Stanley Cowell/Billy Harper/Reggie Workman/Billy Hart – Such Great Friends – Strata-East Records SES9004 (1991)/Pure Pleasure Records (2021) 180-gram stereo vinyl, 47:04 ****1/2:
The resurgence of vinyl albums is impressive. Last year for the first time in decades, vinyl outsold digital. One of the pioneers of this analog reset is Pure Pleasure Records. They have reissued scores of albums from several different genres. Many of these titles are in blues and jazz. In addition to renowned labels (Columbia, RCA, Capitol, Universal), smaller brands are getting a renewed lease on 180-gram vinyl. One of these labels is the artist-centric Strata-East Records. Located in the center of the jazz universe (New York), founders/musicians Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell provided a supportive environment for jazz artists. Now, in the vinyl renaissance, these recordings are reaching a broader audience.
Pure Pleasure Records has released a re-mastered 180-gram vinyl of the 1991 Strata-East album, Such Great Friends. Featuring a stellar quartet (Stanley Cowell/piano; Billy Harper/tenor saxophone; Reggie Workman/double bass and Billy Hart/drums), four extended tracks showcase the improvisational post-bop gravitas of a tightly-knit quartet. Side One opens with a Stanley Cowell composition, “Sweet Song”. The opening introduction is a majestic piano-only translation of delicacy and occasional force. Cowell’s chord changes establish mood and a complex musical tapestry. When the band joins, Billy Harper’s mellifluous tenor brings a soulful ambiance to the jam. Hart’s staggered drumming is intuitive and compelling. Cowell returns to solo with reverie-like articulation and nuanced rhythm patterns. The trio interaction is flawless. Harper extends the dynamics with a rolling technical quality that includes vibrato. “Destiny Is Yours” (written by Harper) goes in a different direction. The opening (piano, double bass, drums) injects a free-jazz punctuation with some modality. Shifting to 3/4 time, there are melodic touches with tempo variations. A repeat chorus is well-suited to this ensemble. Harper’s sax notation is very active with stretched out tonality. Cowell adds a feathery touch to his run before Workman’s solo. With either sax or piano lead, the chemistry of the quartet is unflinching.
The liner notes on Such Great Friends acknowledge that the album was a document of the music performed on tour. That is very evident on Side Two. Billy Hart’s “Layla Joy” (the shortest of the pieces, clocking in at 7:28) is a diverse assortment of syncopated, cool jazz grooves with a saxophone lead. Cowell builds a flowing energy with the rhythm section. His solo features impeccable phrasing. Both Workman and Hart deliver ear-catching solos. Cowell returns with controlled fury as the instrumental play feels more open. As Harper re-enters, there is global, exotic shading to the motifs. The finale “East Harlem Nostalgia” is by far the longest track at 16:58. The double bassist begins with a long exploratory solo that is atmospheric before it develops a pulse. Cowell and Hart offer concise accents as the arrangement morphs into medium swing. There is a grittier edge (almost bebop), but Cowell distills the glowing lyricism of the melody. It is explosive with accelerated time signatures.
Pure Pleasure Records has done its customary excellent job in re-mastering Such Great Friends to 180-gram vinyl. The overall mix is crisp and balanced. The stereo separation is top-notch. The vinyl pressing had very little surface noise, and there were no hisses or pops.
Side One: Sweet Song; Destiny Is Yours
Side Two: Layla Joy; East Harlem Nostalgia
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