Stanley Cowell / Billy Harper / Reggie Workman / Billy Hart ‎’Such Great Friends’ 180g Vinyl (Pure Pleasure) 5/5

Courtesy of the vinyl enthusiasts over at Pure Pleasure, their latest reissue dips into the catalogue of Strata-East to reintroduce the world-class ensemble for ‘Such Great Friends’ to new audiences.

Boasting the line up of Stanley Cowell on piano, Billy Harper on tenor saxophone, Reggie Workman on bass and Billy Hart on drums, the project reflects just one of the genre-defining projects that have adorned the catalogue of Strata-East since the label’s inception back in 1971.

Founded by Cowell himself, along with trumpeter Charles Tolliver following their years performing together as part of Tolliver’s big band project, Music Inc, Strata East is consistently hailed for its success as a label run by two artists with no formal or business training, their pioneering releases in the 1970s celebrating post-bop, afro and spiritual jazz, and of course hailed for the fact that the label stood as a beacon for being an independent, black-owned success story. With Tolliver’s Music Inc project serving as the label’s debut release, Strata-East would go on to release music by monumental names including Pharoah Sanders, Weldon Irvine, Cowell’s own The Piano Choir as well as Gil Scott-Heron whose collaboration with Brian Jackson delivered the label with one of its most notable successes with ‘Winter in America’ (1974).

‘Such Great Friends’ represents one of the label’s perhaps forgotten gems. Recorded in New York’s Sound Studios, 7th July 1983, the album was one of several projects Cowell released through Strata-East among varying ensembles. Such was the demand for Cowell’s work as a performer and collaborator, his touring schedule would eventually take him away from the label’s day to day running allowing him to focus more on making his own music which makes this release something to be doubly thankful for.

Reiterating our earlier point which frankly could never be overemphasised, ‘Such Great Friends’ presents a dream team line-up of long-time friends and collaborators that comprise the project’s quartet, each already boasting incredible resumes: saxophonist Billy Harper had performed as part of Art Blakey’s Messengers before becoming a member of Max Roach’s quartet for many years; bassist Reggie Workman was part of ensembles for mouth-watering names including John Coltrane, Roy Ayers and Gary Bartz; while drummer Billy Hart can boast similarly jaw-dropping collaborations with Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and Otis Redding.

Consisting of four tracks and clocking in at a little under 50 minutes… don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with your maths – some of these tracks are epically long with ‘East Harlem Nostalgia’ wrapping up at 17 minutes! It’s no less a joy to behold though as the composition is driven along with great energy throughout affording each member of the quartet their moment in the sun. ‘Destiny Is Yours’ warrants mention for its inspirational delivery while ‘Layla Joy’ finds its home within a warm intimacy that you genuinely cling tightly to throughout the song’s seven and a half minutes. The self-referential ‘Sweet Song’ sees Cowell’s piano wisely take centre stage once again proving his unbridled passion and talent.

As revered and respected as his contributions to the genre is, it’s often noted that Stanley Cowell should absolutely have become a much bigger name than he did and had every tool to justify an increased level of success. Listening to ‘Such Great Friends’, you’ll agree that it’s an indisputable point but more than anything, you’ll just be glad that this one hasn’t passed you by.

Imran Mirza