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Pianist, composer and bandleader Stanley Cowell has passed away at 79-year-old in Dover, Delaware. Excessive blood loss from health issues brought about a fatal hypovolemic shock.
A modal and modern writer, his compositions and his playing looked to the future but drew on the music’s traditions. Cowell gave the jazz repertory a standard, “Equipoise,” but he wrote many more songs and suites. He was also an important jazz activist: with trumpeter Charles Tolliver, Cowell started one of the most important artist-owned record labels to come out of the self-determination ferment of the late 1960s.
A Toledo native, Cowell was a piano prodigy with a family friend in Art Tatum. Cowell studied at Oberlin College Conservatory and the University of Michigan. He played in the bands of Roland Kirk, Marion Brown and Max Roach, during the members Don’t Get Weary (1967-‘70) period, and then with Harold Land & Bobby Hutcherson (’68-‘71). “Equipoise” was written for the Members album. In ‘99, Cowell said: “It was a song that was incubated in my head, and I was highly influenced by bassist Jymie Merritt’s compositions. I had a call-and-response, and it was a round in some parts.”
Cowell’s playing was characterized by intricate moving parts with contrary motion, a knowledge of jazz classicism and a streak of lyricism. His piano added a measure of musical elegance to the ensembles he played in. Others around him may have retreated, at times, into total-abandonment-as-self-expression, but Cowell was never far from firm musical ground. His crescendos came from a solid place, and his expressive flare was never gratuitous.
[caption id="attachment_36594" align="alignleft" width="1000"] Stanley Cowell (Photo: Courtesy uDiscover Music/Getty)[/caption]
Cowell and Tolliver met in the Roach band. Together, they founded the Strata East label in ’71 which, by ’75, had a dozen releases—by Jimmy Heath, Clifford Jordan, and the six-man Piano Choir, among others. The general slant of the music may have been to modal and free forms--augmented by indigenous instruments--but Cowell lent a more polished compositional component to the effort.
He was also part of a short-lived supergroup nominally led by drummer Billy Hart, which came to be called Great Friends. “Equipoise” was in the band’s book, and saxophonist Billy Hart spoke of it in ’99: “As far as I’m concerned, this is a standard, and not just because Max Roach played it before we did. When you analyze the line, and have some understanding of the harmony, you recognize that this is a brilliant composition. And even if you don’t--the feeling is still there.”