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Jazz pianist Neil Cowley. You've heard him. Think: Adele.

He backed the singer on both of her albums. Now he's headed to America with his trio to spread its U.K. spin on the form the U.S. does so well.

September 07, 2012|By Chris Barton, Los Angeles Times
  • Rex Horan, left, Neil Cowley and Evan Jenkins are the Neil Cowley Trio.
Rex Horan, left, Neil Cowley and Evan Jenkins are the Neil Cowley Trio. (Tom Barnes )

Jazz pianist Neil Cowley may not be a household name, but odds are pretty good you've heard him in your household.

Backing Adele on both her breakthrough album, "19," and the nearly inescapable follow-up, "21," Cowley stepped in after the singer's original keyboardist returned to his day job. Those are his chunky chords you've bobbed your head along with during the Grammy-winning chorus of "Rolling in the Deep."

"As my manager says, I'm the most listened-to pianist on the planet — but no one's aware of who I am," Cowley said with a laugh. "It's just by default."

On the cusp of his jazz trio's first full-length American tour (the group comes to the Mint on Oct. 16), the U.K.-born Cowley is eager to change all that. Trained as a classical "thoroughbred" performing Shostakovich at age 10, Cowley threw himself into pop and rock as a teenager after falling in with a Blues Brothers cover band, which exposed him to the sound of James Brown and Ray Charles. From there it was a matter of continuing his education on his own.

"I spent the next several years just buried in all forms of modern music," Cowley said, speaking by phone while on vacation in France. "And of course being a piano player with some kind of technique I was obviously attracted to the more challenging areas of music."

Soon he found himself immersed in the blues and transcribing songs by jazz artists such as Miles Davis, and after performing with U.K. bands such as the Brand New Heavies and the electronics-shaded Zero 7, Cowley eventually formed his own trio. With no formal training in jazz but a desire to perform something "soulful and live-based," the pianist hoped to leave a mark by referencing the sound of Britain around him.

"If you do jazz in the usual form, there's going to be way too many acts from your side of the Atlantic that are going to do it way better," he said. "You need to do something ... to convey your personality. You have to look around and say, 'Well, what do we do best?' Well, we do pop and rock pretty well, so you'd be a fool to ignore that."

Incorporating those elements along with the collective highs and breakdowns that drew Cowley into the U.K. dance music scene, his trio's debut album, "Displaced," spares the conventional structure and solos of jazz for a driving, groove-oriented sound that leaves room for the band to improvise as a group. Though the sound stood apart from much of what was happening in U.K. jazz clubs, the trio won the BBC Jazz Award for best album in 2007.

"The guy who presented us with the award said, 'Well, I never heard of these guys,' and it's true, he hadn't," Cowley said. "The jazz community was shocked, the BBC Jazz Awards were shocked, and we were shocked. We were jazz, and we had no idea."

Though parts of the group's sound recall similarly genre-blind piano trios such as the Bad Plus, Cowley is mindful of being unconsciously influenced by their sound ("I avoid [listening to them] like the plague, not because I don't think they're amazing — I do — I just don't want any of it to come out in our music"). Consequently, his fourth album, "The Face of Mount Molehill," marks a departure for Cowley with addition of cinematic strings and textural flourishes from one of Brian Eno's collaborators in guitarist Leo Abrahams.

But the crisp melodies and driving interplay between Cowley and his rhythm section remain key, and the pianist is "blind with confidence" that the trio's energetic performances will earn new fans as they try to break through in the U.S.

"Anyone with any interest in contemporary music just thinks America is the home, you know? That's where you want to be known," he said. Referencing a period early in his career when he came to the States to work with songwriter Siedah Garrett, Cowley adds, "I've always had that slight regret that I didn't just turn up and live in a [rented room] in L.A.

"What I intend to do is to make up for lost time."

chris.barton@latimes.com

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