With so many ideas about breadth and possibility chiseled into our consensus understanding of jazz, why does the work of Stanley Cowell still feel so overwhelmingly vast? The 77-year-old jazz composer is one of those virtuoso pianists whose hands have covered a staggering amount of ground, always moving with certainty and curiosity.
Now Cowell is preparing a retrospective concert that will require him to smoosh 60 years of rigorous inquiry into a tidy 120 minutes — but instead of worrying how he’ll stitch the show together, he’s wondering how wide it can stretch. “I think about contrast, variety,” he says, sitting near his piano in his Upper Marlboro living room. “It’s something I learned from the great trombonist J.J. Johnson, who could really program a set so that it had an arc to it.”
The set list Cowell has drawn up for his retrospective gig traces the arc of his musical life, starting with “Departure,” a piece he wrote in the summer of 1958 between high school (in Toledo) and college (at Oberlin). By 1966, he had relocated to New York City to play with Max Roach, and later Charles Tolliver, the trumpeter with whom Cowell founded the crucial jazz label Strata-East in 1971. In recent years, Cowell has pushed even further out into electroacoustic music, manipulating the resonance of his piano with a digital sound processor called Kyma.
If that weren’t enough, when Cowell performs his life story up on the bandstand, he hopes that the improvisers joining him will be able to tell some tales, too. “I’m always trying to challenge them, to send them in different directions that they may not have thought of,” Cowell says, echoing the lessons he taught for more than three decades at Rutgers University. “If you can move them into an area where they’re expressing themselves without any reference to the melody, they have to dig deep.”
So what motivates Cowell to continue his own deep digging when he sits behind his piano each day? Maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe when you’ve ventured this far and wide, music isn’t a pursuit so much as an eventuality. “I have two orchestral pieces I’m writing right now — I don’t know why I’m writing them,” Cowell says, smiling. “One note follows the next.”
Shows: Cowell will perform his retrospective concert on Nov. 30 at 8 and 9:30 p.m. at An die Musik Live, 409 N. Charles St., Baltimore. $10-25. He’ll also be performing his “Asian Art Suite” with the Occasional Symphony on Dec. 6 at 7 p.m. at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Dr., Baltimore. $15-50.