Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Stanley Cowell - "New World" (1981)

Hello everyone, I'm back after four months, and hope you'll all still come and visit here.

Stanley Cowell's "New World" - recorded in 1978, and released three years later - represents something of a transitional album for the pianist who co-founded the Strata-East record label with Charles Tolliver.

Cowell's instrumentation had always been about finding the right combination of instruments to create the right textures for particular compositions, whether his own or others. From the moment he burst out in 1969 with "Blues For The Viet Cong" (aka "Travelling Man") and then "Brilliant Circles" , he would embroider a piano trio base with a range of instruments - brass, winds, voices, vibes, strings - to find the instrumental palette to realise each musical vision; the roles of each instrument freely changing between lead and support; the tonalities veering between modal and the avant-garde as suited.

"Brilliant Circles", in particular, reflects the range of influences the pre-solo career Cowell had picked up as a sideman on various albums by Marion Brown, Max Roach and Bobby Hutcherson.

Cowell himself would move between (mainly) acoustic piano, rhodes and sometimes the african kalimba (or "thumb piano"). Some tracks featuring his kalimba have been heavily sampled over the years, notably several of his recordings of his track "Travelling Man" as well as "Smilin' Billy Suite" from the Heath Brothers' "Marchin' On" (1976)

Throughout the 1970s, Cowell would move back and forth between more intimate, piano-led sessions like the beautiful "Illusion Suite" (1972); the solo piano album "Musa Ancestral Streams" (1973) and the electric-acoustic solo album "Waiting for the Moment" (1977); and at other times would venture once again into larger instrumental electric/acoustic groupings on albums like "Regeneration" (1975) and the commercial RnB/jazz album "Talkin About Love" (1977).

In November 1978, Cowell indulged both sides of his musical personality by recording two albums. In the last few days of that month he recorded "Equipoise", a great trio album with Cecil McBee and Roy Haynes; but earlier in the month he recorded a larger group work, "New World" which I'm presenting today.

"Come Sunday" opens with solo piano, before church bells herald the entrance of a full vocal section ( Judy Lacey, Linda Mandolph, Robert Mandolph). Kenneth Nash's percussion enhances the trio of Cowell, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Roy Haynes; with Nate Rubin and Terry Adam's strings enhancing the melodic lines of Cowell's piano.

The gospel-flavoured "Ask Him" features Cowell on both rhodes and piano, with the vocal chorus alternating words and chord backing, and Headhunters Eddie Henderson and Julian Priester contributing brass.

From gospel we move to calypso in the album's dud track, "Island of Haitoo", which not even Cowell's kalimba can save from a fate of bad-travelogue-library resort music. It really needs a video of a cartoon sun going up and down on a blue cellophane ocean .... hmmm move on ...

Up next is a new version of "Trying to Find a Way", first recorded by Cowell on "Regeneration" - he's commonly revisited the same songs across various albums, placing them in new configurations and styles. It's a fairly exuberant version, with the trio backed by full vocal chorus and strings, and features a bass solo by McBee. I do miss Cowell's synth and the vocals by Charles Fowkles and Glenda Barnes from the original, but it's still a good version - almost Steve Reich-ish in the vocal arrangements.

"El Space O" is the standout track, with Priester's growling trombone locking in with McBee's bass to create a platform for Cowell's extraordinary rhodes and prepared piano work, with a subtle wah-wah allowing the keyboards to wind in and out of answering melodies provided by Priester and Henderson. The brass build up in modal chords behind a honking sax solo by Pat Patrick, before embarking on Mwandishi-like wails that lead back to the main melody. A great piece.

The album finishes with the solo piano track "Sienna : Welcome to this New World", and reminds me that I can happily listen to Cowell play the piano anywhere, any time and in any context. "New World" was the last time that Cowell would work with such a broad ensemble of musicians - after this most of his work would focus on the piano.

Hope you enjoy this album, bring on the comments so I know it's worth getting this blogging thing going again :)

--> 01. 'Come Sunday' - 8:39 (Duke Ellington)
02. 'Ask Him' - 4:46 (Cowell-McBee)
03. 'Island Of Haitoo' - 4:14 (Cowell-Scott)
04. 'I'm Trying To Find A Way' - 7:27 (Cowell-McLaughlin)
05. 'El Space-O' - 8:20 (Cowell-McBee-Haynes)
06. 'Sienna: Welcome To This New World' - 2:43 (Stanley Cowell)

--> Piano, electric piano, prepared pianos, kalimba, hammond organ, orchestra chimes, occasional backing vocals - Stanley Cowell
Bass - Cecil McBee Drums - Roy Haynes Percussion - Kenneth Nash Alto, Tenor and Bass Trombones - Julian Priester Trumpet, Electric Trumpet, Flugelhorn - Eddie Henderson Piccolo, Flute, Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone - Pat Patrick Cello - Terry Adams Violin - Nate Rubin Vocals - Judy Lacey , Linda Mandolph , Robert Mandolph

Recorded at Fantasy Studios, Berkeley, November 1978
Arranged and Conducted by Stanley Cowell
- Ed Michel Engineer - Baker Bigsby
Assistant - Wally Buck
Mastering - George Horn
Art Direction and Design - Phil Carroll
Photography - Phil Bray

Other albums linked to in this post are at Orgy In Rhythm, Musica en Enspiral, Strata-East Fan Club, El Goog Ja, Pharoah's Dance, Nothing Is V2.0, The Changing Same, My Jazz World, Muzikholic.
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