Stanley Cowell piano
Stanley Clarke bass
Jimmy Hopps drums
Recorded November 29, 1972, Sound Ideas Studio, New York
Engineer: George Klabin
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Human beings are adventurous eaters. We are constantly trying new things, loving some and hating others. We change our diets drastically, watching our calories and tallying every morsel we ingest. But sometimes, in the throes and woes of a food culture gone horribly awry, we just want to sit down to a good plate of comfort food, for nothing seems able to replicate the psychological benefits it provides. Stanley Cowell’s Illusion Suite is like that: a heaping portion of comfort food.
Backed by steady support from Stanley Clarke on bass and Jimmy Hopps on drums, Cowell delivers the goods and then some. The timid opening strains of “Maimoun” betray none of the album’s subsequent drive. A confident beat and bowed bass ease us into Cowell’s denser style, made all the more elegiac for its frequent use of octaval doublings in the right hand. (Incidentally, an alternate version of this track worth checking out can be found on Marion Brown’s 1975 Vista.) Cowell kicks off “Ibn Mukhtarr Mustapha” with a sporadic run across the piano before making a deft switch to his electric. Before long, this arid groove quiets into a percussion-heavy outro, bristling with African thumb piano. “Cal Massey” brings us into bop territory, with a great drum kick and deliciously twangy bass line to boot. Smooth is the name of the game is “Miss Viki.” Its fluid bass and wah-pedaled electric piano show off a cool sense of style and finesse. “Emil Danenberg,” named for a former director of the Music Conservatory at Oberlin College in Cowell’s home state of Ohio, is the album’s only ballad to speak of. Its raw, complex chords run straight into the darkest alleys of our internal cities. “Astral Spiritual” is a bit more straightforward, and features some quick turns and fancy musicianship all around. Spectacular drumming and astute pianism abound, ending unexpectedly on a downtempo turn, like an abandoned swing coming to rest. Nostalgic, thought-provoking, and tender, this is fantastic music from a gifted composer and performer that is now easily available thanks to an ECM digital reissue.