The durable piano trio, with bass and drums accompaniment, is one of the most frequently employed and time-tested combos in jazz. The competition is fierce to say anything new or noteworthy, with plenty of attempts that yield mixed results. So it's a great pleasure to hear Stanley Cowell
's It's Time
: a finely crafted collection of mostly originals that is at once sophisticated, both aggressive and pensive, and simply fascinating to listen to.It's Time
uses melody, rhythm, and space to construct music that can be in turns deceptively simple or jarringly complexeven cacophonous in places. Cowell has speed and dexterity, but employs them judiciously in the service of his compositions. On some tracks he falls back to quiet construction, following with a big vamp or explosive crescendos, but even at his most intense Cowell's playing has a certain delicacy to it. Every track has been clearly thought out, but they all still retain a sense of spontaneity, and regardless of whether Cowell is playing hard or soft, inside or outside, the record is exceptionally engaging. There is not one dull second on this date.
The accompanying bass and drums are fully integrated into the compositions, not there to merely keep time. On "El Space-O" drummer Chris Brown
keeps a spare tick-tock rhythm that, while restrained, caries a subtle forward motion. He varies his impacts enough, altering among his drums and cymbals, to make it clear that he's contributing to the music instead of just supporting it. Cowell's melody is essentially a minor blues, although a very urbane interpretation. He uses the framework as a platform for improvisation that morphs from variations on the melodic chord structure into deconstructed sheets of sound, with waves of notes seemingly delivered with all ten fingers rolling the keys simultaneously. The intensity of his delivery is periodically at odds with the stately tempo, but in the end he recapitulates to bring it all home cleanly.
The title track, a Max Roach
composition, opens with a hymn-like chord structure, even as the piece quickly breaks into a gallop. Cowell plays this one hard, densely packing his improvisations with long, tight runs, but regularly falling back into the chord sequence to ensure that he never strays too far. Perhaps most noteworthy: even as he races across the keysand he is racinghis touch is always erudite and even light-handed. There's a remarkable grace and refinement in his playing.
In addition to great music, it's worth noting that the recording of It's Time
is exceptional. Steeplechase albums have always been well recorded, but their digital media has sometimes lost something in translation. In the last few years they appear to have placed a new emphasis on delivering excellent sounding CDs and they're now really doing justice to their musicians.
If It's Time
is an indication of the music kicking around in Cowell's head, he should go record more of it. It's Time
is a first-rate performance that begs for an encore.