Stanley Cowell’s Juneteenth

June 19 is a good day to listen to the solo piano suite Juneteenth recorded in 2014 by Stanley Cowell.

The record is hard to find, expensive, and reasonably un-reviewed. Apparently the CD release is a big package with 40 pages of photos and, presumably, liner notes. I’ve ordered a used copy, because my casual listen on the streaming services suggests a masterpiece is hiding in plain sight. (Very important: The pleasant opening track on the album, “We Shall” or “We Shall 2,” is not part of the suite.)

The work is in ten sections and runs half-an-hour. It is not celebratory, nor is it angry. The temperature is mild, resigned, and subtle. Many European composition devices are used; indeed, as far as I can tell, it is almost all fully-notated. One track, “Reality Dreams Echoes,” is a crazy-quilt of Americana themes including “Dixie,” “Swing Slow, Sweet Chariot,” and “By the River,” concluding with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I don’t think anyone could improvise like this, they would have to work it out:

(The minor-third tremolo over chromatic bass two minutes in is a leitmotif of the suite.)

While there are a few enjoyable stylistic references to gospel and the blues, most of the music is in its own bag. The “Proclamation” theme begins with a rather ragtime-ish slow “E-flat, E, F” before a fanfare in F minor that hurtles through keys with unexpected swing. The most elaborate movement is a pianistically advanced set of variations on “Strange Fruit.”

Very interesting. Again, I have ordered a copy, and plan to write about this significant work more in the future….

Previously on DTM: RIP Stanley Cowell: A Universe of Music.

At first blush “Reality Dreams Echoes” seems to be in the Charles Ives tradition but to my ears it actually closer to North American Ballads by Frederic Rzewski. (DTM.)