Bud Powell Anthology
2) High Bebop
Most Bud Powell compositions are relatively conventional bebop blowing vehicles. Several of the most brilliant are distinguished by interesting introductions and transitions, like “Bouncing with Bud,” “Celia,” “Dance of the Infidels,” “Tempus Fugit” and “Hallucinations.”
As Larry Grenadier first pointed out to me, E-flat rhythm changes are legion, sometimes with an alternate bridge: “Wail,” “Strictly Confidential,” “So Sorry Please,” “The Fruit,” “The Scene Changes,” “In the Mood For a Classic,” and “John’s Abbey.”
“John’s Abbey” is probably the last great Powell tune. Many of the others from the late Fifties and early Sixties are slightly underwritten, at least in comparison to his output a decade earlier. On several occasions a charismatic A section is undercut by an anonymous bridge, like on “Comin’ Up” and “Down With It.” The most interesting later bridge is probably “In the Mood For a Classic,” with its surprising length of 12 bars. (The great performance of “Classic” is surely Bud singing the head a cappella to Henri Renaud during the interview reproduced on Inner Fires.)
A handful of experimental and eternally provocative Powell one-offs are not bebop.
Two pieces don’t even have improvisation:“Glass Enclosure” and “Dusky ‘n Sandy” (or “Dusk In Sandi”). “Glass Enclosure” is famous for its multi-sectional form and a harmonic ambience reminiscent of Shostakovich or Kabalevsky. The opening theme highlights a G-flat triad over a G natural, and the following swing section has G triad over A-flat and C triad over D-flat. This may be the first time this particular kind of polychord was emphasized in jazz. It’s a sonority future jazz pianists would have a lot more to say about! A circular F-sharp major march is another highlight of “Glass Enclosure.”
The solo piano tone poem “Dusky ‘n Sandy” is an even more unified statement. The most obvious references are Ellington and Strayhorn, but the chord progressions and overall form are unfamiliar. An important element of the performance is its outsized dynamics, for example the big accents on the second articulations in the first two bars. At the end, Powell somehow normalizes a difficult sound, the white notes of the keyboard over a B-flat.
Two other wonderful Powell ballads, “I’ll Keep Loving You” and “Time Waits,” can be played in the jazz tradition. But “Dusky ‘n Sandy” can’t be successfully covered as “jazz.” It is something else.
Comprised of two parts, “Bud On Bach” is more difficult to parse. The prelude is not by the most famous Bach: it is a work familiar to students everywhere, “Solfeggieto” by son C.P.E. Bach. And although you can hear his characteristic sonority, Bud doesn’t play “Solfeggieto” very well.
It’s problematic to try to legitimize jazz via classical music. They are such different traditions. The older I get, the more I think jazz is harder! “Bud on Bach” is a good example. There are probably hundreds of pianists on the globe right now who could run through “Solfeggieto” better than Bud does here. But no pianist could play Powell’s original melody with greater swing and spirituality. (It’s only recently that I’ve noticed how fabulous the jazz half is; Aaron Diehl brought it to my attention.)
The later recording of “Bud on Bach” in Paris is a better pianistically, but lacks Bud’s original tune. It therefore should really just be called “Solfeggieto.” Bassist Murray Wall once played the Paris version for Tommy Flanagan at a party. Wall recounted, “Tommy was really excited by it. We must have played it seven or eight times and Tommy kept asking to repeat it. He said he had never heard anything like it before. His reaction is something I will always remember.”
“Bud on Bach” shows Powell attempting to make a different tradition his own folklore. He accomplished this task even more successfully in “Un Poco Loco” (a version of Afro-Cuban music) and “Dry Soul” (a version of the slow blues).
In an essay about Thomas Pynchon, Harold Bloom placed “Un Poco Loco” on a short list of twentieth-century “American Sublime.” It’s wrong to cite a non-bebop example of Powell as the greatest Powell. Furthermore, Max Roach is a big reason “Un Poco Loco” is so incredible.
There are a couple of live versions of “Un Poco Loco” with Art Taylor, who plays something to make the appropriation work just fine. In the studio, Max himself first tried a fairly conventional beat. However, in take two Max begins unleashing a wild 5+5+6 clave. I don’t think this comes from Afro-Cuban music, I think it comes from the imagination of Max Roach. In take three it’s all there, and the result is hypnotic. Roach would be justified in calling himself co-composer.
The piano part of “Un Poco Loco” is great, too, of course. Powell normalizes the D major scale over C in the bass, a polytonality similar to the end of “Dusky ‘n Sandy.” This sound is still avant-garde. Frankly, I wish Bud had used that sonority in the solo, too, not just in the head.
More harmonic crunchiness is on proud display on Blue Note’s “Dry Soul,” a dark take on the genre of slow funky blues that had gained considerable ground in Fifties jazz.
A previous slow blues on Blue Note, “Some Soul,” is a pretty poor showing for Powell. There’s not the right emotional focus and the form even gets lost. Perhaps he knew how bad it was, for the follow-up is strong. Are the titles a clue? First the producer asked for “some soul,” which after consideration becomes as “dry” as dust.
The feel in the magical first chorus of “Dry Soul” is perfect, but after they get going Philly Joe Jones and Sam Jones are a bit restrained and professional. Mingus never got much space to cut loose with Powell, but I can easily imagine him stepping in and turning up the heat on “Dry Soul,” sort of like how he played Duke’s blues pieces on Money Jungle.
It’s easy to sympathize with Powell’s bassists, for they seldom got much help from the pianist. It’s too much to assume that the very young Sam Jones could have had the confidence to come forward on what was probably already a pretty obscure date.
Percy Heath had a really big challenge on that magnificent Monkish madness, “Mediocre.” I wonder what Powell told him or showed him. (“Just play chromatically,” perhaps?) “Mediocre” remains a tricky blindfold test, because while it dates from 1955 it seems influenced not just by Monk but by post-Jaki Byard modernism.
Among the many precious details are imperfections of rhythm toward the end; these imperfections come from the tape, not the musicians. It’s as if the “mechanical” music is influencing the machine to create a recording that sounds even more like an out-of-whack player piano. At the end, Heath and Kenny Clarke stutter to a stop, confused by the pianist’s abrupt ending (and probably confused the whole time). Powell waits for the dust to clear before letting loose with a loud grunt of satisfaction.
“Mediocre” comes from one of the later Verve dates. The best way to appreciate these non-charismatic tracks is to read the liner notes to the complete Verve box. Peter Pullman had the brilliant idea of listening to the box with wonderful guides Barry Harris and Michael Weiss. However, Harris clearly doesn’t get “Mediocre,” even going so far as to say, “This tears me apart… you wouldn’t learn too much, because there are too many accidents…”
The question is: are you interested in jazz or interested in music? If you are interested only in jazz, “Mediocre” fails. But if you are interested in music, “Mediocre” can teach you a lot.
“Medicore” aside, conventional wisdom holds that the Verve music of ’54-’56 is difficult listening, especially some of the ballads. Conventional wisdom is sadly correct.
But the best Powell ballads are re-conceived so thoroughly that they practically become Powell originals.
My favorites are on the complete Blue Note and Roost box: “Polkadots and Moonbeams” and “My Devotion,” both lugubrious chorales that defy genre. There’s no improvisation or Tatum-esque ornamentation and frequently the harmony is closer to “Glass Enclosure” than normal jazz. The outsized dynamics from “Dusky ‘n Sandy” are present as well. “My Devotion” is not pretty at all, but it surely is beautiful. The final atonal cadence is unbelievable. Thanks to Anna Wayland for pointing this track out to me.
Finally, there’s that anomaly “Sure Thing.” Every official issue by Blue Note has listed Jerome Kern as the composer. But there are no correspondences whatsoever between the sheet music of Kern’s “Sure Thing” and what Bud plays.
There’s a similar discrepancy in the Thelonious Monk canon. For years, a song from Monk’s 1971 Black Lion recording was described as an old standard, “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland.” But that’s wrong. According to Robin D.G. Kelley’s definitive biography:
“Dreamland” has been mislabeled and misrepresented many times… After ten years of searching, querying, and digging, I have come to the same conclusion that Jacques Ponzio and François Postif have come to: it is a Monk original. Perhaps it is a sketch of a song never quite finished.
Paul Motian credits Monk as composer of “Dreamland” on his recording I Have the Room Above Her.
Future recordings of Powell’s “Sure Thing” should credit him as the composer. It’s a piece that deserves to be studied and played, for it shows us far more about what Powell took from classical counterpoint than “Bud on Bach.” Honestly, I even prefer “Sure Thing” to its nearest cousin “Glass Enclosure.” The familiar version on Blue Note is fine, but the live versions with Mingus and either Roach or Haynes are better.
It’s intriguing that both Monk and Powell have pieces that are incorrectly attributed and generally mysterious. In this uncertain context, the titles “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland” and “Sure Thing” become as surreal as the pianists themselves. Perhaps these pieces are a cosmic reminder that understanding Powell and Monk will always be harder than we think.