Stanley Cowell Passes Away

A tribute to the underappreciated work of this pianist, an American jazz master

by Marshall Bowden

“We were all embracing the political content of the music, versus issuing the traditional and conventional…Our approaches varied. We used sounds prevalent at the time and played in a free form. Our resources were expanded as we set out to re-examine the music. The apex for me came at a concert we had in Antibes. There were great moments at that show where we combined pulses with a great deal of freedom within a fixed form. Bobby was doing these incredible cadenzas.”

— Stanley Cowell—

That’s pianist Stanley Cowell, who died this past week, talking about his tenure with the Bobby Hutcherson/Harold Land Quintet, a band informed by being Black and by what other Black jazz artists were exploring at the time. Hutcherson, Land, and Cowell are all steeped in the language of bebop, but they freely explore the music’s post-bop landscape, including free form improvisation and deeper grooves.  Hutcherson’s record Now! was recorded in 1969, the same year as Cowell’s debut as a leader, the trio date Blues for the Viet Cong, released on Arista’s Freedom imprint. That album, (also reissued by Black Lion asTravellin’ Man) features Cowell in a piano trio with Steve Novosel (b) and Jimmy Hopps (d) playing acoustic modal post-bop, solo stride piano on “You Took advantage of Me,” and electric piano on the free-ish title track and the low-key funky “Travellin Man.” There’s enough here to let you know that Cowell’s playing is deep and wide, both intellectually and emotionally/physically. 

Cowell followed up with a second Arista album, Brilliant Circles, which leans further in the direction of the avant-garde with the amazing cast of musicians (Woody Shaw, Tyrone Washington, Bobby Hutcherson, Reggie Workman, and Joe Chambers) playing a challenging repertoire comprised of Cowell’s title track, two pieces by Washington, and one apiece from Shaw and Hutcherson. Black Lion reissued this one on CD, but beware: the mix is poor, with Washington’s woodwinds isolated on the left channel and sometimes difficult to hear clearly. Still, it’s the only CD available, so unless you are able to procure a copy of the Arista original vinyl release, you’ll have to deal with it.

Next Cowell returned to the trio format for the classic ECM recording Illusion Suite. This time his colleagues were bassist Stanley Clarke, with whom Cowell meshed very well, and drummer Jimmy Hopps, who adds a lot of energy to the session. Again we are also treated to Cowell’s electric piano work, which is perhaps more in line with Chick Corea’s style at that time than Herbie Hancock. Regardless, Cowell is able to negotiate the changes between post-bop, modal, free, and compositional jazz, and groove-conscious electric jazz because like many musicians at the time, Cowell understood that jazz was in flux, picking up new influences but always aware of its history and its meaning. 

In the mid-seventies, Cowell and Charles Tolliver created the Strata-East label, one of few labels to be started and run by Black musicians. Tolliver released several albums with Cowell at the piano; the two also worked with Novesel and Hopps, Cowell’s trio comrades, the same band that recorded Tolliver’s Arista recording The Ringer. Around this time Cowell recorded the solo keyboard album Musa: Ancestral Streams. Cowell plays solo versions of some of his classic compositions, including “Abscretions,” “Equipoise,” “Travellin Man,” and “Maimoun.” That recording reveals that Cowell was not only a solidly interesting composer but that his solo piano renditions of these pieces open onto his own way of playing, a style in which the piano becomes orchestral again. , as it did for Cecil Taylor or for the stride piano masters of Harlem. 

On the Ancestral Streams version of ‘Travellin’ Man” Cowell also plays electric piano and kalimba, an African thumb piano that was popularized by several artists in the later 1960s and early 1970s. Maurice White was playing one in 1969 when he was part of Ramsey Lewis’ group and the instrument continued to be integral to the sound of Earth, Wind & Fire. Musicians like White and Cowell sought to make the instrument part of a sound that would be historically Black and not some kind of novelty. Musa: Ancestral Streams has long been unavailable and sought after, with vinyl copies reportedly bringing upwards of three hundred dollars, but in 2013 it was reissued by Netherlands label Ever Land and is currently available (along with downloadable and streaming versions) through Bandcamp.

Stanley Cowell went into teaching in the seventies, but he continued to compose, perform, and record periodically. His playing and recording took a step to the forefront after his retirement from teaching in 2013. In 2012 he planned a piece of music that would celebrate the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, the announcement of the end of slavery in Texas, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Originally it was to be for a concert band, choir, percussion, and various electronic elements, but instead, Cowell recorded it as a solo piano record at the suggestion of French record producer Philippe Ghielmetti (Ben Ratliff, Playlist, New York Times, July 9, 2015, “Stanley Cowell & Kill West Release New Albums”). The result is a major piece of work along the lines of Ornette Coleman’s “Skies of America” or some of Duke Ellington’s suites, and it feels as though it should have received more attention at the time of its release.

Writing about Cowell in his DoTheM@th blog Ethan Iverson concludes with an observation that was brought to our attention all too frequently this year, as jazz seemed to lose an inordinate number of practitioners both to old age and chronic illness as well as the COVID-19 virus:

“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.”

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