Stanley Cowell ‘Musa – Ancestral Streams’ 180g Vinyl (Pure Pleasure) 4/5

Stanley Cowell sadly passed away in December 2020 at the age of 79, having amassed an incredibly important discography cementing his legacy for our joy today and that of future listeners. Cowell had worked with Polydor (later Polydor/Freedom) records as early as 1969, when much focus was on the conflict in Vietnam, with periods for SteepleChase and Columbia mixed in with smaller independents under quintet, quartet, trio and solo formations to follow. Having spent those early years working with some of the most recognised names in the field like Ron Mathewson, Reggie Workman, Joe Chambers, Woody Shaw, Bobby Hutcherson and Charles Tolliver, it wasn’t until 1971 that New York-based musician co-operative label Strata-East and Music Inc. was born from the union between Cowell and Tolliver that the Cowell flag was fully raised. Hop, skip and jump some 20+ Strata-East albums and we find ourselves at ‘Musa – Ancestral Streams’, Cowell’s first solo piano album released in 1974 bearing the outer and inner artwork of black-American illustrator Carole Marie Byard. Byard had been awarded a grant in 1972, which allowed her to travel to Africa, a member of the Black Arts Movement, and noted for rubbing shoulders with the likes of M’Boom’s Freddie Waits. We can only smell a faint whiff now of the creativity in New York that would have been simmering.

Musa, recorded at Minot Studios December 1973, consists of nine Cowell compositions written between 1958 and 1972. ‘Maimoun’ and ‘Emil Danenberg’ had also been recorded as trio works in 1972 in New York for German ECM label with Jimmy Hopps and Stanley Clarke (off the back of Return to Forever) for 1974’s ‘Illusion Suite’ release – clearly favourites on the Cowell repertoire of the time. Unlike the trio’s interpretation of ‘Emil Danenberg’, which adds little preference over solo to these ears, the work by Clarke throughout ‘Maimoun’ lifts this number to a much more enjoyable place than the solo version presented here. Of the solo offerings, ‘Abscretions’ fires up the album with elevated energy and storytelling. I’m instantly comparing Cowell’s style to that of two of my life-long favourites; Bheki Mseleku and Abdullah Ibrahim as you hear the Musa story unfold. The refinement of ‘Equipoise’ – the balance of forces or interests – gently stokes as the ballad plays out and tingles the senses before ‘Prayer For Peace’ smoulders. Here we hear Cowell’s current writing opening up and exploring the expression of a maturing pianist. The theme is dominant and brings side A to boil.

The aforementioned ‘Maimoun’ is first out of the gate on side B. There is no doubt by this time that we are listening to a fearsome exponent of the instrument immersed in exploration. The playing is hard to fault with flamboyance throughout and a personality all of his own. There is deliberate distraction next in the work of ‘Travelin’ Man’, as over-dubbing techniques are incorporated with Stanley Cowell’s use of both Thumb Piano and Electric Piano bringing an alternative timbre to the recording. It is a mesmerising piece just short of 3min and although somewhat out of place, works to widen Cowell’s expectance, characteristic and our enjoyment. The longer ‘Departure #1’ (composed 1958) is followed by the shorter ‘Departure #2’ (composed 1965) as we enter concert-pianist terrain. The drama and pace explore his ability and writing yet fragments this writer’s pleasure of the whole. As one hears the expression, there is also an extravagance that tears away at the enjoyment felt on the other 7 numbers. One can not be judged for bringing everything to the table but it can seem a little too much at times. As ‘Sweet Song’ extinguishes the release with familiar warmth, it is clear that a star had been born and the need for a solo release was inevitable. It is truly a wonderful snapshot of a pianist free of other musicians, on his own record label and allowing an indulgence we are awarded some 47 years after his passing.

At a time when Sonelius Smith, Harold Mabern and Andrew Hill were picking up steam, the sincerity to Cowell’s vision and playing would be recognised to a wider audience both at Montreux in 1974 beside Sonny Rollins and 1976 with the inclusion to a 60-strong performance at Carnegie Hall as the New York Jazz Repertory Company stretches its wings. It is documented that Cowell was a dependable musician and looking back at the huge back-catalogue there’s little doubt now of the rewards from listing and impact on the genre he has made through his term in office.

Steve Williams

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