjuring images of passing through something and marvelling without engaging.
Death of Amygdala. The Amygdala lies deep within the brain and, according to Wikipedia, ‘…performs a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making and emotional reactions.’ A dreamy track, which has a classical feel about it and while pleasant enough could possibly do with more development to turn it into something a little more special.
Finally, The Return of Lincoln is a short closing track.
Overall, I was disappointed by Spacebound Apes. As stated, I’ve liked some of Cowley’s earlier work and the band delivered a fine live performance at Islington’s Union Chapel at the end of October 2016. I feel somewhat churlish in my reaction, as a great deal of thought and effort has obviously gone into the making of this. But I also have a deep suspicion, verging on aversion to ‘concept albums’. This one offers up a series of moods and soundscapes, as they all do with varying degrees of success, but, for me, the overall dish doesn’t work.
I’m not giving up on Neil Cowley and will return to tracks like Grace and Weightless whilst hoping that he navigates away from grand concepts in the future. It really isn’t what the World needs, while a great piano player and composer will always be in demand. The Neil Cowley Trio are well worth catching live and play with great energy so don’t ignore them if they are in a venue near you.
The band etc:- Neil Cowley (piano); Evan Jenkins (drums); Rex Horan (bass); Leo Abrahams (guitar, FX). Produced: Dom Monks. Recorded: RAK Studios, London. Released September 2016. HideInside Records.
Occasionally, opinionated people come out with ill-formed assertions. They say: ‘Jazz is dead’, or ‘There’s nothing new to hear’. The downwithit.info party line on this is that they are not trying hard enough. They might be too scared or blinkered but one way or another they need to do a bit of work and, at the very least test their opinion against the market. That’s what I did this year, after listening to an excellent recent set from 2012 by RipRap, and I’m delighted to present our first album of the year, from a truncated crop of eight new sets.
These are the new recordings I wrote about. Each of them was issued in 2014 for the first time and all were recorded, either this year or in 2013. You can visit my review by clicking on the red titles.
Robin McKelle- Heart Of Memphis. March 2014. The only vocal set in this list- but what a wonderful soul voice she has. She has been concentrating on the French market in 2014 and I hope we will get to see her in London again sometime soon.
Marc Ribot Trio Live At Village Vanguard. June 2014. This trio led by guitar virtuoso Ribot go intense and free on a set featuring Coltrane and Albert Ayler tunes, but with a couple of ballads as respite.
Dylan Howe- Subterranean, New Designs On Bowie’s Berlin. July 2014. A labour of love brought to us via Kickstarter crowdfunding. Bowie’s instrumentals sound wonderful in this context. An unrushed, wonderfully executed set featuring some excellent musicianship and arrangements.
Blacktop- #One. August 2014. Disappointing Orphy Robinson and Pat Thomas project featuring Steve Williamson on sax. Hopefully there’s better to come from this source next year.
Pharaoh Sanders- Spiral Mercury. October 2014 (1). More of an ensemble piece than an album dominated by Pharoah but it brought a taste of a hot night in Lisbon and is worth seeking out if you like this great saxophonist.
GoGo Penguin- V2.0 October 2014 (2). A light piano led set which was also on the Mercury shortlist but was slighter and less adventurous than Polar Bear.
And the first downwithit.info Contemporary Set Of The Year 2014 is…
…Dylan Howe- Subterranean.
If I could only grab two others from a burning room they would be- Marc Ribot Trio Live At Village Vanguard
And Polar Bear- In Each And Every One
I’m delighted with this crop of releases from artists, many of whom were new to me at the start of 2014.
Before Christmas 2014, I will be looking back over the older sets that I’ve brought to you this year in an on the shoulders of giants / dead Jazzer’s shoes posting. I’ll also be reflecting on the handful of gigs that I’ve attended- not such a bad list, come to think of it! In the meantime, why not use the comments section to tell us about your new album of the year, especially if it is one of the many that I’ve overlooked.
Piano trios often struggle to offer much that is new and exciting and there’s a great deal of competition. Touch And Flee endeavours to stand out from the crowd. Here, pianist and broadcaster (and onetime Brand New Heavy and Green Nuns Of The Revolution member), Neil Cowley presents nine of his own tunes. What is on offer is a very strong understanding between piano, drum and bass, which is exceptionally well recorded. The challenge with the tunes is whether they will be played enough to become familiar. Whether this will become a ‘go to’ recording will only become clear over time.
Pushed for time, my brief, track by track listening notes follow:-
Kneel Down– percussion to the fore and bass mixed back a bit and ending with a sense of optimism from the keyboards. Winterlude– a jagged jangly start and very jazzy chords Sparkling possibly relates to the piano playing in the opening and closing sections. Gang of One– punchy and percussive with a relentless tension and drive about it Couch Slouch opens with a lively, rocky drum pattern with Cowley improvising around it. Rex Horan’s bass playing is deft and subtle and all the better for that. Bryce has a sense of drama and wistfulness about it. Mission is supplemented by an extra element of electronic keyboards, Queen the tune I enjoy most at present- possibly because it is in an uplifting major key? The Art– wistful and plaintiff without really going anywhere. A subdued ending to the set.
For a taster, either visit YouTube or the band’s own website, which is here.
My overall verdict is that there is much to enjoy and nothing to annoy here. Touch And Flee is a good soundtrack to accompany quiet reflection by the listener, although whether any of the nine short tunes have what it takes to become memorable remains to be seen.
The band etc:- Neil Cowley (piano); Evan Jenkins (drums); Rex Horan (bass). Produced: Dom Monks. Recorded: RAK Studios, London. Released June 2014. Naim Jazz 206.
Thanks to Chris for the review copy.