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Stanley Cowell: No Illusions (SteepleChase)

Review of album from prolific pianist in quartet setting

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Cover of Stanley Cowell album No Illusions
Cover of Stanley Cowell album No Illusions

If you feel like you lost track of Stanley Cowell, you are not alone. From the late 1960s into the ’80s, he was a significant piano voice who made respected records on a label he co-founded, Strata-East. Then, for over 30 years, he committed to an academic career. His public performances became infrequent. Between 1999 and 2010, he didn’t put out a record under his own name. But Cowell, now 76, has resurfaced. No Illusions is his sixth album in eight years on SteepleChase, and his third with the world-class rhythm section of bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Billy Drummond. The fourth member of the quartet here is Bruce Williams, an alto saxophonist who fits Cowell’s aesthetic of contrast: The razor edge of his tone creatively conflicts with the refinement of his ideas.

Cowell has always been about dynamic contrast and historical breadth. This album juxtaposes postbop (the title track), deep African rhythmic awareness (“Nostalgia for Homelands”), pure prettiness (John Lewis’ “Milano”), funk (“B Minor Folksong”), advanced electronic processing (several tracks) and Art Tatum-style embroidery (all tracks). Cowell’s core pianistic contrast is how he communicates lush lyricism in sharp angles, with a hard, incisive touch. He has the heart of a romantic and the mind of an outcat. His digital technology of choice is the Kyma, a “sound design work station” that can make piano notes fracture like glass or whisper like a distant female chorus. Not many musicians should be trusted with a Kyma. Cowell uses it strategically to open new vistas within the vast landscape of his art. No Illusions could only have come from Stanley Cowell, who was gone for a while but is all the way back.

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