Review: Stanley Cowell, in a Rare Performance at the Village Vanguard

By BEN RATLIFF
JUNE 18, 2015

A standard description of a jazz performance begins with a couple of isolated moments or events. Somebody played something, it had meaning or an impact, time stopped, the audience smiled. The pianist Stanley Cowell is leading a band at the Village Vanguard for the first time this week, and describing his early set there on Wednesday in those terms is no problem.

One: Mr. Cowell played a radically slowed-down version of the bebop tune “Anthropology,” transforming a song of condensed velocity from 1945 into a floating ballad with no particular time stamp. Two: He improvised on the club’s acoustic piano through a digital sound-design program called Kyma, which altered the attack, pitch and texture of the piano notes, echoing them or scrambling their meaning and making them sound like gravel or ice or bells. He turned the effect on and off several times by means of a microphone leading to a laptop, and he used it sparingly. Those stretches were weird but confident; he incorporated the sounds into the straightforward swing of his quartet, with the alto saxophonist Bruce Williams, the bassist Jay Anderson and the drummer Billy Drummond.

So, Mr. Cowell can create impressive momentary events, but what’s best about him is his broad frame of reference and the general synthesis he is proposing.

 

He played a number of other songs, too, including his own “Equipoise” and a samba-swing version of Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House.” But I recall a version of “Anthropology” and some use of digital sound processing from a set he played 18 years ago at Sweet Basil, which was the last time Mr. Cowell, now 74, led a band for a week at a jazz club in New York. Those experiments didn’t sound trendy for that time in jazz, nor do they now for this one. They have longer range.

Mr. Cowell emerged in the late 1960s, playing with Max Roach, Charles Tolliver and others, when jazz was starting to be widely understood as a long historical continuity, a music both of reinvention and repertory. On his own he created a lot of original, independent-minded work, comfortable with jazz tradition and common practice but not beholden to it. In the 1990s he began recording less, and performing much less. For 33 years he was a tenured professor at Rutgers and other universities; for about 10 of those years, during the aughts, he didn’t make records at all.

But recently he has stepped back from teaching, which seems to be freeing him up for other things again. He has made a few albums over the past five years and has a striking new one, “Juneteenth” (Vision Fugitive), a solo-piano reduction of music that was originally written for concert band, choir and electronics and is associated with African-American freedom movements. And his Vanguard performance seemed like an index of what we’ve been missing. He played postbop originals and blues language and jarring electro-acoustic music; he articulated Art Tatum-like flourishes and runs as a matter of course, no matter the context; and he ended his set with a song played on African thumb-piano.

Mr. Cowell is a bit unclassifiable, and jazz has a lot of use for his curiosity and challenge and friction, as well as his virtuosity. If this is the start of a new phase — if he begins performing more and integrating himself into the wider public world of jazz and improvised music — it could be interesting.