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FULL INTERVIEW: Neil Cowley on being jazz, chill out music and the greats of film soundtracks

March 26, 2012

Neil Cowley, front, is the leading exponent of new British jazz

You’re not really a jazz band, is it a problem you fight, or can it be quite convenient when you play such esoteric music?

It can be a problem and it occurs a lot. There are times that I fight it, but other times when we have to be ‘jazzed’. I suppose music needs categorization, or at least retail does, and we have been lucky to have been Number 1 on the iTunes jazz chart so I suppose people go for the nearest pot to categorise us.

But, jazz can been seen to be a dirty word in Britain, a second hand word. That’s perhaps because America created it, and it has been taken on by British players, but we have come to it from a new, different British direction.

But we don’t care enough about it to preserve it. I know we look like a jazz band and have the form of a jazz band, piano, bass and drums, but that’s about as far as it goes.

I suppose jazz is a neo classical form and I have a background in training in classical music, but I am not that precious about being ‘jazz’. It is sometimes annoying, but mostly amusing (to be seen as jazz).

How do you fit in with the established jazz scene?

We aren’t really part of the jazz scene. We aren’t part of that scene where everyone has each other’s phones numbers and play with one another, we’re not part of that scene, we never chose to be part of it. We come from rocking blues bands and have always got involved in other projects. Rex is part of a project called music in prisons where he works with prisoners and I have been into see concerts and it is very inspiring and Evan is very involved in the blues scene.

As Neil Cowley I make money from composing (TV scores, soundtracks), that’s where I make my money. I don’t want to need to play live, I only want to do gigs that I enjoy, I don’t want to have to rely on playing music to put the food in our mouths, we don’t want to be reliant on gigs because that’s when you stop enjoying them.

Your music is diverse and eclectic, how much experimentation or improvisation goes into it in the studio and before it gets to the audience?

There’s a lot of composition before it gets to gigs. I have scored a lot of our music in the past. Most of the music comes fully formed, if you play the demos from my computer, the songs are fairly recognizable. But when you take it to the live environment when you get three guys swinging it, that’s when the little moments happen, in the humanity of people playing that the music changes a bit. But it is fairly composed.

You hear of Miles Davis giving the band a scale and allowing the band to improvise and getting this wild, free magic, but that doesn’t really suit my control freak characteristics. We made a conscious decision not to replicate the live environment because improvised music doesn’t often make a great record. 12 minutes of protracted farting around doesn’t often come across well on record. A record is quite an intimate space between you and your hi-fi and improvisational farting about doesn’t often transfer well to that space.

If you aren’t part of the British ‘scene’, how do you make jazz pay?

I pay for the record because it gives me the independence to make the record that I want to make. The record company pays for marketing and everything else, but this band is a labour of love for me, and my wallet, I put the money in because I don’t want to have to need it on a daily basis to survive. I want to make the music that I want to make. We have been lucky. We go around the UK once every 18 months and we have essentially become an international touring band. We have been to lots of international festivals. Last year we played the Luxembourg Philharmonic and had brilliant experiences in Australia, Canada and the US. We played in Rochester in New York and I was really worried because it was like bringing snow to the Eskimos. But we played in the cathedral, but the audience was really absorbed and I was on NBC news the next day, I thought I had really made it. The audiences in Canada were really responsive too.

So is being Jazz in Britain a difficult?

In Britain you are the scourge of the earth, but when you go to Europe you are treated as a respected artist, we have had nothing but good experiences in Europe.

In Britain you are treated as second class citizens. It’s in the little things. When you get to a venue in Britain you are pointed to the plastic sandwich in the corner. When you go to France, you are pointed towards a wonderful dinner that someone has managed to make for you and the crew and everyone sits down to it. You are almost too tired to play after it.

I suppose the British experience toughens you up. But then you go to Japan and as soon as you get off the plane you are treated like the Beatles.

From the start, we passed ourselves off as a successful band from day 1 and we by passed a lot of the gigs on the British scene, I suppose. I needed a grand piano which meant we couldn’t do a lot of the smaller gigs, but we bypassed a lot of the gigs in Britain.

You have an extensive history, personally, in dance music, how did you get to where you are now?

I was into the idea of euphoria, where the music is built up to a ridiculous degree to get you high. But, when I got there, got as high as you could, I wasn’t being nourished. When you get there that was all there was and my brain wasn’t being nourished, when I was there my brain wanted to create a different architecture, different structures and it brought me back to Michael Nyman and Phillip Glass. They have stuff that is cyclical in nature that dance has, but they have so much more. And getting back to them I realized there was lots of stuff from my background that I had been ignoring. Nyman appreciated Bach and Handel and Shostakovich. Nyman is perhaps most associated with Purcell, but also Shostakovich played a big part in my life. It was a great joy rediscovering all of that.

There are still elements of chill out music in the Trio’s music, what did it teach you?

I was pretty lucky to get asked to play with Zero 7 who were pretty much acknowledged as masters of that type of music. I was lucky that I was never really part of the scene where people walked into a room and walked out again because they were in the wrong place.

I never felt the constraints of the music, I felt that I had everything I needed to say everything I wanted to. I know DJs who said that it had to be 98bpm or 70bpm, but all I was doing was my take on John Barry’s 1974 album Play It Again. I was revisiting my early years.

On some of your records you can be seen to sound like Lalo Schiffrin or Roy Budd and on others your music sounds like it could soundtrack a silent movie, did soundtracks play a part in your background?

I can see where people might get Roy Budd or Lalo Schiffrin or John Barry from my music. At home I heard their music. My mum was into jazz and my dad was a jazz pianist to some extent. But those artists and Michel Legrand were gods in my house.

My mum and my uncle were obsessed with film. Film, to me, meant my uncle sticking a pair of headphones on me that were too big for my ten-year-old head, and listening to The Lion in Winter soundtrack. If my family knew anything, it was the connection between film and music and how music enhances the experience of a film.

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