BRITISH pianist Neil Cowley, who released a septet of albums sitting astride the point where jazz begins to shade into modern composition and ‘tronica over a period of ten years from 2006, has been on something of a musical journey.
Having dissolved his previous combo, the Neil Cowley Trio, he’d seemingly fallen out of love with the piano – or it him. He felt he had to maybe depart from the stool to find a new medium of expression.
He relocated to Berlin, began a collaboration with Erased Tapes man Ben Lukas Boysen, resulting in 2019’s digital-only Beat Infinitum EP; even a one-hour mix for Ninja Tune’s legendary Solid Steel radio show, which took in The Prisoner, Bowie and Can. There was such a curve of creativity into the electronic. The controls were set ever outwards.
But was this wasn’t quite how Neil felt. He yearned for the ivories. One day he found himself back at the piano in his adopted Berlin; no forethought, just playing. And then he pressed record. An album happened. Quickly. And the result is a return to that interrelationship and exploration of many decades, entitled Hall Of Mirrors.
Of course, it’s so much more than one man at the keys, with little spices of electronica and its emotive power, as we shall see. Each piece is piano-led; and each has been post-processed differently, but with a light touch and absolute understanding; hence the name of the album. Recognisable, wholly; but other.
Neil observes with acute intelligence and a little self-deprecation: “Hall Of Mirrors is my most personal album to date. How many times do we hear that line? Often it appears as a fall back when there seems like there’s nothing else to say.
“And yet, as with all hyperbole, there has to be a grain of truth in it somewhere.
“Sometimes my friend, sometimes my enemy; we are inextricably linked the piano and I. And for the time being we are getting along.
“Music never knows how wonderful it is until it falls into the ear of the listener.”
In the beginning, we’re called to “Prayer”, which announces in the whole living actuality of the piano, front and centre, warm with reverb; the creak and the wood and the strings, hymned beautifully, a melody paced just so; in any other hands you might say faltering, but with those little micro pauses that invite you to fall in. It’s evocative, glimmering, a prayer to sound. It’s gilded with just enough electronica brightness and ping to carry forward the essential flavour of the whole; that whole having a relaxed grace that immediately slows the heart to a more agreeable and contemplative rate.
“Berlin Nights” uses field recordings from out in the reunited city of music over which Neil vamps in a jazzy and impressionistic staccato; the keys very much on an equal par with the wider sense of place. Again there’s the tiniest caresses from the electronic ecosystem; a glimmer here, a wavering drone there, chit-chatters of small digital beasts lurking deep. It’s a soundtrack and letter to a city as much as anything and commands your listening with deft subtlety.
“Circulation” is an evocation of his adopted home city in the palette of the cool jazz, the night jazz, a la McCoy Tyner or Monk, refracted back through the new correspondences music has found with the electronic. It’s stripped back to tonal flourishes, with an economical beat defining progress, before that drops out to leave an evocative melodic weave; and then it resurges with more muscle, a slow, trip-hoppy break, (are we allowed to refer such things now?), swaying forward as feedback-like tones sing and cut through, deeper pseudo-timpani echo and reverberate.
“She Lives In Golden Sands” was the first teaser single Neil dropped towards the end of last year. We quote directly from ourselves: “You’ll find piano beauty, always a forte of Neil’s, transposed through a very Berlin sonic purity: evocative melodicism, ghosts of electronica texture folded through; deeper blurs of tone, backwards processing, just a nuance of glitch to bring out the essential flavours. It sits right at the forefront of modern piano work, absolutely seduced by the instrument without ever descending towards the bland, pushing the beauty of the sonics; in this he sits alongside other compositeurs du jour such as Henrik Lindstrand.
“A delightful touch is a few bars here and there with a hint of pinging, motorik cymbal work buried deep down. You have to climb right in to appreciate the beauty of this, stand alongside that microscopic drum kit and look back up at the larger soundscape flowing above.
“Just Above It All” is a slower, more textural tone poem, allowing every note to ring, minor key, with that ring gradually ushering in glitchy grain, a fuller melodic fleshing, underpinning chords; the thrum of synthetic bass, a pulsing shuffle, enrapturing glissando; it’s a very complex and beguiling piece, so many delicate layers to explore the spaces between. It breaks down toward a crackling glitchscape, heading out toward a Basic Channel microhouse bliss.
We venture forth into the city again on “Souls Of The S-Bahn”; there’s a panning vibrato at the back suggests these lost spirits of Berlin’s 331km rapid transit system. It echoes and rings away in very slowly diminishing repeats of eight as ‘tronica swells up from underneath the rails. Partway through it suddenly fades down for the briefest, haunting passage, just one distant ghostly tone; it recommences in a different theme, grave, redolent of a lone dusk on the S-Bahn journey perhaps, when the air chills and older versions of the world begin to scratch through. Stunning. The closing tones suggest that haunting, metallic tone of wheels on tightly curving rails as a train pulls away.
“Time Interrupted” is big, open, bold in its announcement of itself; it sways from one brighter chord to another, more muted, with the rhythms of a clock swaying through a bright flow of electronics. It pulls up short, chatters forward again, as if broaching the lip of a dam; is joined by more dominant and sudden chords and shards of notes layering in above. Still that harmonic clock ticks and that river flows. It’s very Ryuichi Sakamoto/Alva Noto, if you know that quartet of albums, Summvs, Revep, &c; which is to say, pretty close to musically perfect.
“Stand Amid The Roar” has an implicit exhortation to rise above it all; it’s the most electronically treated track yet, sounds as if Stefan Betke of Pole has spread a little textural brilliance and dub depth over the rolling glissando of the main melody. It’s bright with ringing and deep with echoing space. Can’t wait to hear this on vinyl through good headphones. There’s so much going on in deliciously small ways, and all of it stupendously pretty. It resolves in a simple, walking click of a beat and darker extended chords down at the bassier end of the scale.
“Tramlines” is short and absolute box fresh pristine, like a crisp dawn chorus. It’s sparse, but only in the service of evocative sonic wonder. The main melody is occasionally echoed in a blurrier, watercolour response and it builds.
“I Choose The Mountain” stays down at a level of more open ambience, and as much as it’s a love letter to the piano, it feels like a love letter to that instrument’s marvellous resonance. You know, that flat refusal to die away, that “Day In The Life” end chord that hums down forever. That. That gorgeous thing. Just when you cosy up inside, about halfway through, there’s a massive, swelling arc of tonally edged ‘tronica to give you shivers of pleasure. Even among an album of such beauty, it’s an incredible moment.
We may expect real sadness at the very end, “Saudade” being the Portuguese concept of an intense longing for someone or something absent (and thus has a close cousin in the Welsh/Cornish hireath); instead we get a track that rings with a Four Tet piano and bell beauty which err towards autumnal but is never less than uplifting. A simple, almost gamelan motif marks movement; just at the end there’s glorious microtonal russsh akin to a Robin Guthrie intent on reaching the Sun.
So, what to say of this album, which marks that journey of Neil’s there and back to the piano, a lover seemingly spurned but returning once he knew where his heart lies. It really is a love letter to the instrument, and in that sense is of a piece with Henrik Lindstrom’s gorgeous Nordhem from last year on One Little Independent. If you were to imagine for a second a notional spectrum from pure acoustic towards the electronic, then Hall Of Mirrors is a decent few notches towards the latter than Nordhem, and they’re both of the evolving conversation of modern piano composition.
It’s a very European album – and by that yes, I do mean Britain too, look at the map; I also find it very much an album of being out and about in the city for the day, maybe entirely centred and alone, bringing the evocations and impressions of the day home with you as little memory photographs; if you had a reasonable degree of musical talent (present company, dear reader, mostly excused), this may be the way you chose to diarise that time spent.
Here I see another companion album in Sam Prekop’s Comma, a very electronic conversation with Chicago. The two of these would really interesting and enveloping back to back for a couple of transits of the DLR through Canary Wharf – travel within that monument to Homo sapiens, our very own ants’ nests, the built environment; the city.
But all these conceptual asides fade away beneath the main thrust: it’s a truly bloody great record. Buy.
Neil Cowley’s Hall Of Mirrors will be released by Mote on digital download and double vinyl on March 5th; both are available to pre-save and pre-order now.