Ancestral Traveling

Stanley Cowell
Musa: Ancestral Streams
Strata East : 1974

SC, piano, electric piano, kalimba (African thumb piano).

We’re not sure why it’s taken us so long to devote a post to the wonderful pianist and composer Stanley Cowell. Like many fans and critics, we’re probably guilty of overlooking and underrating his work from the late ’60s and early ’70s. He recorded a handful of potent Spiritual jazz albums whose compositional acumen, adventurous spirit, and confident re-imagining of traditional forms still sounds fresh today.

Cowell may be best known today as co-founder of the esteemed Strata-East label. And while he’s described as a “mainstream pianist” by the All Music Guide for his sideman stints with folks like Art Pepper, The Heath Brothers, and Sonny Rollins, Cowell worked on more daring projects during the 1960s with Marion Brown, Max Roach, Bobby Hutcherson, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It’s those connections that influenced his early work as a leader through the vital albums he recorded for Arista-Freedom, ECM, and his own label.

Musa: Ancestral Streams is a solo piano effort with both an intimate feel and sprawling sonic palette. The beguiling “Travelin’ Man” is a concise duet between electric piano and African thumb piano. The rolling groove isn’t that dissimilar to that ubiquitous ’70s touchstone, Bob James’ theme to Taxi, but the percolating rhythmic kalimba provide an otherworldly texture that keeps the tune from being too easily digested. Its understated-but-ambitious construction rewards multiple spins.

“Departure #1″ is more dynamic, a romp along the keyboard, full of swirling passages that are underpinned by a pulse that’s sometimes more intuited than felt. It’s dazzling and slightly dizzying, a joyous evocation of the breathless excitement of leaving on a new journey. Cowell confidently splinters traditional melodic figures into startling new shapes while creating a whole that still feels rooted in the past. All in all, he delivers nothing less than pure pleasure.

What are some of your favorite Stanley Cowell tracks?

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