Tell us about your latest album ‘Touch and Flee’ that was released in June.
“It’s what we’re calling our concert hall record. Having experienced as a band more and more the inviting acoustics of concert hall venues we felt we were destined to make a record that leant itself to being played in those environments. It encapsulates the head space we so often find ourselves in, where we are aware of every little corner of listening space. Brilliantly produced by Dom Monks (as per usual) it is actually the second draft as it were. I scrapped an album midway through last year as I felt it was sounding too much like 'The Face of Mount Molehill Part 2’ (our previous album).”
What have you learnt from the experience of making five studio albums?
“Like all knowledge, that the more I learn, the less I know. You can change your approach to recording every time you enter the studio and come up with an infinite variation of results. Economics always play a part, though I’ve often ignored the beads on the abacus in favour of making a better sounding record. It’s a weakness of mine!”
Tell us about the other members of the trio.
“Evan Jenkins (the drummer) has been with me since the formation of the band. He makes me laugh pretty much more than anyone else I know. His deadpan delivery face is the best in the business. Rex Horan on bass joined us in 2011. His boundless enthusiasm, energy and wonderful tendency towards addiction make him an irreplaceable asset for the band. The guys together provide boundless optimism, even when things seem momentarily bleak. “
How does the band work? Are you the leader or is it a democracy?
“As the other guys would put it, I am the leader of a rudderless ship. It’s gentle self-mocking leadership I would say, borne simply out of the amount of manic time and attention I give to every detail of the running of the band, but there is no way a decision will get made unless everyone is behind it.”
Who would you most like to play with, other than your trio? For example, who would you most like to do a piano duo with?
“Piano duo’s don’t appeal to me I don’t think. Can’t imagine finding someone else who would get on with my idiosyncratic style of playing. At heart I find the most natural joy in American soul music and so would love to play piano with Chaka Khan who just does something unexplainable to me every time I hear her sing. When it comes to new artists making exciting new sounds, I would love to work with Micachu who I find so inspiring and refreshing. Her work is brilliantly cutting edge and experimental, yet there is also something about her which exudes timeless musicianship.”
How would you describe your music? And what makes it different?
“I would describe our music as the amalgam of all things that have gone before in terms of our collective musical experience, being thrown out there through the medium of a jazz trio. I think we display a unique combination of entertainment and musicality. Our music (and it’s something we’re very aware of) has a veneer of being simple, accessible and melodic, whilst in fact the nuts and bolts that go together to make it are extremely complicated. This goes for even our simplest sounding ballads. Which perhaps illustrates our quest for music which challenges us as musicians but at the same time appeals to all.
How do you compose pieces?
I definitely sit down in front of the piano. An often gruelling experience, waiting for inspiration to arrive through the window. When something wonderful does eventually happen I emerge from my studio with nothing but positivity for the world. When it doesn’t, I want my garden path between my studio and my house to suddenly transform into a 4 mile walk, to save my family from the creature lurching towards the back door.
How do you take criticism of your music?
Not well. Which is why I don’t tend to read reviews. It’s one of the things I’d change about myself. Even if I read a positive review, I’ll pull something negative from it…. and probably agree with it! I’m getting better. But I’m still not good with it.
Where do the song titles come from?
(e.g. Rooster Was A Witness / Hug The Greyhound)
Each song title has a story behind it. Rooster Was A Witness is about a rooster who witnesses a terrible crime, but when the police arrive he only has his own modes of communication for conveying his account (flapping, crowing, cawing etc). It’s a bit like being in this band, in that we don’t have a vocalist or lyrics, so we crow, caw and flap our wings to try and get our point across. Hug The Greyhound is about a friend of ours who looks like a greyhound dog. A mix between that and the fascination with the genetics of a greyhound, highlighted one day when I tried to hug one. To see their legs instinctively flap and flounder in the air like a coiled spring is to realise how well designed they are for running.
What’s next? How far ahead do you plan?
I’m writing a new album already. Once one is done, I’m pretty much over it. It was particularly the case this time. I started to compose on or around the day of release. So I’m planning the next 18 months I suppose. In the meantime, we’ll be touring ‘Touch and Flee’. We have gigs booked until spring next year and more will come as we progress.
What things do you do outside of music?
That’s one which I ask myself a lot. Music is an obsession which tends to exclude all other things. Outside of that, my children dictate how the rest of my life runs. That’s where I find the most joy. So for instance, as my son is a great little cricketer I have found myself coaching the Under 9’s in our local area. It’s given me a huge amount of pleasure. I love cricket, but it has to be said, playing adult village cricket can be tedious sometimes. However, Under 9’s games are packed full of incident. Every ball is an event. I’ll miss it this winter!
I’m also trying to read more at the moment. I don’t read novels as such. I’m much more likely to read books that widen my knowledge in a more direct fashion (history, philosophy etc.).
The album Touch and Flee is available now on the Naim label.
This interview appeared in issue 29 of The Sussex Jazz Mag, available here.
The Neil Cowley Trio perform at the Brighton Dome Corn Exchange on Thursday 9th October. Tickets available here.
For more on The Neil Cowley Trio: www.neilcowleytrio.com