27. Free flight

A Prayer for Peace. From Stanley Cowell, Musa: Ancestral Streams, 1974

Here’s a pianist who never achieved the wider fame of his contemporaries Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea, but whose artistic achievements rank with theirs, or any other modern keyboard player. Cowell did great work as a sideman – with Roland Kirk, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins et al – and is one of those people who somehow has a more extensive discography than you expect. Lacking the career boost of a stint with Miles, he along with a few other superbly talented jazz players who, like him, were sane and savvy, reduced his dependence on a life on the road by taking a series of college positions.

He probably did more composing that way, and never stopped recording – though there were gaps – but aside from a long-standing more-than-a-sideman gig with the Heath Brothers he wasn’t seen so much in clubs and concert halls away from home after settling into teaching at the end of the 1980s. And when he retired from Rutgers University in 2013, his return to more active gigging seemed to produce more of an “Oh, he’s still around, then?” feeling rather than, “Good Lord, here’s a complete master and living legend I’d forgotten about”.

Puzzling, when you remind yourself he was as good as this track shows. It’s from the solo set he recorded for the storied label he ran briefly with trumpeter Charles Tolliver, Strata East. The long ago deleted vinyl is now superceded by a surprise appearance of the whole thing on Bandcamp.

I was a fan of other earlier Cowell recordings – especially the first trio date Blues for the Viet Cong and Waiting for the Moment, a few years after this one – but Musa ranks with both of them. It features some of his best known compositions, including the lovely Equipoise and Maimoun. And this one, which begins sounding rather like a Randy Weston anthem, then takes off into an extended, rhapsodic display of Cowell’s approach to solo playing.

Great record – not entirely sure about the ’70s artwork TBH

And it’s as a solo performer he really shines, I think. I still remember hearing him live, with the Heath Brothers one night at Seventh Avenue South in New York. It was a lovely evening, but his solo feature on Round Midnight, a treatment he developed over a long period, was something else. His solo set in the Maybeck Recital Hall series is generally agreed to be one of the best of the bunch. There are others.

Like this track, they show the pan-stylistic flair of one who was classically trained, deeply impressed by a home visit from Art Tatum as a child, and a master of old jazz disciplines from stride and boogie onwards as well as Bud Powell’s cut glass modernisms and the (then) avant garde. Jackie Byard is an obvious peer in this regard and, like Byard, Cowell is revered by later all-pianisms enthusiasts like Jason Moran and Ethan Iverson. Iverson, as usual, has listened to everything, and wrote about some of Cowell’s best stuff after the older man’s death at the end of 2020.

Iverson is his usual authoritative self in urging that Cowell should have been more widely appreciated as one of the remaining “authentic jazz heroes”. He was certainly one of mine. Apart from that one brilliant encounter I only know him from the recordings, but they are enough.

Why the No 27? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify (with a different Cowell tune this week).

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