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Equipoise: A Critical Analysis of Covers

Ben Gray
Contributing Writer
bengray417@gmail.com

Stanley Cowell’s name is unfortunately overshadowed by some monster pianists (say Hancock, Corea, Jarrett), but his playing is well worth seeking out. His work on the keyboard has been sampled for some well-known hip-hop songs (admittedly, this was my introduction to Cowell), but his work in a purely jazz context more than stands up. His contribution to jazz is important for his composition and playing, but also for his founding of the Strata-East label, home to many important albums that otherwise would never have seen commercial release (though few of Cowell’s own records as a leader were released on Strata-East). In my column on "Jitterbug Waltz", I included Stanley Cowell’s mind-blowingly good solo piano version of the tune, and in this column I’ll look at Cowell’s signature composition, "Equipoise".

The first appearance of "Equipoise" that I can find is on Max Roach’s Members, Don’t Git Weary album from 1968 where Max Roach is on drums, Stanley Cowell is on piano, Gary Bartz is on sax, Charles Tolliver is on trumpet, and Jymie Merritt is on bass. This version starts out with Cowell stating the opening of the tune on solo piano at a relatively slow tempo compared with later versions, after which the horns and drums join at about 0:10 to play the tune’s melody over Cowell’s piano chords. Interesting how the melody is broken up between the trumpet and sax in this version (as compared with the piano playing the melody in later piano trio versions led by Cowell, below…). At about 1:05, Tolliver takes a trumpet solo over Roach’s snare-heavy drums, Cowell’s piano chords, and Merritt’s understated bass. Tolliver starts with an understated, smooth solo himself, partly because of the slow tempo here, then builds a beautiful solo with some long notes (the one around 2:20 or so is particularly ear-grabbing). Just before 3:00, Roach builds some momentum with Cowell as they hand this off to Bartz for a sax solo. Despite Roach’s snare triplets, the mood stays pretty mellow here for Bartz’s solo. Roach does give a strong drum accompaniment for the solo, with a big roll just before 4:00… Bartz’s solo continues until about 5:00, then the group returns to the "Equipoise" head, again with the trumpet and sax stating the melody over Cowell’s piano chords. At about 6:00, the horns drop out and Cowell plays through the end of the head with just Roach and Merritt to bring this version of the tune to a close. Interesting to hear this embryonic version of the tune, where Cowell doesn’t take a piano solo and the tempo is noticeably slower than in later incarnations.

A year after "Equipoise" appeared on Max Roach’s album, above, Cowell brought the tune to Jack DeJohnette’s group for the 1969 album The DeJohnette Complex. Along with DeJohnette on melodica and Cowell on keyboards here, Miroslav Vitous and Eddie Gomez join on bass, Roy Haynes plays the drums, and Bennie Maupin plays sax. This version opens with DeJohnette’s melodica playing the melody while Cowell’s Rhodes piano plays the chords underneath and Haynes’ drums provide some subtle support. The group sounds a little tentative here in the opening. Just after 1:00, DeJohnette takes a melodica solo, joined by Maupin’s sax swells as Cowell comps on the Rhodes. At about 2:00, Cowell takes a keyboard solo as Haynes’ cymbals swing a bit more. This sounds good, but still a little tentative as if the group isn’t quite sure where to take this. Cowell brings his solo to a nice finish at about 2:55 and the group returns to the head, again with DeJohnette on melodica over Cowell’s chords. Maupin’s sax doubles up with the melodica on the melody here. Just before 4:00, they take this out. This is a fine version of "Equipoise," but something still hasn’t quite clicked with the tune. The group sounds alright, but the song never really builds its momentum here. The melodica doesn’t quite work (to my ears) for the melody; the melodica and sax playing in unison are kind of a missed opportunity when compared with the back and forth between trumpet and sax in the version from Max Roach’s album above. But hey, these are just my opinions, your mileage may vary.

The first time that "Equipoise" showed up on an album led by Cowell was in 1973 on Musa Ancestral Streams (one of only two Cowell-led albums released on Strata-East). Cowell is not only the leader on this album, he has the stage to himself on this solo piano album. On this version, Cowell seems to have really found the driving force of the tune as this performance really clicks (to my ears, anyway, this is a fuller performance of the song than the two versions above). After playing through the tune’s head, Cowell starts an improvised section at about 1:10 while keeping the tune’s structure intact. It’s beautiful stuff, not overly busy, and Cowell returns to reprise the tune’s head at about 2:10. Cowell’s left and right hands alternate on the melody here, similar to the trumpet and sax from the version on Members, Don’t Git Weary. At about 3:20, Cowell adds a brief coda to the end of the tune, then brings it to a close. (For the beatheads: The Pharcyde used this one.) On this version, "Equipoise" feels like it has found its feet and is a more fully realized tune - a very enjoyable solo piano version of this tune here. Cowell has continued to explore the possibilities of "Equipoise" as a solo piano piece - check out his 1981 appearance on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, for instance (in fact, definitely do check that out, both for an excellent verison of "Equipoise" and a pretty wild version of Monk’s "‘Round Midnight").

Cowell released another session as leader in 1978, and here he not only brought "Equipoise" to the session, but named the album after the song. Cowell was joined on Equipoise by Cecil McBee on bass and Roy Haynes on drums (back from The DeJohnette Complex, above; I’ll also mention here that Haynes did a killing version of "Equipoise" on his own Equipoise album from 1971, the first version that to my ears sounds like the tune it would later become, and again on his 2011 album Roy-Alty - notably, neither of these versions includes Cowell at the keyboard). This version opens with Cowell and McBee starting out the head over some subtle drums from Haynes. The head cycles back on itself around 0:30 or so, and after a second time through the head, Cowell takes a piano solo starting around 1:00. It’s a beautiful solo, and they hit on a nice groove around 1:40, taking the momentum and moving with it - by 2:15, they’re grooving along mightily. They bring things back down, though for a bass solo from McBee that starts around 2:30. Haynes’ subtle drumming is great on this, able to bring the hard groove during Cowell’s solo and also able to lay back and fill in the spaces during McBee’s bass solo almost like hand percussion in places. At 4:10, they return to the tune’s head after a 3-note opener from Cowell’s piano. They play through the head again, with Cowell very high up on the piano, then bring this to a close. In its first appearance with a Cowell-led group, "Equipoise" is a great tune and a fine vehicle for Cowell’s and McBee’s improvisations. Roy Haynes’ drumming is excellent, but not at all overstated; he has found a good place on this tune. The trio has a great conversation amongst themselves here.

Cowell would revisit "Equipoise" many times through his (still active) career. Another winning piano trio version of this tune was on Cowell’s 1990 album Close to you Alone, again with McBee on bass, but here with Ronnie Burrage on drums. (On a fun sidenote, have a listen to Cowell’s "D-Bass-ic Blues" from this album and Ron Carter’s "A Quick Sketch" from Herbie Hancock’s Quartet album for a great compare and contrast session.) This version starts out similarly to the original version of the tune above, but at a slightly slower tempo. It could just be the recording, but Cowell’s piano voicings sound a little fuller here, too (though very similar to the version above). At about 1:05, Cowell takes a piano solo here. Again, some beautiful stuff as Cowell plays some blues-inflected piano, locked in with McBee’s bass over Burrage’s supporting drums. Burrage takes a slightly different approach to Haynes on Equipoise, but fills a similar role, not stepping out front but instead supporting the soloist entirely. The trio is grooving along here nicely, with Burrage’s snares adding some off-beat accents starting at around 3:00 or so. They return to the head of the tune at about 5:00 and play through this once more then bring the tune to a close. Twelve years after its first appearance, Cowell is continuing to explore this tune and find new approaches in his soloing. It’s interesting that McBee doesn’t take a bass solo on this version, sticking to the background here while Cowell takes a longer piano solo in the middle part of this tune.

Ray Drummond’s Continuum album from 1994, with Drummond on bass, Randy Brecker on trumpet, John Scofield on guitar, Kenny Barron on piano, and Marvin Smith on drums, took on "Equipoise." This version starts with Brecker and Scofield playing the tune’s melody in unison over Barron’s piano chords at first, but then the trumpet and guitar split the melody, similar to the version on Members, Don’t Git Weary. At about 1:00, Barron takes a piano solo after the group plays through the head. It’s a fine solo, supported nicely by Drummond and Smith. At 1:55 or so, Drummond’s bass takes the front for a solo. He’s unfortunately low in the mix for an album led by the bass player, but Drummond takes a fine, melodic bass solo as Barron and Smith give him a stop-start rhythm underneath. A Randy Brecker trumpet solo starts at about 3:45. Smith’s drums underneath this trumpet solo are a bit busier (in a good way) than they had been under Barron’s or Drummond’s solos. At about 5:00, Brecker hands this off to Scofield for a guitar solo. Scofield’s guitar tone here is a little thin compared to some of his later stuff, but he takes a nice solo that leads back to the tune’s head at around 5:50. They play through this similarly to the tune’s opening, with Brecker and Scofield alternating phrases on trumpet and guitar, then finish this version of the tune. Nothing about this version is bad, and in fact all of the soloists come up with some fine improvisations, but it never really clicks, never builds the momentum that is there in the Cowell-led piano trio versions above.

Equipoise from Ray Drummond on Myspace.

The 2004 album Peace with Every Step from Build an Ark includes a take on "Equipoise." Build an Ark is Carlos Nino’s project, with Damon Aaron on guitar, Baba Alade and Trevor Ware on bass, Alan Lightner on drums, Nate Morgan on flute and keys, Phil Ranelin on trombone, Lesa Terry on violin, and Derf Reklaw-Raheem, Adam Rudolph, and Andres Renteria on percussion. Their version of "Equipoise" starts at a fairly slow tempo with multiple instruments playing the melody in unison over some spacy Rhodes piano chords and spare cymbals (compare the drums here with Roy Haynes’ from The DeJohnette Complex). Nice percussion reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s "Butterfly" around 1:00 at the end of the tune’s head… a Rhodes solo starts at about 1:10, based closely on the "Equipoise" melody. This solo moves into a brief section led by the violin and flute. At about 2:10, the group moves back into the "Equipoise" head, joined here by some vocals, though it’s not clear who the vocalist is. They continue through a reprise of the "Equipoise" head and then bring this version to a close over layers of percussion. An interesting, spacy take on the tune, very different from Cowell’s original.

A year after the Build an Ark version of this tune, above, Dwight Trible & The Life Force Trio released Love is the Answer, with yet another spacy take on this tune. This version includes some of the same musicians, with Nate Morgan on keys, Carlos Nino on multiple instruments, Andres Renteria on percussion, and Adam Rudolph on drums. In addition to those players, Dwight Trible is on multiple instruments, Dexter Story is on drums, and this tune features Sa-Ra on vocals. This version starts out with some spacy synth sounds before the vocals join. The "Equipoise" chords are played on synths underneath the vocals sung to the "Equipoise" melody. At about 1:15, we’re told that "you are the stars, you are…," and then there’s an instrumental jam with a couple of synths playing the lead over some dance-y drums and the "Equipoise" chord structure, still played on synths in the background. We’ve moved way out from the original versions from Stanley Cowell here… This jam continues and the vocals return to take the tune out. At about 4:10, the song fades and what sounds like it might be an outtake jam from another attempt at "Equipoise" by this group comes in briefly before also fading. This one is a super interesting take on "Equipoise," very different from any of the other versions here. The tune’s melody is almost hidden by the instrumentation and the sounds used here, but they are definitely working, loosely, with Cowell’s original.

Jerry Gonzalez’s group, Jerry Gonzalez Y El Comando de la Clave, does a Latin version of "Equipoise" that was included on their 2010 album Avisale a mi Contrario Que Aqui Estoy Yo. (The group also included "Equipoise" on their self-titled release from 2011.) This version starts out with the bass and some percussion before Gonzalez’s trumpet joins. At about 0:30, Gonzalez starts to play the tune’s melody. This version is fairly spare, with the hand percussion, light piano comping, and the bass holding things together. Following the tune’s head, Gonzalez takes a fine trumpet solo. They stay in a fine place, but don’t really take this too far from where they started. At about 2:20, the trumpet drops out for a bass solo. This starts pretty minimal and never gets overly virtuosic, but adds some ornamentation to the bassline that had been playing before the solo. Following the bass solo, at about 4:10, the group adds some vocal chants. I’m afraid all my poor Spanish can pick up here is cucaracha… At 5:40, Gonzalez’s trumpet returns to play through the "Equipoise" theme again. This version is fine, but the group shows a little too much restraint for my taste. They get into an easy, relaxed groove, but (I felt) they could stand to build something from there. Still, an original take on the Cowell composition.

Equipoise from Jerry Gonzalez|Los Comandos de la Clave on Myspace.

The Willie Jones III Sextet Plays the Max Roach Songbook from 2012 includes this group’s version of "Equipoise". Willie Jones III on drums is joined by Steve Davis on trombone, Stacy Dillard on sax, Dezron Douglas on bass, Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, and Eric Reed on piano. This version starts out with a solo piano introduction from Eric Reed that doesn’t initially sound related to "Equipoise". Reed plays a beautiful solo introduction to the tune, just hinting at the "Equipoise" melody until about 1:25, when he starts to loosely play with the melody. At around 1:40, the tune starts in earnest with an introduction from Reed, who is then joined by the horns who play the melody over the piano, drums, and bass. At about 2:45, a drum roll signals the start of Stacy Dillard’s sax solo. This is a fairly mellow affair, with nice bass from Dezron Douglas underneath this. Dillard gets in some nice interaction with the drums around 3:45 and there’s a nice bit from the rhythm section around 4:40 as the sax solo continues. Dillard ends this solo with some Coltrane-esque flutters, then hands the reins to Steve Davis for a trombone solo starting around 6:00. Reed provides the tune’s foundation on piano underneath the solo and Douglas’ bass continues to give a very strong foundation to the horns, locked in closely with Jones’ drums. At 7:45, Reed takes a piano solo, initially accompanied by the drums and bass, though he is given a lot of room here and the drums and bass drop out by 8:00 or so for some more unaccompanied piano. Reed picks up where he left off in the song’s introduction, getting in some beautiful runs on the keyboard. Good stuff here, a great improvisation based off the "Equipoise" melody but not sticking too closely to the written melody. At about 9:30, Reed brings it back, the drums join in, and then the whole sextet returns to play through the head again at the end of the song. At around 10:40, there is a little coda for piano, bass, and drums, similar to the end of the solo piano version on Musa Ancestral Streams. A very good version of "Equipoise" with some standout piano playing from Eric Reed and great bass support from Dezron Douglas.

Equipoise (Live) from The Willie Jones III Sextet on Myspace.

Stanley Cowell’s "Equipoise" is a tune that took a little while to really find its footing, moving from the earlier versions on albums from Max Roach and Jack DeJohnette to the more fully realized versions on albums led by Stanley Cowell. More recent versions of the tune have generally been pretty restrained, though the versions done by Build an Ark and by Dwight Trible and the Life Force Trio took quite a few liberties with Cowell’s original composition and the version by Jerry Gonzalez took the tune in a whole different direction, showing the versatility of this tune. Cowell’s explorations of this tune over nearly 50 (!) years have continued to find new ways to approach this one. This piece isn’t meant to be an encyclopedic listing of "Equipoise" versions out there; a few more well worth checking for are from Roy Haynes (on Equipoise and Roy-Alty), a soon-to-be-released solo version from Helen Sung (on Anthem For a New Day), and from Stanley Cowell, both in groups led by him and as a part of the Heath Brothers’ band. Keep listening.

Ben Gray is a listener with a lot of ideas about this music around in his head.