Rob Parsons

Music Scene

Scott Cossu

Famed pianist returns to Maui to tickle the ivories

by Rob Parsons

April 23, 2009

Scott Cossu
photo: Andrea Hautala.

Olympia, Washington pianist extraordinaire Scott Cossu first played Maui in the early ’80s when he was one of a promising stable of young musicians on the Windham Hill label. That California cadre featured a talented bunch of artists—pianists George Winston, Liz Story and Barabara Higbie, guitarists Will Ackerman, Alex de Grassi and Michael Hedges, fusion group Shadowfax and many others—that defied musical categorization, and collectively defined a new genre of fabulously listenable music.

Classically trained, Cossu became enraptured with ethnic music from across the globe, traveling to Ecuador in 1977 for research on his master’s thesis. He developed a style and repertoire that is evocative and original, overlaying Latin, Hispanic, Andean and Mediterranean rhythms with his own compositions, spiced with innovative chord progressions, often blended with flute, cello, guitar and percussion.

His first concert on Maui was back at the old Maui Lu, in its heyday when Jesse Nakaooka’s luau show still played there. For a time, Stouffer’s Wailea Beach hotel brought in top-name talent for outdoor concerts on the lawn, overlooking the ocean. Touring after his 1989 release of Switchback, which rose to near the top of the Billboard music charts, Cossu played a sunset concert in that paradisiacal venue, with whales breaching as a backdrop and the full moon rising from behind the stage, illuminating the evening with a magical, silvery tranquility.

Soon after, his life took a dramatic turn, and nearly ended. 

Crossing Wilshire Boulevard in Beverley Hills, Cossu was struck by a Mercedes-Benz and spent the next month in a coma with multiple injuries. Cossu endured an extensive rehabilitation, including four surgeries. He had to relearn every song he’d ever written. 

In time, he made a triumphant recovery. His infectious smile and jubilant spirit are visible reminders of his renewed lease on life.

“You are a very cool person,” Cossu told me, as we sat on the deck outside Casanova’s restaurant in the early 1990s, “because I remember you from before my accident.” I had just delivered an acoustic grand piano for his upcoming performance at the Makawao eatery and nightclub, in my former incarnation as the owner of Grand Wazoo Piano Moving.

“That’s wild,” Maui pianist Fulton Tashombe told me some months later. “Scott stayed at my house for like three or four nights one time when he played here, and he doesn’t remember me at all!”

With its soaring acoustics and deeply resonant Baldwin Grand piano, the Makawao Union Church will be a perfect place to showcase Cossu’s musicianship when he returns to the Valley Isle this week. Also known for its remarkable stained glass windows, the 92-year-old Baldwin Avenue church harkens to Cossu’s 1992 comeback album, Stained Glass Memories. The title commemorates a specific milestone in Cossu’s recovery, when his vivid recollection of church windows brought back his memory of stopping at a neighborhood church each day after high school to practice the piano.

Cossu has had a longstanding affinity for Islands, the name of his classic 1984 release, and for Hawaii. His 1992 CD, She Describes Infinity, contains the tune “Napali Anthem,” and When Spirits Fly (1998) includes “Kalani Honua.” Tides Between Us, his new recording, features Puget Sound orcas at sunset on the cover, and is filled with warm, melodious explorations, both serenely contemplative and rambunctiously bluesy. 

Longtime collaborator Van Manakas adds his unique guitar riffs, extending and invigorating the compositions. Cellist Jami Sieber, who mesmerized an audience at The Studio Maui in Haiku in 2007, provides another layer to the audio amalgamation, which also features flutist Ann Lindquist.

Cossu acknowledges the ever moving, changing, soothing qualities of water, which ultimately connects us all. Part of the proceeds of his new recording are being donated to the conservation group, People for Puget Sound. Likewise, Cossu asked that his Maui performance benefit a local organization, the Sierra Club Maui Group.