Pianist Stanley Cowell gets prominent billing in the Heath brothers group. That's because the 35-year-old pianist has been consistently impressing listeners with his formidable musicianship and technical skills.
He's doing just that this week at Blues Alley, where the Heath brothers are appearing through Saturday.
Cowell is familiar with many different approaches to jazz piano - stride, swing era, modern, avant-garde - and he has the technical resources and musicality to blend them into a style of his own. In a long solo in "Old Folks" the other night, he performed the kind of dazzling arpeggios that Art Tatum used to toss off.
In a brisker tempo, Cowell demonstrated his fluency at manuevering intricate cross rhythms in Jimmy Heath's "Project S," playing simultaneously descending chordal patterns with his left hand and a descending single-note melody with his right hand.
The other members of the group along with saxophonist Jimmy Heath, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Ben Riley> alternated between equally engaging lighthearted and sober performances in standards drawn from the popular and jazz literatures.
Besides his activity in the Heath brothers group, Cowell is president of Strata-East Records, founder of the Piano Choir and a director of the New York Jazz Repertory Company.
Cowell has found that his musical projects cannot be financed by small companies, however, and he has encountered negative reaction from large and medium-sized record firms.
But Cowell is not discouraged. He says today he's earning more money than ever.
Still, for an artist of his training (B.A. in music from Oberlin, M.A. in piano from the University of Michigan) and ability he has not had adequate recognition.
"Some of my students have made more money from music than I have, he said. "I probably could've become a solo pianist, but I wouldn't have been satisfied doing just that."
Cowell says he wants to communicate with large groups of listeners. "Everything I do I would be most concerned with the artistic," he declares. "But I don't want it noticed that it's art. Duke Ellington is the figure I look to. In his music the craft is there and at the same time it was semi-popular."