This time last year The Face of Mount Molehill was just a twinkle in the eye, in that vacuum between advance copy and release and no one really apart from the band and their nearest and dearest had actually heard the record.
Molehill, released at the start of 2012 in that funny old world when the London Olympics hadn’t actually taken place and the capital was even then still reeling from the previous summer’s riots, has since gone on to become the biggest selling new UK jazz release of the year so far with more than 8,000 copies sold and climbing. That’s pretty unlikely to be beaten by any other jazz release, even though it’s still only September.
But before the end of the year wheels around once more the trio is rehearsing ahead of an autumn tour in the States, and then back in Blighty with the Goldsmiths (Big) Strings on 17 November plays an unsual London Jazz Festival afternoon show at the Barbican, a “never-been-done-before project", says the venue, which involves the trio along with Molehill violinist/arranger Julian Ferraretto challenging a hand picked 30-piece ‘big strings’ orchestra to play by ear instead of from notation music from The Face of Mount Molehill plus new tunes specially written.
Last year at the London Jazz Festival, the complete programme of which for this year is announced next week but which features already such flagged-up luminaries as Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau and Kurt Elling in the festival’s biggest ever incarnation fittingly in its 20th anniversary year, the Neil Cowley Trio played a midnight gig at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho, the album’s producer Dom Monks (who engineered on Coldplay’s Viva La Vida) even manning the sound desk.
That night it was a chance to hear the album in a relaxed setting as the NCT kicked right in after soundchecking in front of an audience made up of Facebook friends, musicians and gig-goers who had made their way over from other London Jazz Festival venues that night. They began with ‘Rooster Was A Witness’ and the hum of feedback still ringing in their ears, pianist Cowley also doubling on Nord keyboards; new recruit Aussie indie rocker Rex Horan (Mama’s Gun) on double bass; the trio’s long standing and original drummer Evan Jenkins; and the Mount Molehill Strings squeezed decorously in the rear of the compact bandstand of the Dean Street basement club demonstrating a certain amount of ingenuity in running through the material with Cowley in the tiny breaks between songs bantering with the audience, the desk, and the band. The band settled on the highly effective ‘Skies Are Rare’ and by ‘Fable’ started to rock. Cowley got into the zone headbanging away on the Steinway, with minimalist lines, fast breakout improvising and resolved melodic flourishes, while on the title track of the album the strings came into their own.
The classical players who will come head to head with the Neil Cowley Trio at the Barbican at this year’s London Jazz Festival may not know quite what’s hit them. One thing’s for sure with this trio, as the record has also shown and as the public continues to snap it up, jazz has never quite sounded the same before.
Neil Cowley Trio top and the cover of The Face of Mount Molehill. US dates are: Iridium, New York (11 October); Wexner Center, Columbus, Ohio (13 Oct); Franklin Theatre, Nashville (14 Oct); Yoshi’s, Oakland, California (15 Oct); and The Mint, Los Angeles (16 Oct).