It’s hard to figure out why pianist Stanley Cowell never became a real jazz star. There was — and is — nothing he can’t do, no deficiencies in his playing. He’s got technique, courage, imagination and responsiveness. He knows the music’s history thoroughly, and is capable of persuasively emulating any of his illustrious precursors’ styles. But his working mode has always been to push forward toward where jazz is heading.
At the time that Brilliant Circles was recorded in 1969, the pianist was keeping company with other young and restless players, and the album reflects this spirit of collective risk-taking. Trumpeter Woody Shaw, tenor saxophonist/flutist/clarinetist Tyrone Washington, vibes player Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Joe Chambers all play very hard, often prompting one another into combustible outbursts. The group takes tunes at impossible tempos, abandons the conventional ensemble signposts used by less surefooted players of the day, and effortlessly combines intellect with passion. Most importantly, for all their youthful aggression, everyone in this group plays beautifully.
The album starts with the third take of the title track. After a statement of a pensive theme, Tyrone Washington tears into the opening solo in double time. Workman and Chambers go with him some of the time, but keep the slower meter as often as not, creating a jangling tension. Cowell’s own solo is dizzying in its ambidextrousness; he effortlessly juggles separate lines with complete aplomb. There’s another take of the same tune that bookends the album, and it’s instructive that, although the general shape of the tune remains the same, each soloist varies his approach enough to warrant keeping both versions of the piece on the album.
The rest of the material is equally strong. “Earthly Heavens” is an expansive modal composition featuring another ambitious piano solo, buffeted by composed horn interjections. The often recorded Woody Shaw piece “Boo Ann’s Grind” brings the band closer to hard bop tradition (a number of the players came up with either Horace Silver or Art Blakey). They welcome this stuff like it’s a lost relative, with the composer taking a fiery, bluesy solo, Washington playing with characteristic urgency, and Hutcherson with elegant ease. Woody Shaw is no longer with us and Tyrone Washington has seemingly dropped off the music map, but everyone else on Brilliant Circles is still playing magnificently today. They’re all special musicians. This early offering of their work makes that point emphatically.