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Neil Cowley Trio
Touch And Flee Richard Rees Jones , June 16th, 2014 17:34

On Touch And Flee, their fifth album, the Neil Cowley Trio reinforce their position as one of Britain's brightest jazz ensembles. London-based pianist Cowley gained considerable acclaim for his contributions to both of Adele's multimillion-selling albums, but he's clearly happiest when fronting his own group. Sharpened by constant gigging and trading on significant word-of-mouth popularity, the trio have built up a formidable reputation with their powerful, energetic piano workouts. Cowley also has a nice line in dry humour, which saw him title his second album Loud…Louder…Stop in sardonic acknowledgement of his compositional style.

The kernel of truth contained in that description goes some way towards explaining Cowley's status as a rising star of the British jazz scene. Cowley is a prodigiously talented, yet resolutely unflashy pianist; like the late, much missed Esbjörn Svensson, he has a gift for memorable hooks and crescendos allied to a driving, restless quality in his playing. The combination makes Cowley that rare animal, a jazz musician for people who don't like jazz.  Purists may baulk at his preference for tight, concise compositions over lengthy improvised excursions, and certainly you won't hear much of Keith Jarrett or Brad Mehldau in his bold, unfailingly direct melodies. It's that very boldness that makes Touch And Flee such a smart and lively pleasure.

The new record represents a stylistic shift away from the trio's last album, 2012's The Face of Mount Molehill, an ambitious outing which saw them add strings and guitar to their core line-up. Touch And Flee is both a more stripped down effort than its predecessor and the trio's most sheerly enjoyable statement to date. Joined by Rex Horan on bass and Evan Jenkins on drums, Cowley presents nine shortish pieces that move effortlessly between fluid, uncluttered tunes, warm humour and passages of tense, spiky abstraction. On opener 'Kneel Down', pensive piano chords and unobtrusive rhythms resolve into a spare and graceful melody. 'Sparkling' is even better, a blissful evocation of the piece's title with a surging, dreamlike mood.

Elsewhere, Horan and Jenkins prove themselves to be anything but, on the bouncily attractive 'Couch Slouch'. Spurring each other on in expressive interplay, the bassist and drummer lock into Cowley's relaxed and flowing grooves. Meanwhile there's a gently simmering power to a track like 'Gang Of One', with Cowley's vigorous harmonies laid over Jenkins' crisp snare and cymbal work.  A couple of other tracks reveal a more introspective side to the trio than has been shown on previous outings. 'Queen', at six-and-a-half minutes the longest piece here, sees Cowley sketch haunting half-melodies to stunning effect, while on 'Bryce', Horan's sensitive bass perfectly sets off the wintry, filmic tone of Cowley's playing.

The album is as sumptuously recorded as you would expect from the Naim label, an offshoot of one of the world's leading purveyors of high-end audio equipment. With Grammy-nominated producer Dom Monks at the controls, the soundworld of Touch And Flee has a crystalline depth and clarity, but you don't need to be in possession of thousands of pounds' worth of kit to appreciate Neil Cowley's many talents as both pianist and composer. Equally at ease with rich dynamics and raw introspection, his take on jazz refreshingly open and direct, and Cowley's assured melodic touch never leaves him.

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