It is quite common for an artist to add a string section onto an album to add depth. No matter what, this undeniably happens-- there are most certainly more people involved making music on this kind of album than usual, the roster is certainly deeper than normal. The sound made by this larger collective is certainly deeper just by the nature of the strings being there. Then there's the notion that there's some greater intellectual depth in the work just because there's a string section, some pseudo-intellectualism as a cloud surrounding that album. The trick to avoiding that cloud is composing to play to the strings' strength, adding their components to one's own compositional style, giving them their own distinct purpose in the overall tableau. Neil Cowley achieves all this and more on his latest album, The Face of Mount Molehill. He composes his songs as he always has, taking his time to paint a larger picture, but this time he's adding a bit more color.
In regards to his compositional style, Cowley's voice remains distinctly intact. Mount Molehill sounds like a clear progression from 2010's Radio Silence. The focus is more on the song as a whole than on long bouts of soloing for himself or his fellow trio members, Rex Horan on bass and Evan Jacobs on drums. Incorporating guitarist Leo Abrahams (known for his work with Brian Eno) adds to the mix as well. There's a certain pop music sensibility in these songs. More pointed, more (dare I say) purposeful than most jazz songs. This leads to very focused compositions with everyone involved, trio and string ensemble alike, having a clear role. This of course makes sense considering Cowley’s past experience composing for strings as well as his time spent with his trio over the years. It would make natural sense that the two would be intertwined at some point with such aplomb.
And what of these songs? The lead single, “Rooster Was a Witness”, gives all the aforementioned texture that one would come to expect all throughout this album, but with a kind of minimalist bent to soloing. "Meyer" has a punchy, uplifting lilt to it. It's at about the halfway mark of the album where the songs stretch out a bit to include more improvisation while still maintaining the the overall restrained cool. “Mini Ha Ha” is a high point on the album-- very reminiscent of Jason Moran’s “Ringing My Phone (Straight Outta Istanbul)”, how it emulates the recorded voice, this time a baby’s laughter.
Track after track has a constantly swelling vibe to it that's sure to stand up in Neil Cowley's ever-growing, all the more impressive body of work. The Face of Mount Molehill is certainly one of those albums that makes good use of all the tools in its toolbox and is certainly worthy of all the depth for which it is striving to achieve.
Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at his blog, In Retrospect and you can also follow him on Twitter.