Short Walk Into a Deep World

The music of pianist and composer Stanley Cowell

When he died in December at the age of 79, pianist and composer Stanley Cowell was remembered as a stealth force in jazz – a thoughtful and understated musician who sparked intricate, spirited improvisations in all kinds of settings. For decades. While happily deferring or sharing the spotlight.

Cowell was a serious jazz musician and educator who was respected by musicians for his energy and intellect – as well as for co-founding the visionary Strata-East label, one of the most successful Black-owned artist-run imprints in jazz. He was a weather system all by himself at the piano – his discography includes the ruminative solo suite Juneteenth (represented on this brief Spotify playlist) and a hard-to-find session from 1974 entitled Musa: Ancestral Streams. (Which, alas, is so ancestral it’s unavailable on streaming platforms.)

Like many improvising artists, Cowell worked frequently as a sideman, bringing his expansive widely-spaced chords and challenging compositions to albums and tours by Max Roach, Stan Getz, Bobby Hutcherson, the Heath Brothers and others. (Another worth-sleuthing title is Getz’ The Song Is You, a live date from 1969 featuring Cowell alongside drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Miroslav Vitous. Released in 1990, this set, on the Laserlight label, is also missing from the streaming omniverse.)

From the start of his recording career, Cowell pursued a sly and sophisticated approach to the piano trio, often through original tunes that juxtaposed sweet, singable melodies against rapidly shifting polyrhythmic schemes. These he developed in the company of diverse collaborators; he recorded with bebop veterans like Roy Haynes (see “Equipoise” from 1978), more modern rhythm players (Nasheet Waits and Tarus Mateen) as well as artists associated with fusion (Stanley Clarke on Illusion Suite). In each setting, Cowell did not emphasize the complexity of the writing: His focus was on flow, on cultivating riveting, free-flowing interactions. Consider the ones highlighted here as just a sliver of what Cowell created.

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