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Album Review Melodies and memories rendered into a most beautiful form

CHRIS SEARLE on Jazz

Stanley Cowell
Are You Real? (Steeplechase SCCD 31790)
No Illusions (Steeplechase SCCD 31828)

YOU can hear virtually the entire century of jazz glories in Stanley Cowell’s piano. His lifetime doesn’t quite stretch that far — only three-quarters of that history. 

He was born in the city of Toledo, Ohio, in 1941 and met the greatest jazz pianist Art Tatum, a regular visitor to his parents’ house and player of their family piano, when he was six. But his years encompass an extraordinary richness of playing with, and being inspired by, some of the truly epic figures of the music. 

The works of some of these are the themes of Cowell’s very singular piano artistry on his 2014 album, Are You Real? in which sheer serendipity caused him to be accompanied by two other powerful confreres, bassist Jay Anderson from Upland, California, who began his career playing with the Woody Herman Orchestra and has played with almost everybody else since, and the 57-year-old drummer from Newport News, Virginia, Billy Drummond — leader of his own bands and accompanist of pianists from Andrew Hill, Carla Bley and his wife Renee Rosnes. 

Drummond and Anderson had been booked to be recorded alongside pianist Freedie Redd, but he fell ill and Cowell stepped in with the superb Are You Real? album as the result. 

The trio begin with a Cowell tune which was featured on his first trio album of 1969, Blues for the Viet Cong, called Photon in a Paper World.

You’d think these three musicians had played together all their lives, such is their immediate rapport. The instant empathy intensifies in McCoy Tyner’s You Taught My Heart to Sing, where Cowell’s unified power of melody and improvisation tell a whole narrative. Anderson’s solo is beautiful in its depth of quietude. 

Jaki Byard was another of Cowell’s beloved pianists and his romping portrait of Charlie Parker’s mother, Mrs Parker of KC, is played with swing and gusto and in I Remember Diz, the homage to Cuba-loving Dizzy Gillespie by Cuban saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, you can hear the Caribbean waves of rhythm from Drummond’s irrepressible tapping drums and cymbalism. 

Tadd Dameron’s classic bebop opus Hot House with its familiar theme played so often by Gillespie, Parker and their generation, moves with an enticing lightness and forward motion in Cowell’s salute to his forebears.

Then it is the album’s title tune, written by Benny Golson, one-time tenor saxophonist of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers who made the theme their own in the late ’50s, a formidable hard-bop signature tune. Drummond’s drums preface it, as Blakey’s used to do, and Anderson plays a delving, dancing solo. 

No better end piece for the album than Monk’s Off Minor and the trio essay its sudden turnings and angular leanings with musical brilliance. So warmly and proficiently did this accidental trio perform together, and with such artistry, that they were back in the studio in December 2015 — this time by definite pre-arrangement — to record another album for the Steeplechase label, No Illusions, with a fourth member, the alto-saxophonist Bruce Williams, from Washington DC. 

Apart from John Lewis’s Milano, which opens the album, all the composition are Cowell’s and the apex track is his Nostalgia for Homelands from the piano suite Juneteenth, in which he imagines “what would have been in the minds of the slaves of Texas who were denied their freedom for two years after the Emancipation Proclamation of New Year’s Day 1863.”

Williams’ brief, abrupt phrases signals the sense of betrayal and broken promises made to native Americans too and Cowell’s piano chorus, with its curt and brusque note clusters, compounds the narrative of historical and continuing treachery of Charlottesville, Ferguson and many other places. 

Cowell plays thumb piano with Williams and his flute on Lesdoodis and Kyma, which he describes as “a sound-design work station,” on the sonically descriptive Sunlight Shifting and Celestial Women, where electrical sounds flutter, quiver and make a new timbral undergrowth. 

But it is back to the traditional quartet format for the expressively melodic B Minor Folksong where Cowell’s notes make evocative patterns and Williams’s horn arouses their people’s historical memories and melodies to render simplicity in its most beautiful jazz form. 

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