Top 10 Favorite Stanley Cowell Tracks

Yesterday, a couple hours before I heard about the passing of jazz giant Stanley Cowell, Kate was doing ordering some supplies for Wesleyan’s Art Department and I saw the piece of paper full of hyper-specific color names – indigo blue, poppy red, royal blue, and so on. As I think about Prof. Cowell’s legacy as a pianist, composer, and conceptualist, it is like that. He may not have invented “blue” or “green,” but you can be sure that there is a shade that is uniquely and identifiably his and so much jazz of the last 50-plus years has been enriched by that indirectly and directly.

He was also a noteworthy educator for over thirty years. I just missed out on studying with Prof. Cowell, whose influential stint at Rutgers began a year after I finished graduate school. I’m not complaining about my six years with Kenny Barron, mind you, but the words of praise of his presence there as an educator were not just frequent but unanimous and not just positive but glowing. I had already come to touch on some of his concepts through Sumi Tonooka (one among his illustrious former students). I was fortunate to have the opportunity to communicate with him over the years about music and pedagogy, beginning shortly after his arrival at Rutgers (thanks to my friend and former classical piano teacher Wanda Maximilien taking it upon herself to pass along some of my method books) and he was always kind and always rigorous, which to me is the perfect combination.

In addition to his teaching, I was inspired early on by his co-leadership of the Strata-East label with Charles Tolliver, one of the most significant examples of an artist-led label before that became common (in addition to providing some foundational albums in my own consciousness, from Gil Scott-Heron’s Winter In America to the first M’Boom record, not to mention all the great work from Stanley and Charles’ cooperatively-led “Music Inc.” group).

The list of great recordings featuring Stanley Cowell is long, so here are ten personal favorites spanning his lengthy career and hopefully representing some little sense of the broad scope of his work, presented in chronological order (with dates representing when they were recorded). I have emphasized things that are in print to help those looking to check out his work dig right in – but don’t stop here! This omits a bunch of great stuff, including wonderful recordings from Marion Brown, Gary Bartz, J.J. Johnson, Larry Coryell, and from Cowell’s own enormous discography as a bandleader.

1 ) “Effi” from Patterns by Bobby Hutcherson (1968)

The first of about a half-dozen noteworthy recorded collaborations with Bobby Hutcherson, this album is straight fire from beginning to end, also featuring James Spaulding, Reggie Workman, and Joe Chambers. This is possibly my favorite of Stanley’s compositions, which is saying something, and this is its first recording, coming a few months before it was cut on the Max Roach album next on this list.

2 ) “Abstrutions” from Members Don’t Git Weary by Max Roach (1968)

I can’t say enough good things about this Max Roach album – its spiritual depth, musical intensity, and breadth of modern sounds that debunks any notion one might have of Max as a “bebop drummer” solely. Stanley wrote half the tunes on the record, including this classic-sounding acoustic funk tune on which he also burns in an extended solo atop Jymie Merritt’s pulsing electric bass and Max’s backbeat. The only “complaint” about this track is that we don’t hear solos from Charles Tolliver or Gary Bartz, though they’re well represented elsewhere on the record.

3 ) “Drought” from Live in Tokyo by Charles Tolliver/Music Inc. (1973)

Much of the output from Music Inc. is out of print which is really too bad (though worth crate-digging for), but there is this fiery live performance in Japan by the quartet iteration of the group, in this case also featuring Clint Houston and Clifford Barbaro. This Tolliver track is a good demonstration of Stanley’s playing at a burning fast tempo.

4 ) “Equipoise” from Equipoise (1978)

This is probably Cowell’s most-played tune – by the time of this eponymous album, it had already been recorded several times, including classic versions by Max Roach, Jack DeJohnette, and Roy Haynes. Like much of his work, wonderfully lyrical and yet edgy and hip at the same time, and the all-star trio of Stanley, Roy, and Cecil McBee presents it in a predictably gorgeous manner.

5 ) “Goodbye Again” from One September Afternoon by Art Pepper (1980)

Stanley was central to the latter-years output of saxophonist Art Pepper, and he contributed this composition to Pepper’s book. In this lovely rendition alongside Cecil McBee and Carl Burnett, it is a good demonstration of how sensitively he could render a ballad with his playing and his pen.

6 ) “Brilliant Circles” from Live (aka Live at Copenhagen Jazz House) (1993)

This is a hip and ridiculously grooving version of another wonderful Cowell original that dates back to the 1960s – though out of print, you’re encouraged to hunt down the big band version with the Music Inc. Big Band from 1970. He soars here along with the lesser-known (outside of the Mid-Atlantic region, where Stanley resided for the last 30-plus years of his life) but wonderful rhythm team of Cheyney and Wardell Thomas.

7 ) “For Seven’s Sake” from As We Were Saying . . . by the Heath Brothers (1997)

Having already lost Jimmy Heath earlier this year (but with surviving brother Albert “Tootie” having recently been named an NEA Jazz Master) it’s bittersweet to think about and listen to the many albums Stanley made as the non-Heath core member of the Heath Brothers band, many out of print at this point (and one of which, as a teenager, was my first exposure to his playing when I checked out an LP from the local public library). This reunion of sorts devotes a whole tune, “For Seven’s Sake” to Cowell’s distinctive work on the kalimba, something he incorporated into a wide range of music.

8 ) “St Croix” from Welcome to this New World (2011)

This infectious calypso tune (and the album it comes from, with his Empathlectrik Quartet) demonstrates two significant aspects of Cowell’s work. One is the depth of his connection with Rutgers, with a band including former students Tom DiCarlo and Christopher Brown on bass and drums and colleague Vic Juris (who also left us at the end of 2019) on guitar. I don’t want to sound like some kind of alumni booster or anything, but seeing those connections makes me happy, as it did years ago when he came to Wesleyan to bring down the house with what was essentially a Rutgers faculty quartet (with Ralph Bowen, Mike Richmond, and Victor Lewis). The other is his fascination with electroacoustic music, here demonstrated by his use of the innovative KYMA system – dig the morphing of the piano as he solos.

9 ) “Juneteenth Recollections” from Juneteenth (2013)

Stanley’s solo piano chops and conception are equally prodigious, as he demonstrated through the decades. This topical album is a stellar example of that and of his keen vision as a composer. This track in particular is a seventeen and a half minute tour de force of emotion, technique, and compositional coherence.

10 ) “No Illusions” from Live at Keystone Korner Baltimore (2019)

From a late 2019 performance at Todd Barkan’s club (recently re-booted in the Mid-Atlantic region), this whole album burns like crazy – I put down “Cal Massey” first, since the Great Friends and Live at Maybeck Recital Hall versions are out of print, and then “Banana Pudding” and could have pretty much chosen any of the tunes. Sounding this good is an accomplishment and sounding this good at 78 is no joke. This hard-swinging tune is given an amazingly soulful treatment by Vince Ector, Tom DiCarlo, Freddie Hendrix, and longtime Cowell bandmember Bruce Williams.

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