ANNIVERSARIES: Bud Powell Born 90 Years Ago


No jazz pianist in the last 45 years has been uninfluenced by Bud Powell, because his work in the early days of bebop with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie established the prototype for the style's pianists, at least in a group setting: quicksilver, horn-like figures from the right hand, jabbing harmonies from the left that add off-kilter accents to the rhythm. (When playing solo, and sometimes on ballads in trio, Powell deployed a fuller, more lush style derived from Art Tatum, with some of his friend and mentor Thelonious Monk's style mixed in.) He left surprisingly few official documents of his collaboration with Parker and Gillespie, with most coming after the style's foundation because of two recording bans. By then he had already become a leader in his own right and had begun recording a legacy of not just great pianism but also his unique compositional style.

But even though several generations of bebop pianists owed nearly their entire sound to Powell, he doesn't sound like a typical bebop pianist, so advanced was the level of his inspiration. At his peak, his swift, seemingly potentially infinite right-hand lines were unmatched for virtuosity, yet it's possible that most of his recordings did not even feature him at his full potential, because in 1945, the year after he made his recording debut in the band of trumpeter Cootie Williams, Powell was severely beaten on the head by a Philadelphia policeman and had mental problems thereafter, going in and out of institutions and undergoing the crude therapy known as insulin shock treatment. By the time he died in 1966 at the age of 41, he was an alcoholic and (prescription) drug-addled wreck often incapable of performing coherently. The whole tragic story is well chronicled in Peter Pullman's recent biography Wail: The Life of Bud Powell. But the best of the work Bud left behind ensured his immortality.

The two major jazz labels that recorded him the most observed the 70th anniversary of his birth in 1994 by issuing box sets containing all the recordings done for them and associated/acquired companies. The Blue Note box, The Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings, has sessions from 1947 (his first as leader), '49, '51, '53, and '57-58, plus one '63 track, all trio sessions (with occasional solo piano tracks) except for a '49 quintet (four songs plus four alternate takes) with trumpeter Fats Navarro and tenor sax legend Sonny Rollins and a '57 session where trombonist Curtis Fuller sat in on three songs -- altogether, 60 songs totaling 75 tracks. The Complete Bud Powell on Verve set contains all 73 master takes, 16 alternate takes, and 26 unfinished versions Powell recorded for the Mercury, Norgran, Clef, and Verve labels, spanning the years 1949-51 (disc 1) and '54-56 (discs 2-5), all trios except one solo piano session in '51.

Verve wins hands down on packaging, with a beautiful hard-cover book-style binding that holds the five CDs in slipcases and a 150-page booklet containing complete track documentation; a good synopsis of Powell's life; interviews with pianists who knew him or were influenced by him, musicians who worked with him, and a major critic; personal essays by his daughter Celia and others; a monumental track-by-track discussion by pianists Barry Harris and Michael Weiss; beautiful and abundant black-and-white photos; and snippets of related literature. The Blue Note package, if not so elegant (the four separate jewel boxes and thick cardboard box make it clunky), has a 40-page booklet with discographical info, an insightful biographical and analytical essay, and an interview with Blue Note founder and producer Alfred Lion.

Of course, it's the music that's most important. Trio was his best format, because the other players kept him from getting so fancy that he'd drop his rhythm to jam more and more frills into his right-hand lines (witness "Over the Rainbow," Blue Note disc one), in what seems like a rococo attempt to outplay his biggest early influence, the great Art Tatum. Solo or in a trio, he always had a tendency to schmaltz up slow-tempo standards, sounding like an overripe cocktail pianist. Blue Note seems to have encouraged him the most to play more of his own compositions, which have long been underrated.

There's a tendency for critics, citing his increasing mental problems and inconsistency, to dismiss most of the post-'51 material on the Verve set as too erratic, and the later Blue Note sessions as less inspired than his early brilliance. To some extent, this is exaggerated, a reaction to the fact (largely unnoted) that Powell seems to have reached a point where the showy display of his technical facility interested him less than some private quest for new harmonies, different rhythms, and greater intricacy. Also, the eccentric style of Thelonious Monk was a huge influence on Powell's ideas, if not so much on his technique, and for years critics insisted that Monk was an inferior pianist.

In any case, there's no denying that some of Powell's later work is marked by outright sloppiness. The labels collected on the Verve set over-recorded him in '54-56 (the entirety of discs 2-5) -- of the times in the '50s when he was not institutionalized, was actually functional, and was living in the U.S., late '54/early '55 was his most erratic period. Nonetheless, the ideas he was working out are fascinating even though they were not polished. And there was not a steady downhill slide. The '56 session that closes the Verve box finds him near peak form, and the '58 Blue Note tracks (entirely his own tunes) are generally good, with the jagged dissonances of his ballad "Time Waits" (which sounds like a tribute to Monk) especially haunting. Any really great player will be interesting even when he's not at top form, because it's his musical conception that makes him great more than his chops. There's a lot of music in these boxes; on the Verve set especially, perhaps some of it is more suited for scholarly study than for pleasurable listening.

There is some crucial Powell material not included here that can be found on several less monumental collections. Conflict of interest (I work for ESP-Disk', the label which compiled it) prevents me from rhapsodizing too profusely over Birdland 1953, but this three-CD set collects his appearances at that fabled club the year its owner got him sprung from a mental institution, rented him an apartment and a series of minders, and regularly booked his trio with generally excellent bassists (Mingus, Oscar Pettiford, Curley Russell, George Duvivier) and drummers (Roy Haynes, Art Taylor). Parker and Gillespie sit in, albeit on separate occasions. More impartial judges than me have vouched for the quality of this material.

But Powell's greatest concert recording, also from '53, is Jazz at Massey Hall, vol. 2 (Debut). While label owner Charles Mingus included a studio track cut later in New York on the original 10-inch LP (and more New York tracks, both live and studio, were added on subsequent editions), the core of the album comes from the famous Toronto concert that was the last time Parker, Gillespie, and Powell all played together. Too often overlooked is that the rhythm section also played a set, and it is glorious. It would seem that Powell's competitive spirit (something Pullman often remarks on in such settings) brought forth his very best playing that night. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.