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Part 1 of the motherlode
on 25 November 2008
Bud Powell made quite a lot of recordings for a man who may never have entered a recording studio completely clean, sober and in an entirely sound mind, and among the most consistently brilliant recordings he made were the ones he made for Blue Note around the start of his career.
He was undoubtedly one of the great and tragic figures of modern jazz. Born into a musical family, he was a child prodigy who was playing Bach and Mozart at an early age. He started playing jazz in his teens and his speed, power and precision were formidable. He learned much from his great contemporary Thelonious Monk but their styles as players were very different; Monk's style was a unique tool which drew on stride piano and his own utterly individual style as a composer, but Powell, it was often said, could play anything. Powell watched horn players such as Parker, Gillespie and Davis and, it was said, came to the conclusion that the piano was a superior instrument because piano players didn't need to draw a breath. He developed a style of playing very long, intricate and flowing runs with his right hand. When he's on form, as he is on this recording, listening to him is one of the most exhilarating experiences I know.
Powell's early period of youthful confidence was cut short when he received a severe beating at the hands of the police. That happened before he ever made a recording as a leader, so we may never know what he was like before his troubles began in earnest. He later suffered from alcoholism and severe psychological problems and was repeatedly hospitalised. He died in 1966. Almost all his recordings are worth listening to, but on some of the later ones his playing is sluggish and uncertain and sometimes it falls apart completely, making for painful listening.
This album contains some of his finest work. "Un Poco Loco" is one of his best compositions, by turns disorienting and relaxed. The album contains two earlier takes, in which drummer Max Roach can be heard developing the brilliant, nagging cowbell rhythm that plays an essential role in the final master take. The horn section consists of a teenage Sonny Rollins and the late Fats Navarro, and both are on flying form.
The writer Geoff Dyer has observed that some jazz musicians, such as Chet Baker and Art Pepper, seem to draw you in with their sound: their music speaks about their own weakness and fragility. Bud Powell's music is seldom like that. At its best, it was nearly always about his own sense of freedom and vitality. He makes even a ballad like "Over The Rainbow" into a spectacular romp around the harmonies. Later on, he could and did deliver hauntingly bleak performances, such as his chilling, hymn-like version of "It Never Entered My Mind", but at this stage of his career he seems to have been almost unstoppable. His sense of harmony is acute and highly sophisticated, and he makes the bebop cliché of the flattened fifth seem fresh and individual. Even here, his music is not just upbeat but contains shadows and fascinating ambiguities.
Volume 2 of this album completes these early Blue Note sessions. Powell went on to make recordings with Blue Note before switching to the Verve family of labels, a period beautifully documented on the excellently packaged "Complete Bud Powell on Verve", but he never again reached such a pitch of consistent excellence as he did here.
The history of jazz is full of sad life stories and Powell's is one of the saddest, but his music is still beautiful, powerful and life-affirming. He is my favourite jazz musician, and possibly my favourite musician, period. If you are going to start listening to his work, start here.