Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 10, No.1, 2011

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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Mark Goldfarb
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Bernard Dubé
David Solway
Robert Rotondo
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
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Emanuel Pordes
Diane Gordon
Serge Gamache
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Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
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Tommy Emmanuel
John Stetch
Susie Arioli
Coral Egan
Diana Krall
Stacey Kent
Carol Welsman
Aldo Romano
Denzal Sinclaire
Madeleine Peyroux
Bireli Lagrene
Sonido Isleño
Provost & Lachapelle
Kevin Breit
Sophie Milman
Annie Poulain
Badi Assad
Donato & Bouchard
Ingrid Jensen
John Roney
Russell Malone
David Binney
Kurt Rosenwinkel
Mimi Fox
Voo Doo Scat
Coral Egan
Martin Taylor
Jordan Officer
Melody Gardot
Jean Vanasse
Yves Léveillé
Sylvain Provost
Louciana Souza
Patricia Barber
Jill Barber
Corrine Bailey Rae
Chet Doxas
François Bourassa
Sylvain Luc
2010 Montreal Guitar Show (Sylvan Luc)
2008 Jazz en Rafale Festival (Montreal) - Mar. 27th - April 5th -- Tél. 514-490-9613 ext-101 (featuring David Binney)
Montreal Jazz Festival 2010







Piano Keyboard


by Robert J. Lewis

Featured artist: NEIL COWLEY

Every jazz festival needs what I affectionately refer to as bridge music that offers to the untrained ear easily accessible musical pathways linking uncomplicated musical genres to the more complex jazz idiom. If jazz is currently more popular than classical, it could very well be because there is more transitional music available for it.

For its consummate intelligence and talent in linking mostly alt-rock to jazz, the Neil Cowley Trio (London, England) was invited to perform at the 2009 Montreal International Jazz Festival and again in 2010. For young listeners whose impressionable musical minds have been thoroughly hegemonized by Rap and Hip-Hop -- music that can be so bullyingly monotonic one has to fast forward to the next track for a chord change -- jazz, especially pure jazz, is not an easy sell, which makes bridging the breach a gauntlet every jazz festival note-bent on becoming an annual event has to run.

Enter Neil Cowley, a classically trained pianist who discovered early in the game that his creative muse would be best satisfied by exploring the half-mapped gap between alt-music and jazz.

Alt-music distinguishes itself from pop and rock not so much by its reliance on dissonance but the very deliberate separation of a dissonant chord’s notes (C and C#) and giving them and their harmonic (or mood) equal say. Think of a song based on oddly constructed chords or a conventional sequence of notes that crosses the solid line and then stays there for its effects, or a floor that suddenly tilts and the different muscles and physical maneuvers required to maintain balance. Alternative music asks the ear to make those same adjustments, which is its own reward. Alt-music will appeal equally to jaded listeners for whom conventional music falls flat or those who find themselves at a tilt with the world and are looking for a sympathetic musical rejoinder: “there’s a melody for every malady.” (Passing Strange)

Neil Cowley, who was raised on the dissonances supplied by both classical and jazz, taps into alt-music’s peculiar relationship with dissonance which he infuses with jazzed up bass runs and Bad Plus inspired, lashing percussion (cymbal) work. But he never forsakes his love of pure melody that vacillates from the plaintive to the propulsive and is found throughout; and he stays true to what is non-negotiable in noteworthy composition. From one track to the next, the music, almost without exception, is forcefully directional, purposefully conducting the listener to the stratosphere of ecstasy and release, the dynamic of which recalls the rapture-inducing operas of Richard Wagner whose excesses invite absolute surrender to the beauty of pure sound, an endgame that just happens to correspond to the requirements of listeners reared on rock.

Be as it may that Cowley is more of a jazzman than anything else, he makes certain that his music retains what is invariable in rock (or alt-rock): its repetition, distinct and discernible melodies most of which can be hummed or sung (on both sides of the divide), and very straight forward chord changes that even the least musically fit mind can productively engage. And while Cowley is responsible for all the writing, he never fails to mention that the final product, both recorded and live, owes much to the energetic Richard Sadler on bass and dynamic Evan Jenkins on percussion.

To put Neil Cowley’s accomplishment in perspective, his music, albeit not fully appreciated as such, is as essential to the lifeline of jazz festivals as enzymes are to digestion. Since there is no escaping the self-referential drones and monotones that fill the airways, preparing the ear for more challenging music is an issue that will not disappear gently into the post-concert night, and to this pedagogical end Neil Cowley’s album, Displaced, is fully deserving of the 2007 BBC Jazz Awards as best jazz album of year.

That said, as a jazz trio, you can’t mention them in the same breath as jazz’s best known trios. If you are attracted to the musical spaces revealed by the likes of Monk, Jarrett and Oliver Jones, Cowley's heavy-handedness, audacious melodies and predictability will excite the ear for about as long as a cat is likely to remain pat on a hot tin roof.

As a bridge over shallow water well worth crossing, Cowley’s signature-unsubtle, rectangular approach to composition is intended for listeners who want to get connected to jazz but are lacking in essential vocabulary. For this vital task, I can't think of anyone more qualified to "break on through," and it doesn’t hurt that between songs in the key of life this 'man for all jazz seasons' is a witty, glib, self-effacing Brit who makes you love everything British.

Photo © J. F. Leblanc


John Coltrane
Miles Davis
Thelonius Monk
Charlie Mingus
Oscar Peterson
Charlie Parker
Dizzy Gillespie
Wes Montgomery
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