Stanley Cowell/Solo Piano – Musa: Ancestral Streams – Strata-East Records SES-19743 (1974)/Pure Pleasure Refcords (2021) 180-gram stereo vinyl, 38:57 ****1/2
(Stanley Cowell – piano, electric piano, African thumb piano)
Solo piano jazz albums are unique to performers. With no additional accompaniment, the pianist is required to explore melodies, while balancing the rhythmic structure. Often, the left hand will emulate a double bass (or in the case of stride, extend the range) to counter the improvisation of chord modulation (including extensions) and harmony. This provides a stylized translation of an emotional connection to a song or concept. Progressions often include scale variations and arpeggios, block chording and articulation of sharps and flats. All of the great jazz pianists (Bud Powell, Art Tatum, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Thelonious Monk, and Cecil Taylor…the list is endless) have utilized solo piano as a vehicle for their musical vision. Another example of this is a lesser-known Strat-East artist Stanley Cowell. Though not as widely known as his contemporaries, Cowell had a significant imprint on the jazz scene as a session player and band leader. He was the co-founder of Strata-East Records. In 1974, Cowell recorded a solo piano album, Musa: Ancestral Streams.
Pure Pleasure Records has released a 180-gram re-mastered vinyl of this celebrated project. Musa: Ancestral Streams is a vibrant integration of post-bop, spiritual jazz. Side A opens with “Abscretions”. It is an ebullient celebration with a soulful funky vibe. His innate rhythm and deep feeling emanate from the prominent chords and understated right-hand notation. There is a distinct gospel inflection that lends an aspirational resonance. “Equipose” is stunningly lyrical, but steeped in tempo. Cowell’s improvisational licks are very articulate. The mood is enhanced by volume mitigation and high-register notation. Versatility is at the center of this pianist’s repertoire. On “Prayer For Peace” an enhanced time signature and bold attitude illuminate the track. Cowell’s left hand is steady and propulsive on “Emil Danenberg”. The ability to intermingle gritty context and sweeping runs is uncanny. His phrasing is meticulous and the arrangement leans on jazzier improvisation. There is a hypnotic pulse to the steady undercurrent of tempo.
Side B continues with another track (“Maimin”) from Illusion Suite. There is a shift to ethereal near-dissonant interpretation. Texture, in the form of swelling chords seem to act as a chorus to the free jazz verse. It is mercurial and rooted in classical music. “Travelin’ Man” begins with touches of melancholic ambiance. Then, a seamless transition into up tempo joyful expression ensues. The jaunty vibe is accessible and moving. Some of the chord modulations are compelling with swirls of accent. It develops a slower interlude at the finish. Switching to electric piano and African thumb, “Departure No. 1” is a groove fest with palpable atmospheric coolness. In contrast, “Departure No.2” is frenetic bop on acoustic piano. A pounding left hand and free-roaming right hand are scintillating. The precision of the playing is wondrous. “Sweet Song” is a noteworthy finale. It has a ballad-like structure, but Cowell’s energetic instrumentalism is captivating.
Musa: Ancestral Streams is another terrific 180-gram vinyl release from Pure Pleasure Records. The overall stereo mix is excellent with exceptional separation, most notably on the electric piano/African them piano duet. The glossy album packaging is top-notch, with eye-catching design by Carole Byard. Vinyl enthusiasts will appreciate the front-back extended panel.
Side A: Abscretions; Equipose; Prayer For Peace; Emil Danenberg from Illusion Suite
Side B: Maimon from Illusion Suite; Travelin’ Man; Departure No. 1; Departure No. 2; Sweet Song.
For information on this or other releases, please visit the Vinyl distributor Acoustic Sounds