RIP Stanley Cowell: A Universe of Music

There are not too many authentic jazz heroes of Stanley Cowell’s stature left.

Cowell first came to prominence in the late 60’s, when he was playing with the leading lights of the tough NYC scene. Max Roach’s Members, Don’t Get Weary from 1968 is one of Roach’s greatest albums, a sublime mix of old and new, and features the first recording of a signature Cowell composition, “Equipoise,” a luminous, contrapuntal melody accompanied by relaxed modal harmony.

In the same period Cowell appeared on Bobby Hutcherson’s Spiral and Patterns at the time when Hutcherson and Harold Land were finding a fresh take on modal music.

Hutcherson’s Total Eclipse with a similar line up — but with Chick Corea in the piano chair — is better known, partly because Spiral and Patterns didn’t come out until later. Rumor has it that Miles Davis had trouble deciding who was going to follow Herbie Hancock into the Davis band, Cowell or Corea; a comparison of the pianists with Hutcherson suggests that Corea and Cowell were equals in terms of being virtuoso soloists in McCoy Tyner/Herbie Hancock lineage. Total Eclipse begins with wonderful “Herzog” and wonderful Corea on piano — but there’s also spectacular video of “Herzog” with Cowell. Again, an interesting comparison.

The most abstract themes in the Hutcherson/Land book are by drummer Joe Chambers, who also appears (with Hutcherson) on one of Cowell’s first albums, Brilliant Circles from 1969. At this time, these musicians were very concerned with atonal European concert music. (Chambers’s brother Talib Rasul Hakim would have a notable career as a formal composer: Cowell appears as piano soloist on the outrageous “Placements,” covered elsewhere on DTM.) Tyrone Washington’s remarkable through-composed “Earthly Heavens” on Brilliant Circles effectively closes the book on a certain era of 60’s high modernism played by serious black jazz musicians. This track is one of my favorite things of all time. (The group is completed by Woody Shaw and Reggie Workman.)

In the early 70s, Cowell joined forces with Charles Tolliver and created Strata-East, to this day one of the few African-American-owned jazz record labels. The two volumes recorded at Slugs’ with Cecil McBee and Jimmy Hopps are exemplary documents of post-Coltrane churn; the piano solos are typically brilliant. “Drought” begins in deep space but soon enough the music turns into blazing swing. Jimmy Hopps is not such a familiar name but he delivers the goods.

There was a lot of forward motion from this tough swinging NYC black music in the late 60s and early 70s…but, the scene changes. The death of Lee Morgan at Slugs’ was a devastating blow. Within a few years Strata-East backed off operations. It was weird all over: Some of the leading lights plugged in and added rock beats, others quit the game entirely.

Artistically, Cowell had an intriguing second string to his bow. When Cowell was a boy, Art Tatum stopped in at hometown Toledo and played “You Took Advantage of Me” for Cowell’s family. As much as he knew about Tyner, Hancock, and the avant-garde, Cowell always remained interested in a kind of old-school two-fisted approach. At times he worked to bring that kind of big piano into modern jazz in esoteric ways, for example “mirror” improvising, a way to cover the piano keyboard in total symmetry, a specialist approach that can be heard in Cowell’s shocking composition “Cal Massey” on Clifford Jordan’s Glass Bead Games. Listen hard to hear how Cowell’s left does everything his right does — but in reverse. (Bill Lee on bass and Billy Higgins complete this outstanding quartet.)

A more conventional use of big piano in the Tatum lineage was stride. Like Jaki Byard and Roland Hanna, Cowell could unashamedly leap into stride piano on a “normal” jazz gig. I just learned from Mark Stryker that Cowell actually started his recording career this way, dealing out some avant-ragtime with Marion Brown on “Spooks” from Three for Shepp in 1966.

Cowell was careful to temper this potentially old-fashioned approach with modern black music with a populist bent. Some of his gospel solos rank with the supreme examples of the form. J Dilla would end up sampling “Maimoun” from Musa: Ancestral Streams.

After Tolliver and Cowell parted ways, Cowell spent a lot of time on the road with the Heath Brothers or Roy Haynes. In both bands Cowell was a bit of an X-factor, someone who could pull the band into something more contemporary or more old-school depending on what else was happening. On the uptempo “Dr. Jackle” with McBee and Haynes in 1977, some of Cowell’s phrases are more like bebop, some are more like modal burn, there’s a few avant flourishes along with something from the swing era.

When Cowell played solo, he usually included a rhapsodic rendition of “‘Round Midnight” that incorporated it all from Tatum to Tyner and further, not to mention a way of phrasing the melody that “evaporated” from a struck chord. On a 1993 trio rendition, after the bass and drums come in, Cowell plays the melody with the left hand while offering wild flourishes on top. (The only other jazz pianist I heard do much of this kind of thing used to play in the Bad Plus.)

Eventually Cowell got off the road and became a celebrated educator. However, that didn’t mean that Cowell stopped practicing. Many pianists who could stride when younger would give that up that merciless discipline some point, but that side of Cowell’s thing got stronger than ever. A lovely late record with Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits, Dancers In Love, has a marvelous rendition of the Ellington title track.

I knew Stanley slightly; when I asked him about making a record with Jason Moran’s crew, he smiled and said that Taurus and Nasheet were, “pure magic.”

Stanley was the piano faculty when I was at the Banff workshop in 1991; Among other things, I remember him pointing out that first chord of a Charlie Parker blues could be a major seventh (not automatically a dominant), which was kind of an incredible revelation.

Much later, he joined a bunch of us (including Ted Rosenthal, Aaron Diehl, Ehud Asherie, Christian Sands, Jacob Sacks, and Adam Birnbaum) at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, where we all played James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout.” I programmed Stanley last, and that was a wise decision, as he simply walked over the rest of us in terms of basic command of the language.

I’ve been staring at this page for an hour, trying to think of a final paragraph, a summation, a button, really just anything positive to conclude this slight memorial post. Once again, as is usually the case when an American jazz master passes, I am possessed by inchoate frustrations. As rich as Cowell’s legacy is, he should have gotten more love and appreciation from our society, creating a feedback loop that would have enabled Cowell to have gone from strength to strength in the manner of a talented (and funded!) European composer. Still, the best records are here, and future generations will always have a chance to see how a single pianist could command a whole universe of possibility.