Handscapes – The Piano Choir – Strata-East Records SES-19730 (1973)/ Pure Pleasure Records (2020)180-gram stereo double vinyl, 105:15 ****:
(The Choir, featuring Stanley Cowell, Nat Jones, Hugh Lawson, Webster Lewis, Harold Mabern, Danny Mixon, Sonelius Smith – Instruments: piano, electric piano, vocals, percussion, African piano, harpsichord)
Strata-East Records was an independent jazz label in the 1970’s. With an eye toward post-bop jazz, they were founded by trumpeter Charles Tolliver and pianist Stanley Cowell. Known primarily as an artist-centric organization, they released nearly 60 albums in the 1970’s. Probably the most notable release for the label was Gil Scott-Heron’s Winter In America in1974. Other notable musicians included Bill Lee and Clifford Brown. Musical vision and freedom of expression were essential core principles.
Pure Pleasure Records has released a 180-gram re-mastered vinyl of Handscapes – The Piano Choir. Recorded in 1972, this is a dizzying array of jazz improvisation with seven keyboardists furiously commandeering a variety of keyboard instruments (mostly piano) in a live performance. Joining Stanley Cowell are Nat Jones, Hugh Lawson, Webster Lewis, Harold Mabern, Danny Mixon and Sonelius Smith. Side A opens with a High Lawson composition, “Jaboobie’s March”. With an emphasis on acoustic pianos, the talented “choir” comes roaring out of the gate with a soulful repeat vamp-anchored jam. The muscular chords build to aspirational crescendos with minor touches of percussion and keyboards. Intermingled with the hypnotic, funky vibe are grandiose flourishes and brief lyrical interludes. The opus goes on and on…and the listener doesn’t want it to end. On a cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser”, the musicians distill the exotic bebop energy and complex phrasing. The influence of keyboards (including electric piano) lend a different texture. The piano soloing is explosive. It is polyrhythmic and memorable. In a change of pace, “Precious Lord” is as advertised, soothing gospel. A hushed elegance is framed by “Sunday” organ tonality. With countering piano lines, the number is infused with deep soul. Of course, there is an up tempo, foot-stomping transition near the end. The audience goes crazy with applause!
Side B veers into new territory. “Sanctum Saintorium” (Sonelius Smith) is a piano-based free jazz excursion. It features dissonance, “rattlesnake” percussion and a variety of moods in what feels like three movements. The middle section has some melodic nuance and faint vocals. it contrasts calming and foreboding aesthetics. It eventually shifts to a more delicate melodic inflection. Switching to fusion, “Nation Time” (Webster Lewis) is funky and pulse-driven, reflective of early-70’s jazz. It infuses a Latin resonance and ends in a momentum-inspired jam. Electric piano and vibes-laden keyboards define this instrumental. Staying in fusion mode, “Effi” (Stanley Cowell) is very soulful with dynamic cross-rhythms. It has a strong core melody and is surrounded by an accelerated 3/4 time signature. It concludes in sweeping, cinematic resonance.
Side C is one extended track (“Man Extensions”). To some listeners, a 31 minute piece might be cumbersome. In the capable hands of The Piano Choir, it is exhilarating. Each member adds a unique dimension to this celebration. Beginning with Stanley Cowell a small portrait is drawn musically. His jaunty play is refreshing and stride-like. Hugh Lawson and Harold Mabern introduce rare combinations of classicism and jazzy swagger. It is improvisational gravitas. Webster Lewis’ “heavy” organ blends a reverential solitude with edgier soul accents. The big Sunday get down electrifies the audience. Sonelius Smith initiates a stark wistful reverie with subtle intensity upticks. Nat Jones offers a variety of bluesy imagery with global influences that are reminiscent of the bop era. Danny Mixon (the author of this song) injects a feathery elegance on piano and harpsichord that precedes a frenetic close by the band. Side D showcases another genre-bending arrangement (“The Almoravids”). Everything from an eerie one-chord organ, amen call/response and thumping bass (synthesizer) line morph into staccato chords with atmospheric stylings. There are fusion, Afro-Cuban and funk strains that permeate the supple chord manipulations. The finale (“Killers”) delves into unrestrained avant-garde jazz with ascending and descending chords amid bursts of freneticism.
Simply put, Handscapes – The Piano Choir is jazz at its best! Al of the Pure Pleasure qualities are there, including a balanced sound mix and top-notch hi-gloss gatefold packaging.
Side A: Jaboobie’s March; Straight, No Chaser; Precious Lord
Side B: Sanctum Saintorium; Nation Time; Effi
Side C: Man Extensions
Side D: The Almoravids; Killers
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Published by Pure Pleasure Records: