In fact, it’s almost impossible to fully appreciate any post-World War II jazz pianist without first studying Powell’s recordings.
Thelonious Monk would be the exception, but even with Monk, there are connections to Powell. If you’re new to Powell, the best entry point is The Complete Bud Powell on Verve, a five-CD set that covers Powell in a trio studio setting from 1949 to 1956 on the Clef, Norgran and Verve labels.
If you’re already familiar with Powell, a live set you may not be aware of or have overlooked is Bud Powell: Birdland, 1953, a three-CD set on the ESP-Disk label. The live club recordings have enormous energy and zest, with Powell’s speed on display along with his lush chord voicings on ballads.
Born in New York in 1924, Powell was classically trained from an early age but managed to find time to explore stride and boogie-woogie styles by listening to pianists such as James P. Johnson and Willie “the Lion” Smith. Close friends with Monk, Powell began to create a singular improvisational style in the mid-1940s that Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Monk were developing at the same time. From February to September 1953, Powell appeared at Birdland in different trio configurations. Fortunately for us, the club had its own radio broadcasting booth wired into WJZ, where the recordings were originally aired late at night.
As noted by Powell biographer Peter Pullman (Wail: The Life of Bud Powell), 1953 was the busiest year of the pianist’s career. Earlier that year, Powell had been released from a New York mental hospital after 16 months of treatment for depression, a period that included electroshock therapy. When Powell was released, he was declared by New York State to be “incompetent” and placed in the care of Oscar Goodstein, his manager and one of Birdland’s nine partner-owners. To keep Powell occupied, Goodstein booked him into Birdland for 20 weeks. Able to play all night long, Powell was overjoyed as he regained the technique he lost during his long hospital stay.
Powell’s playing on this live set is absolutely thrilling. You can hear his exuberance and delight in every track. His hands are magical, moving expressively but with regimented control. His trills, block chords, spirited runs, percussive style and romantic and delicate touches are perfectly mixed to delight and hypnotize the audience. Despite his extraordinary comeback, Powell had to be hospitalized again intermittently throughout the 1950s. Eventually, he moved to Paris in 1959, and in 1963 he came down with tuberculosis. In 1964 and ’65, Powell’s health deteriorated and he died in July 1966.
Despite the limitations of his mental health and his relatively short life (he died at age 41), Powell managed to re-invent the jazz piano in the 1940s and was admired by virtually all modern players, both for his technique and his understanding of how to turn a song into a beautiful sculptured work. The Birdland set is remarkable for several reason: We not only are able to hear how Powell sounded live during a peak period but we also can hear just how far ahead of his time Powell was. The 1953 material could have been recorded last week. One is left wondering what it must have been like to sit down in 1953 and spend an evening listening to Bud Powell play piano. One can only dream.
How High the Moon...