Stanley Cowell: Prayer for Peace

Pianist Stanley Cowell hasn’t made an album in over a decade, but his teaching activities at Rutgers University have kept his skills as a soloist and bandleader sharp. When he takes off on Benny Carter’s chestnut “When Lights Are Low,” his phrasing, chordal voicings and use of space are impeccable. Bassist Mike Richmond (also a strong soloist here) and drummer Victor Lewis drive him at every step, proving that a hard-swinging trio never goes out of fashion.

Cowell’s 20-year-old daughter Sunny sits in with dad’s band for most of this session, alternately playing viola and singing. The younger Cowell inherited some of her father’s intuitive sense on her instrument. She adds exotic textures to the “Asian Art Suite,” which Stanley composed after seeing an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. On the suite’s “Blues for Rama,” Sunny’s playing is promising if a bit too tentative. (The suite and “Chirality” best showcase Stanley Cowell’s depth as a composer.)

Sunny’s vocal tracks don’t fare as well. No doubt she possesses a strong set of pipes and bends with ease on the tricky “Today, What a Beautiful Day.” But the liner notes call her voice “light as a marshmallow,” which is part of the problem. A voice needs a little more depth to pull off lyrics like, “You’re so blind/You’re so cold/You’re so jive,” in an otherwise powerful song about anti-apartheid leaders (“Stealing Gold”). She fares better on her original “Time Can Only Tell,” which betrays her youth in its wistful lyrics.