Neil Cowley - Piano

David Gallant talks to the pianist about how he got started, the instruments he has played over the years and his all time favourite choice. Young meteor Cowley and his trio crescendoed on to the national jazz scene just last year with their highly acclaimed, mesmeric debut album Displaced.

Cowley though has form. He played Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall – aged 11! “Yeah,” says Cowley in his usual self deprecating manner. “I was nurtured by Eric Stevenson for the Royal Academy junior exhibition, which means you go in on Saturdays. He was very influential, and managed to organise concerts for his students at the Queen Elizabeth Hall." Neil Cowley - Piano
Eric Stevenson eventually passed Cowley on to a Miss Jean Anderson. But life at the Academy was steadily dulling Cowley’s enthusiasm for music. “It was alien to what I was used to,” he says, “far removed from my comprehensive school in Hayes, and so elitist”. “Miss Anderson though was my one shining light,” says Cowley. “She was an absolute goddess and I loved her. She was the perfect mother figure – just beautiful.”

Music though, was in Cowley’s genes. He continues. “My dad was Max Miller’s musical director, and he used to write tunes for Bruce Forsyth, Dickie Valentine and people like that. So there was always music going on somewhere in our house. I remember we had this old Zender and I used to practise on that.”

With his junior exhibition days long forgotten (except by his mother), at 14 he found himself playing in a pub band. “It was great,” he remembers. “Glamorous, and I could stay up late! For the first time I thought… this is what I want to do for a living, and I started getting into soul, funk and particularly jazz, which I’d never really listened to before.” Cowley eventually applied to the jazz course at Leeds College of Music. “I got on the course”, he says. “But my local borough, who were rather upset that I had dropped the Royal Academy, offered me a grant of just £100, so that was the end of that!”

Cowley was back to the pubs and clubs. “When I was 18,” remembers Cowley, “I answered an ad in the Melody Maker for a band called the Pasedenas. They were a soul band and I went off and toured with them for a while”. A couple of years later he joined the acid jazz band Brand New Heavies. “I was completely fascinated by funk,” he says. “I even thought that I could sing like James Brown – now that was a complete mistake, and I ruined my voice trying to scream like him!”

Cowley’s piano playing is very percussive. “When I was learning funk, I began by trying to mimic the guitar and drum figures. I was always more conscious of being locked into the drummer and as a consequence I’m very into the percussive side of the piano. But now I’m really having to teach myself melody again.” So what are Cowley’s current keys? “The Zender went when I couldn’t get it into the new house I was moving into”, he says.

“My bass player’s brother teaches his children on it now. Currently I have a Kemble upright as my practice piano – so essentially it’s a Yamaha.”
Cowley certainly wasn’t hammering the keys of an acoustic piano during his tenure with the Brand New Heavies. “No,” he responds. “I was using my Fender Rhodes 73 stage piano which I put through an early 70s Fender Twin Reverb – to make it scratch!” Cowley continues. “Alongside this I had a Hammond XB2 and a Korg M1 synth for the string sounds”. Then I notice another couple of keyboards hovering in the background. “Yeah, I have this Hohner D6 Clavinet – it’s very plastic and you have to be very gentle with it, but it gives you the classic Stevie Wonder sound. I’ve also got a Wurlitzer electric piano, because it has a slightly different timbre to the Rhodes – there’s more attack – it’s an instrument I feel I can solo on. Then there’s the Pro 2 GEM, which arrived at my door through an endorsement with the Italian company in the late 90s.”

So why has Cowley forsaken his electric arsenal for a totally acoustic approach? “After my time with the ‘chill’ band Zero 7 and the soundtracky, spaced out sounds of my own band Fragile Earth, I realised that I wanted to get back to an acoustic sound – to what I knew best. Now I have nothing except me and a piano and of course my drummer Evan Jenkins and bass player Richard Sadler. There’s nothing getting in the way of the music – no electrics. Every electronic piano that I’ve played, maybe even the Fender Rhodes and Korg synthesisers has what I consider a finite number of ways that you can express yourself on it. Whereas with an acoustic instrument, there is an infinitesimal number of ways that you can express yourself – it’s a living organic piece of wood. It uses all of your technique, it’s a real spritual thing.”

I ask the obvious question: What is your ideal piano?  “The band rehearses at the Bull’s Head in Barnes”, says Cowley. “And the Yamaha they have there is just a great piano to rehearse with. I’m always battling against the drums and bass, so I need an instrument that has some bite and edge – one that can really cut through. I recently played a Steinway at a concert at the Purcell Room and that was sensational, absolutely gorgeous.”

After years of electronic experiment, Cowley is clearly comfortable in his current mode, feeling he’s back where he belongs. “We managed to blag a gig at the Montreux jazz festival on one of the side stages in 2002 and that was just the start of it,” he says. “And now four years down the line we’re here. There’s just me and my fingers and it’s a nice place to be.”