DONNING HIS SPACESUIT, pianist/composer Neil Cowley joins with fellow primates Rex Horan (bass) and Evan Jenkins (drums) in this, their sixth album – and as Spacebound Apes, they head for galaxies anew.
The origin of the species’ music might, especially with their ‘trio’ tag, be perceived as jazz – but Cowley prefers to be more open-minded about his output: “I just like lovely sounds”. So rather than being founded on improvisation, the through-compositional nature of this release is more akin to early-’80s pop, carefully integrated with the atmospheric soundtrack breadth of, say, Tomita or Jean-Michel Jarre. Indeed, the classically-trained musician’s successes have included recordings with Brand New Heavies and Zero 7; whilst, as a session player on Adele’s global chart hits, he adopted the mantle of “2011’s most-listened-to pianist on the planet.”
Linked to a developing online blog and interactive digital experience (as well as a live visual event to be staged at Union Chapel, London, in October 2016), this tale of middle-aged Lincoln taking a hallucinatory journey into the cosmos finds Cowley unabashed in labelling it a ‘concept album’; and he explains that he’s been working towards the project for a long time, its immersive development taking in themes of guilt, loss and longing. But however deeply the trio’s ambitious vision is embraced, its eleven instrumental tracks also stand alone as an increasingly enticing, varied and progressive soundscape.
With Cowley prominent on piano, hyperspatial beauty rubs shoulders with boisterous stomp throughout these 45 minutes – so the electronically-pulsed launchpad preparation of Weightless evolves into the whispy, crescendoed minimalism of Hubris Major before arriving at a jaunty, martial piano strut in Governance, its percussive metre breaking free whilst Cowley’s lyricism contrasts well; and the memorably propulsive synth groove of The City and the Stars offers more than a semblance of OMD’s ‘Enola Gay’.
The album’s delicate piano interludes are especially effective. Grace‘s restrained ‘bridge over Satie’s water’ possessing a distinct, Rachmaninov-like romanticism; the endless, reverberant journeyings of Echo Nebula and The Return of Lincoln are, at times, reminiscent of The Enid; Duty to the Last suggests the contemporary jazz of e.s.t. or Michael Wollny; and later in the story, Death of Amygdala’s piano nocturne eloquence is swelled by the affecting grandeur of a French horn quartet.
But Cowley and co. also like a good pop romp – and The Sharks of Competition‘s relentless Stranglers-punk is counterbalanced by the blithe, synthy delights of Garden of Love. Whatever genre your might hook on it, the Neil Cowley Trio’s multi-faceted approach rebounds across the musical universe, its strains repeatedly a joy to hear.
Released on 16 September 2016, Spacebound Apes is available from Proper Music and various retailers.
Videos: Grace, The City and the Stars.
Neil Cowley piano
Rex Horan bass
Evan Jenkins drums
Leo Abrahams guitar, fx
Angus West, Oliver Fitzgerald-Lombard, Craig Macdonald French horns
Stile Antico choir
Hide Inside Records – HIDE/CD002 (2016)