Burning Down the House
Bud Powell Anthology
2) High Bebop
Leonard Feather, introducing “52 St. Theme” at a Royal Roost Jam session in 1948:
For our next musician, he’s a young fellow who’s been almost a legendary figure in Bop circles ever since he was twenty years old. He was the first pianist to play real Bop on records, in 1944 with Cootie Williams’ band, and he’s the favorite Bop pianist of every other Bop pianist. Maybe you remember him from some of the great sessions up at Minton’s years ago, or maybe he’s new to you. But anyway, let’s lose no time in introducing the Bop king of the keyboard, Earl “Bud” Powell!
In his intense improvised line, Bud’s imagination occasionally out-distances his mechanism. These momentary imperfections are part of a deliberately unpolished aesthetic, a “raw” sensibility that he shared with his friend and teacher, Thelonious Monk.
It’s an approach stemming from blues and stride and consecrated beating out-of-tune uprights into submission at noisy jam sessions. For Monk and Powell, rhythm transcends pitches. They both sound great on a good piano, but there are times when they sound even better on an upright. Still, Monk is comparatively note-perfect in comparison to Bud, who probably played the most “fluffs” anyone equally great.
My transcriptions mostly record the fluffs, but at times I give in and notate what I think he meant to play. Just to be clear: I don’t mind the fluffs! In fact I like them, they help communicate the urgent spirituality of his message.
The very first Powell solos with Cootie Williams include tiny fragments on “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Blue Garden Blues,” and “Floogie Boo.” (A standard, a blues, and rhythm changes: forms that will be Powell's bread and butter his whole life.) The pianist is 20 years old.
When you compare these bursts with other pianists trying to play bop in 1944, it is easy to understand why his peers loved him immediately.
Even more fascinating are two extremely rare live blues tracks with Williams, a virtuoso solo on “Royal Garden Blues” and the down-home accompaniment on “West End Blues.” It would be very hard to guess either of these as Powell in a blindfold test! The bassist on "West End" is unknown.
Powell's beat on the slow blues is terrific. The fancy pants one with orchestra is like a chorus of Art Tatum (or maybe Earl Hines) and a chorus of Milt Buckner.
The first tiny solo that is really great Powell is from May 1945 with the Frank Socolow Quintet.
Hard on the heels of the first two Monkish notes, Bud's bop language is now in full flower. The way he places the line inside the beat is deeply swinging.
Ira Gitler has a great word, “continuity.” In professional bebop players, the phrases go next to each other in a way you don’t expect, yet also they also make sense. Compared to earlier jazz, bop is comparatively “discontinuous.” Think about the distance jazz piano traveled from the clear, riffing, predictable patterns of boogie and stride to Powell on "September in the Rain."
In 1946 Powell begins to be heard much more on records, on half a dozen early bop sessions with Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Jay Jay Johnson, Fats Navarro, and Kenny Clarke. For Freddie Redd and Barry Harris, the double salvo (Powell gets to go twice) on “Webb City” was it.
I appreciate “Webb City,” but “Fool’s Fancy” (AKA "Wail") and “Blues in Bebop” from different Stitt dates resonate with me more. But agitation and soul are present on all of Powell's 1946 sessions.
In early 1947 Powell made his first trio date for Roost with Max Roach and Curly Russell (although it didn't come out until a little later). I have always wished I liked this session a little better than I do.
When Henri Renaud asked Powell who his favorite pianist was in a French interview, Bud said, “Al Haig. He’s my idea of a perfect pianist.”
Al Haig! Jesus Christ. Talk about some non-threatening competition.
Of course, Haig is great, I love some of what he played behind Bird. I also admire Haig’s most famous trio date with Bill Crow and Lee Abrams, an album of top-drawer cocktail music: great voicings, singing melody, everything in its right place, no deep emotions in sight.
Perhaps this is the side that Powell appreciated about Haig. On the Roost trio with Russell and Roach, Bud tries for some of that cocktail-style ballad stuff himself. The problem is that he doesn’t do it as well as Al Haig. He overpedals and the melody isn’t always clear. The harmony is the saving grace, for Bud’s harmonic imagination is always interesting. But tracks like “I Should Care” and “Everything Happens to Me” are almost unlistenable, and even “I’ll Remember April” and “Somebody Loves Me” verge on corny.
Of course, when Bud plays faster and tougher, my criticisms dissipate to nothingness. (On that Haig album with Crow and Abrams, he tries out Powell’s favorite changes and tempo on “All God’s Children Got Rhythm.” In that arena, Powell demolishes Haig.)
I’m sure Wynton Kelly learned the solo on “Bud’s Bubble.”
This date also has the first recording of “Off Minor,” which predates Monk’s own in October. I’ve never liked the way Bud played the melody: it seems wrong compared to Monk’s versions. And in the bridge it seems like Bud doesn’t even play a melody, just chords. Nice solo, though. Ben Street pointed out to me that beginning of the solo bridge it “seems like it is going backwards and forwards at the same time,” a typical Streetism that means something feels especially good.
More authentically Thelonious than “Off Minor” is “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” which Monk also recorded in October. I’m pretty sure the G-flat ending is from Monk’s imagination and he gave it to Bud. Both pianists played this song throughout their careers. It’s where they sound most like each other, and probably why hardly any other pianists play it -- it’s too hard not to sound like Monk or Bud.
The only other 1947 recording is with Bird, discussed in the next post.
Only at the end of 1948 do we get to hear Powell again, in a few tracks at a Royal Roost jam session with Benny Harris, J.J. Johnson, Buddy DeFranco, Lee Konitz, Budd Johnson, Cecil Payne, Chuck Wayne, Nelson Boyd, and Max Roach.
Powell is easily the greatest soloist present, and he also plays a stunning introduction to each piece. The “Powell intro” is one of the hardest things to do in jazz piano. I’ve heard Barry Harris do them consistently well, but not too many others have it at the ready. Herbie Hancock does a truly great one before rhythm changes with Eric Dolphy at the Gaslight Inn, but by the time of the movie Round Midnight he’s a little flustered in front of "Una Noche Con Francis." It's probably something you need to do every day if you want to keep it in your back pocket.
Lee Konitz gets two fascinating solos on “Jumping with Symphony Sid” and “Ornithology” but Bud seems determined to derail him. (Bud’s even worse behind the other white horn player on the gig, Buddy De Franco.)
The Leonard Feather intro at the top of this post leads into Powell's feature on “52 Street Theme,” the first longer Powell solo on record. The crowd is cacophonous: Is Feather whooping up the audience, saying “Go Bud, go!?” To my ears Bud responds to the atmosphere with a few party tricks, not just pure continuity. I easily forgive him, for the overall velocity and articulation will stop any pianist in their tracks. I only took down the first two choruses, for it is very hard to hear.
In early 1949 Bud recorded trio for Verve with Ray Brown and Max Roach. “Tempus Fugit” (or “Tempus Fugue-It”), “Celia,” and “Cherokee” are the best studio trio tracks of Powell. This troika was my own gateway into Powell via college co-conspirator Eddy Hobizal. They are transcribed accurately by Richard Tuttobene in two nice volumes, Bud Powell Classics and The Bud Powell Collection.
“Tempus” is menacing and “Celia” is relaxed. It’s hard to understand why Powell never recorded them again, for they are two of his greatest compositions. I wonder if “Tempus” was Powell’s answer to the minor key Gillespie tune, “Bebop.” (Compare the similar intros.)
“Cherokee” takes on “Koko” in a battle to see who can snake the most dis-continuous continuity out of 64 bars, Bud or Bird. I’ve learned an amazing secret about how Bird and Bud played “Cherokee:” neither used an A-flat dominant in the A sections. They only play E-flat minor sixth or minor-major seventh. This keeps the 16 bars in B-flat. All of us who have played A-flat seven for years haven’t realized we are implying moving to D-flat. It’s not wrong to do this, but having learned the Bud/Bird way, it’s hard to go back to the more “modern” version.
Another interesting point is how Bud almost always makes C dominant (near the end of the A sections) an altered or tense quality. Again, this seems to keep it closer to the home key: A bland C ninth doesn’t need to resolve so urgently. Bud’s harmonic chiaroscuro is faultless.
The improvisations in the troika are at the highest level of jazz piano performance. All conclude with a short phrase that releases the tension, a casually devastating judo chop.
There are some other great trio tracks for Verve in 1949 and 1950 plus a handful of 1951 solos. This body of work sits comfortably on the single disc, Jazz Giant. If you have never owned a Bud Powell CD, this is the one to get.
Two of Powell’s most distinctive and magical attributes are the vocal quality of his improvised line and the complexity of his rhythm. He can fluff his piano line, but his singing is never fluffed. The line is always vocal. He plays what he hears (at least in the line). I read somewhere that horn players complain they can’t play like Powell: “Where would I breathe?” Actually, Powell always breathes. He’s singing, so he must breathe. It’s the lesser children of Powell that create breathless cascades of sound that have more in common with player piano music than jazz.
Powell’s singing right-hand line is usually centered just behind the beat, whereas the left hand is ahead of the beat.
My transcriptions unfortunately omit his left, a non-improvised litany of folkloric thumps, perhaps a combination of clave and stride. And it pushes! But the right doesn’t submit to the left, the line stays lurking in the most swinging part of the beat. The solo tracks are a good place to marvel at the friction. “The Fruit” actually slows down a tiny bit even though the left is hurtling along.
Zakir Hussain once told me that when he heard Elvin Jones, he imagined an older locomotive starting up. The different-sized cylinders and pistons begin by fighting each other but eventually resolve their contrasting sizes and power forward. Bud is exactly the same way. The minute differences in rhythm between the hands creates a heavily swinging vortex.
That vortex operates the same way solo or trio, which is why the personnel of Bud’s trios are less important to him than other pianists. There are a few exceptions because of unique repertoire or the determination of an accompanist: George Duvivier worked hard at always playing with Bud’s left hand in a way most bassists didn’t. Roy Haynes played the most excitingly interactive drums with Bud live. On Jazz Giant, Max plays some of his special language on the fast pieces. But I still don’t really know instantly by ear whether it is Ray Brown, Curly Russell, or Tommy Potter on an early Bud trio. They just don’t have the room to speak.
In the liner notes to the Verve box, Michael Weiss makes the startling observation that Bud’s left hand got a little higher later. I checked this out and he’s absolutely correct. Bud always played more low roots than most modern pianists, but he did eventually lighten up compared to what he plays on Jazz Giant. But I’ve never heard a Powell performance where he sounds influenced by his bassist. That was strictly a one-way street.
In August 1948 “Bud Powell’s Modernists” recorded four tunes for Blue Note. “Modernist” is right: this is tough, demanding music, nearly unfit for civilians. I tried listening to this session over and over in high school, trying to get it. Only now do I know how to appreciate it.
Bud plays best on “Dance of the Infidels” (found in one of the Tuttobene books). “52 Street Theme” is nowhere near as good as the live one from the Roost, and I think the piano solos on “Bebop in Pastel” and “Fool’s Fancy” from earlier Stitt sessions are better then on the freshly-titled “Bouncing with Bud” and “Wail” here. Perhaps the star soloist on the date is Sonny Rollins, already a master at 19. Thanks to Joshua Redman for telling me to go back and listen carefully to Rollins with the Modernists.
Fats Navarro plays great too, as does Roy Haynes. It’s just too bad this is the only example of Powell leading a band with horns. I’m still convinced this session is more like a blueprint than a realization. What might have happened to jazz history if Powell had kept writing quintet music?
With the exception of three standards with Curtis Fuller and a handful of solos, the rest of Bud Powell on Blue Note are trios. There’s plenty of astonishing music, including many original compositions which may yet be discovered and have their day. Overall, the complete Blue Note box is more essential than the Verve Box, which gets bogged down in Bud’s most depressing records of standards from ’54-’56. Again, though, the stuff on Verve’s Jazz Giant will always remain my favorite studio Powell.
But Bud wasn’t at his best in the studio. Not long after the Modernists recorded, Powell took part in a jam session at Carnegie Hall on Christmas Eve, 1949, along with Miles Davis, Bennie Green, Sonny Stitt, Serge Chaloff, Curly Russell, and Max Roach. Like at the Royal Roost a year earlier, the pianist streamrollers over the hapless horn soloists, especially on “Move.” The horns either flap around or play in half-time, unable to navigate the fast tempo, after which Bud shows them how bebop is really played.
Bud is featured on a horn-less “All God’s Children Got Rhythm.” As with “52 Street Theme” at the Roost, it is astonishing -- but also has a few non-continuity, crowd-wowing effects that I find a little distracting. Which is why I didn’t transcribe it. However, almost no one has heard it, so here ya go:
Nice out-of-tune piano at Carnegie Hall! Must only be jazz musicians on stage tonight, huh? No reason to tune the piano for them, especially since some of them are black.
In addition to live recordings with Bird discussed in the next post, there are three full CD’s of live Bud Powell trio from 1953. There is no comparison with the Blue Note or Roost studio sessions of 1953 or even of 1951: The live Bud trio is much better, a treasure trove of perfect piano playing.
After Jazz Giant, I nominate The Inner Fires of Bud Powell as the most essential Powell CD. For once, the bandmates really matter. You can’t hear Mingus all that well, but nonetheless something mysterious and provocative is coming from the bass space. Roy Haynes offers up the loudest and busiest drumming documented in a piano trio from that era. It’s a rare case of the piano improvisations being nearly subservient to the band identity on a Powell recording. The vibe is very intense and swinging throughout, mostly at a tempos just fast enough to make the articulation of swing a virtuoso proposition. We are so lucky that Bill Potts recorded it on a Sunday afternoon at Club Kavakos in Washington, D.C.!
All the piano solos are great, but I’m especially struck by “Woody ‘N You.” Powell’s solutions to navigating the chains of half-diminished II/Vs are fresher than anybody’s.
In the 40’s it seemed like “52 Street Theme” was Bud’s choice as ultimate barnburner on rhythm changes. In the 50’s that was replaced by “Salt Peanuts.” I wonder if the key was a factor, since most of the live ’53 Bud is in F. The Club Kavakos has Bud’s longest recorded statement about “Salt Peanuts”: In Potts’s words, Bud “wails the hell out of” nine choruses.
It’s very fast, but up at Birdland with Mingus and Haynes, they played it even faster.
Unlike the live “52 St Theme” and “All God’s Children” discussed above, there are no party tricks here. It is pure continuity. The final two “judo chop” chords complete the statement. In terms of spiritual commitment to blowing on uptempo rhythm changes, no pianist since Bud has seriously touched him.
The rest of ’53 Birdland Bud has been bootleg in various forms for half a century. Some day I want to collect all the rare first Boris Rose issues on LP. (Rose is responsible not just these Birdland dates but also the Bird-Bud-Navarro discussed in the next post.) For now, I’m happy with my two-CD set on Fresh Sound.
A lot of tunes are repeated, usually with different rhythm sections. When comparing the five “Dance of the Infidels” solos one can really see what Bud was up to. At times his beat has not just the expected power but also a lighter movement that makes me think of an older player like Teddy Wilson, or perhaps Billy Kyle.
There's a little "call" that opens every solo the same way. Later on in Europe, versions of "Anthropology" or "Shaw 'Nuff" also always begin with special "calls."
However, the amount of improvising that follows each call is rather surprising. I honestly expected to be able to cut and paste a bit, but no, I worked for every bar of all five solos! Powell's fludity is seemingly limitless despite the confines of an authentic, folkloric language.
Among so many great solos trio at Birdland, Stanley Crouch frequently advocates for the long continuity of “Lover Come Back To Me,” in part because Jimmy Heath told him that this track gives a sense of what it was like to hear Bud live. The tune, by the way, is not “Lover Come Back to Me.” It uses that progression but the bop melody is “Bean and the Boys” by Coleman Hawkins (also occasionally mis-attributed to Powell as “Burt Covers Bud”). The mp3 excerpt begins at the improvised bridge so you can hear the melody of the last A. (So the transcription begins about 30 seconds in.)
That’s about it for prime bebop Powell on record without Bird before he moved to Europe.
There’s only one more date that should be included on this page, the quartets with Sonny Stitt from late ’49 and early ’50. Powell fanciers have long considered this to be some of his best studio work. I remember David Baker telling me in high school, “Don’t listen to the trios until you deal with the quartets with Stitt.”
As great as this is, I love the blues solo even more. It's so funky, it's almost not bebop.
Stitt is fun to listen to on these recordings, but there’s no doubt that the pianist shines brighter. It’s too bad we don’t have a Charlie Parker/Bud Powell quartet studio recording that is just as exposed as these dates with Stitt. I wonder why there isn’t one...