The Blue Notes of a Black Modernist
“He was the foundation out of which stemmed the whole edifice of modern jazz piano. Every jazz pianist since Bud either came through him or is deliberately attempting to get away from playing like him”.
“He was the most comprehensive composition talent of any jazz player I have ever heard presented on the jazz scene…. His insight and his talent were unmatched in hard-core, true jazz”.
With musicians of that caliber paying tribute, you don’t need me to tell you that this is something pretty special. Inevitably, I am going to anyway. Bud Powell is the most important pianist of the bebop era and these sessions are his best work. It is as blunt and straightforward as that. Though Thelonious Monk’s is the more recognisable sound and though Al Haig and Tadd Dameron have their supporters, Powell is the one who reigns supreme. What Parker is for the sax, Powell is for the piano. Suffice to say then that these two volumes are an essential part of any serious collection. Now once more available, and in an improved format, the three sessions that make up these two discs are not only seminal but are possibly the most consistently and lastingly enjoyable of anything to come out of the whole early modernist movement.
Each session is different not only in lineup but in dominant mood. The first volume comprises a quintet date (from August 8, 1949) and a trio set (May 1, 1951). Volume two is entirely devoted to a separate trio lineup from August 1953. The four years that separate these recordings were crucial but extremely difficult years for the pianist and some of the contrasts between the recordings have their root in Powell’s troubled life outside the studio.
The bebop era took a large toll on its performers. Most famously there was heroin, which swept through the jazz community robbing the world of among others, Fats Navarro, the trumpeter on the quintet date, who died only months after these recordings. Powell’s demons came in the formidable, tri-headed monster of alcohol, mental illness and, crucially, racism. The young pianist had already been marked out as “sensitive” and “highly strung” by the time of his first famous gig, with Cootie Williams and Eddie Vinson. Williams, not known as a sentimentalist, recognising a certain unworldliness took it on himself to protect the youngster in an almost fatherly way. Not so the Philadelphia police, whose brutal beatings in a 1945 incident left Powell with serious headaches for years afterwards and undoubtedly hastened the first of many breakdowns. By the time of these Bluenote sessions, Powell, still only 24, had undergone long stays in hospital and the excessive use of electric shock treatment, then in vogue. A black man in the hands of state psychiatric “care” in the 1940s was more guinea-pig/prisoner than patient. Powell’s experiences were probably no worse than those of many whose stories are yet to be told. His own story is grim enough.
Yet those wishing to read tragedy into every note will search in vain on the quintet pieces. Exuberance is the order of the day. The presence of Navarro partly explains this; surely no more incandescent trumpet tones than his have ever been heard. A young Sonny Rollins, striving to emulate his hero Parker but already showing that warm tone that would make him one of the giants of jazz’s next phase, also helps. Mainly though, it is the resolute emphasis on uptempo material and the way Powell revels in even the most athletic time-signature that characterises the date. To play fast was part of the boppers code of honour—rarely can they have done it with such sheer verve.
“Wail”, “Fifty Second Street Theme”, “Dance of the Infidels” and “Bouncing with Bud” are all taken at speed. It is classic bebop—virtuoso, ensemble risk-taking—in the Parker and Gillespie league without a doubt. The overall effect is breathtaking and redolent of our sense of that place and time. It is the sound of a new generation flexing its wings and truly flying. In any other context it would be pre-eminent. However, wonderful as the music is, the quintet is actually the least distinctive of the three dates.
It may be my own lack of patience with standard all-out bop—which I do find a bit irksome and repetitive after a while, but I think it is just that I prefer Powell pure, as it were. Hence I find “Ornithology” and “You Go to My Head” the best of the earlier pieces. These two feature the piano by itself and are as flawless as they are inventive. Good as Navarro and Rollins are, when Powell is playing all you want to hear is Powell.
So for me, the trio format is his forte. With excellent accompaniment (Curley Russell and Max Roach then George Duvivier and Art Taylor) he can run free and his musical palette becomes, compositionally and emotionally, much richer. Trio one is edgier but more dynamic and Trio two the more contemplative. Both are unsurpassed in their intensity and as explorations of jazz piano. When Evans talks of “hardcore” and “pure” jazz, these are the numbers he is citing. From the first session “Un Poco Loco” is the best known and, for many, the finest Powell original. It is an intoxicating mixture of Latin rhythms and tightrope-walking genius. From the same set, “Parisian Thoroughfare” is worth noting, as it demonstrates Powell’s ability to create impressionistic numbers and to step outside the bop formula. His take on the standard “It Could Happen to You” shows a debt to Art Tatum (no bad thing) while his highly individual slant on “Over the Rainbow” is eloquent and moving. The maturity and depth of all of these sides renders them age-resistant.
The second trio date came after more disruptions and a long period of voluntary semi-house arrest. He still made regular trips to gigs, usually in the benign custody of Birdland manager Oscar Goodstein. Powell was also now on prescribed doses of Largactyl. This undoubtedly led him to lose some of his sharpness and technical panache. But only those with the most romantically naive notions about the horror that is mental illness can see this solely as the crushing of talent. Powell avoided further hospitalisation and lived a restricted but longer life than almost certainly would have been the case without medication.
In the later years there were some inadequate, almost stumbling, recordings. The third Bluenote session is incontrovertibly not one of those. In fact, it is my favourite of all Powell’s work—from the early rhythm and bluesy romps to the final almost doom-laden French recordings. (The pianist, like so many other African-American artists famously found solace and appreciation in Paris—away from the racial indignities of post-war America.) Despite the reduced dexterity and powers of attack, the choice of material is excellent and the melancholy, world-weary air that he adopts has a power that may not blast you aside but unsettles and then captivates.
He is still the master of the keyboards, but now uses them to probe and delve into more personal spaces. “Autumn in New York” is stately and deeply expressive, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” almost heartbreaking. There is a new sense of the fragility of beauty in the world. “Glas Enclosure” is one of the great portrayals of loneliness and isolation. Newly-added alternate takes show the variety of moods Powell could now evoke. The same tune is given its “sunny” version and its “dark” one. The full implication of every note and chord is put under the improvisational microscope.
A fondness for Baroque arrangements and a generally more classical feel to the performance is very noticeable. “Sure Thing” is the most obvious example, with its Bach-like arrangement, but much of the interpretation seems to be moving from the night club towards the concert hall. Powell could still swing with the best though and the bluesy “Collared Greens” reminds you where this music really originates. Here, mention must be made of Duvivier and Taylor who are able to follow sympathetically down whichever path the pianist chooses to wander.
There is more substance to these sets than any review can hope to encapsulate. That each generation of jazz pianists still marvels at and learns from Bud Powell is proof that these are so much more than historically interesting museum pieces. Whether you are drawn to the fire and fury of the earlier numbers or the somber grandeur of the later work, nobody who has ever been excited or moved by jazz can ignore such a major statement as the combined sessions make. Powell paid a huge price for his unique talents. His place at the highest of tables is forever guaranteed.