Neil Cowley has never been a musician to tread water unnecessarily. Filling the prime keyboard seat in the Brand New Heavies and Zero 7 he was there at the centre of that soul dance/acid jazz nineties prime time. Then came the jazz informed Neil Cowley Trio, a band that fore-fronted the first wave of UK nu-jazz along with the likes of Acoustic Ladyland, Empirical and The Invisible. There was even time well spent as pianist for fellow Londoner Adele during her breakthrough to superstardom.
Then in 2018, after a decade which saw his acclaimed trio extend their sound and appeal beyond the jazz parameters, Cowley put the group on an indefinite sabbatical. Pausing, reflecting, whatever, he finally re-emerged three years on with ‘Hall Of Mirrors’, a solo album that surprised and impressed with its subtle merging of elegiac piano with lyrical electronica. The record also raised a question. Was this the start of a new venture for Neil Cowley or maybe just a distraction?
The answer comes with his new release ‘Battery Life’, available on his own Mote label from 24th March. Again a completely one person effort, it’s a record in which Cowley continues to explore the possibilities of electro-acoustic combinations. Like ‘Hall Of Mirrors’ the piano remains resolutely at the centre because as Cowley explains ‘that always represents the human in everything I do’ but the detail and depth comes from the layers of electronica that he wires into the tunes. So with ‘Battery Life’ we seem to be welcoming in the new Cowley era, one that’s, as we’ve come to expect, musically ambitious and persuasive.
If anything the album finds Cowley striding out more confidently into the electronic arena, taking it all in and thriving on maintaining personality in a medium that can sometimes hide its face. Opening track ‘I Must Be Liked’ may have an intriguingly desperate title but it maintains that quiet integrity that flows through Cowley’s music. Calmly paced and shimmering with a beautifully unrushed melody, the piano seems to coax the electronic elements into life. The delicate echo back around the tune, the restrained choral-toned shading, the trills in the coda, the synth wobble and those miniscule clicks, all add intricacy but somehow sound spontaneous. Now that’s some kind of magic.
There are other pieces of achingly beautiful music on ‘Battery Life’. The emotive roll of the piano chords on ‘Arkansas’ and the sombre iciness at the soul of closing track ‘Cord’ both capture the essence of the most spine-tingling slow music. The genius touch of Esbjörn Svensson spirits through these pieces but they manage to go beyond any homage. With Cowley’s memories the inspiration for ‘Battery Life’, both positive and negative, it makes for music that’s personal, honest but also readily engaging.
This means that there’s a subtle variety played out through the ten tracks as Cowley’s recollections capture the highs, lows and in-betweens. The pastoral glisten of ‘Automata’ foregrounds a day-dreamy piano cycle and gamelan ripples while underneath the occasional buzz of a distant highway suggests some latter-day journey. Things may get darker still on the trip-hop suspense of the ‘Life on Silent’ but Battery Life also supports higher energy outputs as Cowley shifts his position on the IDM Venn diagram. ‘Personal Effects’ skitters to a nimble nu-beat, builds to moments of cool tempo shine and almost harks back to those acid-jazz excursions in his back catalogue. Perhaps the pulsating ‘Telegrams’ is more definitive though with inventively layered percussion and busy but organised Zawinul-like momentum.
What becomes clearer as you work through ‘Battery Life’ is that although impressionistic there is enough graphic detail in the tunes for you to hold onto. It’s an album that never drowns in its own ambience, it’s compositional and in many ways figurative. Cowley admits that the recollections that have inspired the tunes can be blurry but they always contain fragments of a real story. This means that the hooks, melodies and beats on ‘Battery Life’ sketch out some intricate pictures which come and go with each listen. That’s why the delicate fingertip piano patterns and slipstream synths of ‘Ticker Tape’, may rain down on some parade one day then tap out a mystery code the next.
Levity and playfulness aren’t missing from ‘Battery Life’ either. ‘Scarab Beetle’ is a sheer day-breaking joy, a skipping melody, shunting rhythm, deftest bass nudge kind of tune. A bit nineties, a bit Vangelis and made to play on repeat. The easy sway of ‘Breaka’ also stretches out with the same contented warmth. There’s more than a peep back to the trio days with Cowley’s blues jazz riffs here, a groove that thrives on the finesse of the sensitive electro-additives and exquisitely echoing chimes.
Such fine detail and care energises ‘Battery Life’ and gives the album a chemistry of its own. It’s a release that’s way beyond the functional, has real staying power and looks forward to Neil Cowley’s next step.
Get your copy of ‘Battery Life’ by Neil Cowley from your local record store or direct from Mote’s Bandcamp HERE