The place to be for music in the 1990s was London, as a new sound rebooted the live instrumentation of the jazz tradition with the power and energy of trip-hop, broken beat, drum’n’bass and rave music. At the forefront of this movement was Outside — the name under which multi-instrumentalist, writer and arranger Matt Cooper worked with a host of creative collaborators and guests. In 1993, Outside’s ground-breaking first album ‘Almost In’ helped kick off a revolutionary era of club-orientated jazz in the UK, and Cooper became one of its leading lights.
The album was released on Dorado Records, the experimental jazz-and-beats label founded in 1992 by Ollie Buckwell, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Dorado was part of a creative explosion that spawned club nights like That’s How It Is and seminal venues like The Blue Note, alongside similarly ambitious labels such as Talkin’ Loud, Acid Jazz, Mo’Wax and Ninja Tune.
‘I looked for the most talented and experimental artists I could find,’ says Buckwell of Dorado’s dynamic musical vision, ‘and gave them the creative freedom and support to make the best records possible. I wanted to make quality recordings that would stand the test of time. I was completely blown away by Matt Cooper’s talent and immediately offered him a deal.’
If this 90s London scene had a mecca it was the Monday-night session That’s How It Is at Soho’s Bar Rumba, that was launched in ‘92 by DJ Gilles Peterson and Mo’Wax label founder James Lavelle. Outside were mainstays, and over a period of eight years, Cooper was the driving force behind five albums, each one breaking down boundaries to take music forward in thrilling new directions. Now, after two decades spent working with some of the most influential figures in music, Cooper is back with fresh material that adds a whole new chapter to the story.
Just 20 when ‘Almost In’ first appeared, sporting a mercurial mane of long curly hair, and with an onstage flamboyance to match, Cooper was quickly fêted as a musical prodigy. His debut showcased his spellbinding gifts on both keyboards and drums; it was an ambitious, emotionally rich album that reflected a hunger to create something original. Heavy on melodic piano, soaked in sweeping strings, it featured collaborations from Cleveland Watkiss and Rob Galliano and spearheaded the arrival of groups such as the Young Disciples and Us3.
In 1995, during the recording of follow-up album ‘The Rough & the Smooth’, Cooper met Andreas Allen, then an engineer who had cut his teeth at Madonna’s Maverick recording studio in Los Angeles. With Andreas’ creative and co-production input, Outside released ‘The Rough and the Smooth’ as a duo. The album again broke new ground, as Cooper created dazzling new musical hybrids, particularly on ‘To Forgive But Not Forget’, the memorable testimony to the Holocaust which cut searing violin over a battery of drum’n’bass.
Pioneering a uniquely British form unlike anything coming out of America, the album’s originality was striking. Mixmag pronounced it “the best record of the last two years[J1] .” Legendary producer Tommy Lipuma, then president of GRP Records, released the album in the US on his Blue Thumb label. Outside went on to make three more albums — ‘Discoveries’ (1997), ‘Suspicious’ (1998) and Out of the Dark (2001), each pushing in a new and different creative direction.
At the same time Cooper was forming another creative relationship with Bluey, the man behind legendary UK soul outfit Incognito. As Cooper puts it: ‘I cross-faded from Outside to Incognito.’ Starting as a keyboard player, his collaborative involvement grew steadily, and he toured with the band for a number of years. He is now the second longest-serving member of Incognito after Bluey himself, and for the past five years has been their musical director. Most recently, he has been working with Bluey live and in the studio on the STR4TA project with Gilles Peterson. ‘I translate what Bluey wants into musical terms,’ says Cooper. ‘I’ve kept to the same principle of mixing beats and live musicians. Outside is more left-field, but it’s the same ingredients.’
Alongside his work with Incognito, Cooper has been hugely in demand both as a musical director and an instrumentalist. The list of names whose artistic vision he has brought to life on stage and in the studio reads like a Who’s Who of soul, jazz and beyond. Funk diva Chaka Khan; soul singer Jocelyn Brown; Leon Ware, co-writer of Marvin Gaye’s seminal ‘I Want You’ album; jazz giants Marlene Shaw, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and saxophonist Ronnie Laws; Omar, Carleen Anderson, US3, Italian star Mario Biondi. There have been TV shows with the late Whitney Houston; a world tour with Japan frontman David Sylvian; a duet between Paul Weller and folk-soul griot Terry Callier; and headlining a Glastonbury stage with Cee-Lo Green.
Each new association has added fresh color to Cooper’s musical palette, and now — 20 years since his last Outside release — he has crystallized those influences into the hauntingly beautiful new album “Almost Out’, made with the creative assistance, co-production of Valentina Pahor.
Cooper recorded the album during lockdown at the home studio he built five years ago in the shadow of the art-deco Hoover Building, in west London. He calls it ‘a distillation of everything I’ve produced here’. The elegance and clean lines of art deco seem somehow to have seeped into the studio, along with their ability to suggest both the past and the future.
Where early Outside was almost baroque in its embellishments, ‘Almost Out’ is pared down to the simplest of elements in harmony. His wild hair long since streamlined, Cooper dots subtle cascades and repetitions of strings and piano over downtempo loops of keyboard or drums to create tracks that hint at the mesmerizing, cinematic best of Steve Reich or Philip Glass.
‘This album is a lot more minimal,’ he says. ‘I used to throw the kitchen sink into each song, and have massive layers. I’ve evolved: I can have fewer instruments, but those instruments speak better because they have room to breathe. That creates the mixture of modern and retro that is the Outside sound.’
Writing and playing solo, as he first did in 1993, Cooper has come full circle to showcase his unique musical sensibility once again under the Outside name and on the Dorado imprint. ‘Almost Out’ is steeped in the spirit of his 20 years in partnership with soul and jazz legends, combining the percussive and the melancholy to hauntingly beautiful effect. A 4-track EP is released on October 26th; the full album will be released in early 2023.