The pianist Mel Powell had a prodigious talent, and his credentials were impeccable. During his teens he worked with Bobby Hackett, Georg Brunis, Zutty Singleton, Muggsy Spanier and Wingy Manone, before joining Benny Goodman. He toured with Glenn Miller's AAF Band, and rejoined Goodman in 1945. He'd led his first studio date in 1942, but his interest turned increasingly to classical music, which he studied at Yale under Paul Hindemith. Nevertheless, between 1953 and 1955 he recorded several excellent Vanguard albums, under John Hammond's hands-off direction.
This compilation assembles four and a half Vanguard albums, plus four tracks from a Septet album, and an EP, of which the last-named is the earliest. "Classics in Jazz" dates from December 1947, and the studio group comprised Bumps Myers on sax, Jake Porter on trumpet, Lee Young on drums and Red Callender on bass. The Septet album dates from December 1953, and features Edmond Hall on clarinet, Buck Clayton on trumpet, Henderson Chambers on trombone, Steve Jordan on guitar, Walter Page on bass, and Jimmy Crawford on drums. Avid has included the four jazz numbers from the A Side, and omitted the B Side of the solo Sonatina for Piano.
"Borderline" was recorded on 17th August 1954, with Paul Quinichette on tenor sax and Bobby Donaldson on drums, and "Thigamagig" followed exactly a week later, with the tenor sax replaced by Ruby Braff on trumpet. "The Mel Powell Bandstand" dates from December 1954, and features a group which comprised John Glasel on trumpet, Chuck Russo on reeds, Jimmy Buffington on French horn, Boomie Richman on tenor sax, Mundell Lowe on guitar, Joe Kay on bass, and Eddie Phyffe on drums. Joan Wile (subsequent founder of Grandmothers Against the War) sings "My Last Millionaire" and "Soon", on what was her recording debut. The opening number "Ezz-May" was dedicated to John Hammond's wife Esme.
Finally, "Out on a Limb" was recorded in October 1955, and features two studio groups, in which Bobby Donaldson on drums is the common factor. The first six tracks feature Al Mattaliano on trumpet, Peanuts Hucko on clarinet, Nick Caiazza on tenor sax, Tommy Kay on guitar and Arnold Fishkin. A smaller group plays the second half, with Ruby Braff on trumpet, Oscar Pettiford on bass and Skeeter Best on guitar.
These recordings showcase Powell's superb sense of swing, with the earliest reflecting his Dixieland background, and the later ones charting the growing influence of bop, transmuted by his classical sensibilities. His choice of musicians was astute, and the whole compilation sparkles with variety. Given the scarcity of this material, to have so much made available all at once is a treat that should not be missed.