Friday, April 11, 2014

Bud Powell, Birdland 1953, Three CD Set

Of all the jazz pianists of the mid-20th century, it could be argued that Bud Powell was the most influential. He was there as bebop arose, creating a style of playing for himself that entirely fit with what Bird and Diz were doing on their instruments. He pioneered and excelled at using the left hand as comping vehicle, with rhythmically vibrant jabs that opened up the rhythm section to swing in a more exposed, more advanced way, with harmonic spellings that also opened things up for Bud's spectacularly inventive horn-like right hand (or for that matter other soloists in their own segments).

He and Monk were the most important piano trend-setters of their time and of course Monk took Bud in hand early on and helped set him free musically.

When Bud was on the mark he was a dazzling, burning force that was virtually unmatched among those playing the new kind of jazz. Unfortunately he was not always so inspired. Mental illness and other, sometimes social afflictions increasingly got in the way. As his life went on those periods became more and more frequent. Though there are recordings from his later period that have the fire (but not always the razor-sharp technique) of his peak years, they were not typical.

In 1949-1953 he was an all-devouring monster of style and invention. The Blue Note and Verve recordings from that period say it all. But there was more. In 1953 Bud was released from the mental institution that incarcerated him and proceeded to triumph in a 20-week stand at Birdland, the major NY jazz club of the era. Fortunately for us Birdland regularly broadcasted live sets on a prominent local station and so there were a good many Bud Powell Trio sets captured during that time.

They have made the rounds on various, mostly obscure labels at various points. Now there's a really excellent three-CD set containing most of those Powell broadcasts, aurally cleaned up to sound as close to high fidelity as you will get. Birdland 1953 (ESP 4073) has arrived, and we are all the better for it.

What first strikes you when listening to it all back-to-back is that it documents that long stand thoroughly, with the ins-and-outs of repertoire and the shifts in personnel and moods. Russ Musto in his liners gives us an excellent run-down of it all. I will give you a very brief idea here.

It's the trio throughout, with occasional guests of high importance. The trio most certainly lived or died by virtue of Powell's inspirations (and most certainly lived on these sessions) but things were greatly helped along by the drumming of Roy Haynes and Art Taylor, with Sonny Payne appearing on one set in a less impressive way. The bass chair had Oscar Pettiford in the beginning, Franklin Skeets on one set, and then Charles Mingus for a good deal of the music, followed by George Duvivier and Curley Russell. Needless to say Pettiford and Mingus are a particular gas to hear and with the cleaned-up audio you really CAN hear what they are doing.

Bird, Diz and Candido make brief but excellent guest appearances, a highlight of which is Bird quoting Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" trumpet cadenza at some length!

But this is about Bud and he is in great form a great deal of the time. He plays the standards and pop tunes that he favored in those days, sometimes in multiple versions, for example "Embraceable You". Then there are the bop numbers that you might expect, like Bird's "Ornithology". But the most remarkable music to hear live in this setting involve Bud's own compositions, versions of "Budo", "Parisian Thoroughfare", "Un Poco Loco", "Dance of the Infidels", and "Oblivion"!

Listening to these broadcasts carefully again in the vastly improved sound quality of the set gave me all I love about prime Bud, and woke me up to things I haven't paid enough attention to. I was almost surprised to hear some of the block chord things he was doing then, even in up-tempos. They are extraordinary. You must hear it all!

Here is Bud unleashed, aged 28, a fully formed genius. Even if you've had or have some of the old LP releases of these sets you will want these in the improved audio.

It is essential Bud. And that means it is essential jazz. Essential music!

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