Bud Powell Anthology
2) High Bebop
Bebop uses an ornamented, accented eighth-note line to thread chord changes. The more discontinuous the line the better, although that line must retain folkloric authenticity.
The performances of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell have the maximum amount of folklore and the greatest level of discontinuity. After you really learn what Bud and Bird played, almost all other bebop players seem a little obvious or easy. They are an elect of two that I call High Bebop.
The previous generation of black jazz musicians played the popular music of the day. Despite the greater contributions of black musicians to the idiom, that generation's collaborations with whites were seldom on black terms. Bebop staked out a different kind of intellectual and racial territory.
High Bebop lived in the penthouses of intellectual and physical achievement while still keeping one foot in the ghetto. This tension is sublime, and it may be why Bird and Bud didn't care if you understood their excellence or not. They provided the excellence, it was up to you to find your way. The integrity of High Bebop is unimpeachable.
This unimpeachable integrity can be interpreted as anger, although Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Clarke reject this while talking to Al Fraser in To Be or Not to Bop. According to them, bebop was "love music," not "fighting music."
Who am I to correct Dizzy and Klook? But surely "love music" is not the whole story.
Fans of Sviatoslav Richter recognize the truth in Allen Wheelis's famous analysis (from 1975's How People Change, quoted in David Dubal's The Art of the Piano):
Sviatoslav Richter strides out on the stage. His face is grim; there is anger in the set of his jaw, but not at the audience. This is a passion altogether his own, a force with which he protects what he is about to do. If it had words, it would say, "What I attempt is important and I go about it with utmost seriousness. I intend to create beauty and meaning, and everything everywhere threatens this endeavor: The coughs, the late-comers, the chatting women in the third row, and always those dangers within, distraction, confusion, loss of memory, weakness of hand, all are enemies of my endeavor. I call up this passion to oppose them, to protect my purpose." Now he begins to play, and the anger I see in his bearing I hear in the voice of Beethoven. It knows nothing of meanness or spite; it is the passion of the doer who will not let his work be swept aside. It hurts no one, it asserts life, it is the force that generates form.
I think Wheelis could also be describing Charlie Parker or Bud Powell. The difference is that Richter was supported by his government and given the red carpet treatment anywhere he went.
The only studio recording with both members of High Bebop also features Miles Davis, Tommy Potter and Max Roach. While it produced four famous tunes including “Cheryl” and “Donna Lee,” Bird doesn’t let Bud have much room. Bud is often more impressive other horn-led sessions from the ‘40s. Peter Pullman's discussion of this recording (available at his website) is fascinating.
Everything else is live. The most familiar is an all-star quintet at Massey Hall with Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and Roach. While of course very good, it doesn’t deserve its rep as “the greatest jazz concert ever.” In particular, the common issue released on Charles Mingus’s Debut label is ruined by the overdubbed bass out of sync with the drums.
These days you can get versions without overdubbed bass. But even cleaned up, this set isn’t what it should be. For me, Gillespie sounds the most inspired compared to his normal level. Everyone else is a little ho-hum. Steve Coleman said, “...The musicians were distracted—they were running across the street between solos to check out the ongoing heavyweight championship fight in Chicago between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott.”
Powell does something unprecedented when comping on “All the Things You Are.” Both Jim McNeely and Paul Motian told me about his long march of quarter notes, which is unusual and surprisingly swinging but not really to my taste. However, one passage goes to the outer limits of harmonic possibility, and I suspect this is the moment that caught McNeely’s and Motian’s ear. Bud then awkwardly gets lost.
One of the interesting things about Massey Hall is that it is (I believe) the first occasion Powell recorded on a well-tuned concert grand in a resonant hall. He doesn’t let that bother him, and gets his gritty sonority going despite this highfalutin state of affairs. One foot in the ghetto, always.
The best collaborative work of High Bebop was captured in dicey, lo-fi conditions. Pride of place goes to what seems to be a complete One Night at Birdland with Fats Navarro, Curly Russell, and Art Blakey. Many musicians and commentators believe this is one of the greatest moments ever to be taped in the history of the music. The fidelity is atrocious and the date of recording perpetually in dispute, so it’s as if this night just managed to slip through the maw, a barely legible document of an ancient race of gods.
We are forever indebted to Boris Rose for his bootleg services at Birdland. I believe One Night, Summit Meeting below, and all the Powell '53 trios come from his archive. (In other words, much of the best Powell.) Read Will Friedwald's article about Rose and his daughter, Elaine.
On One Night Bird sounds disgusted with Bud. He plays atonal phrases over Bud on “The Street Beat” and “‘Round Midnight.” The pièce de résistance is the cutting off of Bud’s sensational intro on “Ornithology.” Bud is just too powerful and interesting, so Bird brings in the tune in the wrong place.
Admittedly, not everyone hears it this way. Steve Coleman wrote:
The first thing we hear is Bud's meandering intro, very loose as always, which starts harmonically as far away from his D pedal as possible, sliding from Ab major to A minor to Gmaj into Bird's opening statement of the melody. Despite the impression of rubato, Bud is actually playing in time in the intro to the song. It sounds to me like Bud was already playing when the recording was started, as the first sounds we hear are measure 3, beat 3 of an 8-measure intro. At any rate, what we hear from Bud is 51/2 measures (22 beats) before Yard enters.
I disagree with this analysis: I think the tape starts with Bud playing on one in A-Flat. My opinion is backed up by the way Blakey has to crash in (i.e., Blakey is taken off guard when Bird starts the melody).
Bud then evens the score by messing up the form behind Bird’s solo. The changes of “How High the Moon” remain difficult even for professionals because it is hard to remember whether you are in the first or second halves and should play major or minor on bar 10. Pretty soon Bud is seemingly in the wrong place. I don’t know for sure, it’s very hard to hear, near the end I think he's even laying out in those bars. Bird plays some rather imprecise phrases, listening for what’s coming from the piano. This is all speculative, of course! Bud screwed up the form many times on many records, and Bird never did. Still, I suspect Bud is intentionally is jerking Bird’s chain in payback for Bird’s callous behavior at the start of the tune.
None of this matters. This is the definitive performance of “Ornithology.”
Even though we may disagree about what happens at the beginning of "Ornithology," I am indebted to Steve Coleman's thrilling article about Bird, which supplied crucial inspiration for these Powell posts.
On "Out of Nowhere," Bud thinks he is next after Navarro but Bird loftily assures him that this isn’t the case. Bird’s opening phrases are extraordinary! As great as Bird always is, I wish that he had explored this kind of transparent abstraction more often.
All the members of the quintet turn in some of their greatest performances in these dozen tracks, even Curly Russell. Art Blakey is simply ferocious. At times Blakey almost seems too loud, but that may just be where the single microphone is placed. Speaking of the microphone, Wynton Marsalis has suggested that Fats Navarro isn't close enough to the mic on this date. You can hear Navarro, but nowhere near as clearly as Bird. Many regard Navarro as the greatest bebop trumpeter. I promise to get to him someday, but for now my remarks on him are unfortunately scant. Tragically, this may be his last recording before he passed away a few days later at age 26. (Again, the date of this gig is perpetually in dispute.)
For Bud, two other solos stand out amongst a collection of stellar performances: The piano chorus on “‘Round Midnight” is the best this song has ever been played except by the composer. And then there is “Move.” What can one say in the face of such heat, accuracy, and spiritual certainty? (Check out Russell behind Bud, pounding away high on his axe.)
Bird and Bud play the changes, of course. But it's how they don't play the changes that makes them High Bebop. Despite the tempo, their singing melodies honor rhythm, direction, and context ahead of harmony.
Harmony is easy. Anyone can learn to play the right notes of the chords at the right time. But High Bebop teaches us about a higher, subtler space. Charles McPherson told me in a lesson, "The harmony is there, so why play it?"
I'll always call this session One Night at Birdland because for a long time that was the way to get it, an official Columbia issue with nice notes by Dan Morgenstern. And that is a great title: it was just one of many nights in the music's heyday. Think of how many nights there were that were at this level (or even greater) that weren't taped.
These days you can't get that Columbia issue and frankly I don't recommend it, for the speed is slightly wrong. The issue on the bootleg label RLR is speed-corrected.
RLR also does a nice job packaging High Bebop's quintet with Gillespie, Potter and Roy Haynes a year later, which used to be on Columbia as Summit Meeting at Birdland. In terms of Gillespie meeting High Bebop, Summit Meeting is much better than Massey Hall.
Bird’s diabolical solo on “Anthropology” is in the Omnibook. Bud's is just as good. (Roy Haynes! Roy Haynes! Roy Haynes!)
I love the diatonic fanfare at the end.
Bud gets a bit more space on the blues:
You'll note that the transcriber gives up at some point. This was one of the last solos I took down, and it has some of the fastest and most imprecise material. (Honestly, all these transcriptions are just the best I can do at the moment. I'm already seeing things I think could be better everywhere.)
Back to "Blue 'N Boogie": It’s incredibly hard to be this funky this fast. Bud is like a country blues guitarist sped up to inhuman velocity. Bird may be cutting off Bud here, but perhaps there was a cue from the radio to finish.
However, Bird definitely cuts off Bud on “A Night in Tunisia.” The playing field of High Bebop was rough! It’s a shame there are only four tracks, especially as one would think they played more that night. This version “‘Round Midnight” is inconsequential compared to what High Bebop achieved together the previous year.
All die-hards know the quartet performance of “Dance of the Infidels” from sometime in 1953. It's the only recording of Bird playing a Bud composition. Sometimes too much is made of Bird’s quotes, but surely “The Song is You” is referring to the pianist and the tune they are playing together. While Bird's rhythmic feel and sonic projection are just as magnificent as always, I find Bud a little fresher than Bird on this one. When transcribing, the alto solo almost wrote itself, but the pianist gave me some trouble.
Max is playing a lot of loud, dark, mysterious stuff. Note how these live bootlegs give a much better impression of how Max, Roy, and Blakey were playing in the early '50s than most of their studio records.
A terrific CD for fans of this era is Allan Eager’s In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee. The music is soulful and the extensive booklet is a labor of love. (Some of the wild stories prove that the white beboppers were just as crazy as the black cats.) There’s a couple of tracks of High Bebop confab, including Bud’s best recorded chorus on “All the Things You Are.” Bud played this a lot but it didn’t usually bring out the best in him. It may be that my allegiance is just too much to Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, and Warne Marsh; that school owned “All the Things” more than High Bebop did. But this dimly recorded cut has an average Bird solo and a lovely effusion from Bud. ("High" bebop is right: everyone seems awfully relaxed here.)
Right after Massey Hall are wonderful Birdland performances of “Moose the Mooche” and “Cheryl” in a quintet with Mingus, Art Taylor, and Candido. But the fidelity is really bad, a problem rather exacerbated by the conga. As far as I know this is the only time Bird played “Moose” unison with a pianist.
There are few tantalizing tracks of Bud playing with Bird at the Open Door a couple months later but somehow Bud’s solos were deemed not worthy by the bootlegger.
In late ’57 and early ’58, almost two years after Bird died, Bud recorded Bud Plays Bird. Compared to most of Powell’s studio work of the previous few years it shines like a beacon.
According to Francis Paudras, Powell told another pianist the way to acquire bebop skills was to simply learn the tunes.
But what does “learn the tunes” mean? Powell shows us on this extraordinary album. Every head is full of astonishing rhythmic and dynamic detail. Has any other pianist ever come close to articulating this way?
Just as with the Boris Rose recordings, this final statement from the combined forces of of High Bebop barely made it through. It was finally discovered and released in 1996!
Bud Plays Bird is a seriously unappreciated album. I admit that it is not Duvivier or Taylor’s finest hour, they seem a little sleepy. Maybe they are tired of trying to follow Powell around at this point, a thankless task they have been at since 1953.
Perhaps Bud Plays Bird’s ultimate purpose is to provoke musicological investigation. How did Powell know what to play in the first 25 seconds of “Koko?” It’s completely correct, but how did he learn it and when? (Duvivier is completely lost.) The cover shot has some sheet music on the piano -- what is that sheet music?
And then there is “Scrapple in the Apple” and “Dewey Square,” grinding away in dark C major, several steps lower then their usual keys of F and E-flat. The rhythmic feel is untouchable, but who ever played either of these pieces in C? It’s entirely bizarre, especially since Bud played in F and E-flat more often than in C. Bud isn’t exactly nailing the notes Bird wrote, either.
It’s like Bud heard the original 78s once when he was young and confidently reproduces what he thinks he can remember perfectly. (“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”)
As composers, the members of High Bebop are hard to compare. Bird’s heads are immortal but I think he only came up with one original progression, “Confirmation.” Bud didn’t write as many truly great heads but his compositional voice was more diverse. (More on that in the next post.)
Bird wins on style and political awareness. Bird never played that dumb “Indian tom-tom” intro Powell liked on “Cherokee” or made fun of Asians like Powell’s “So Sorry Please.” The only ethnic group Bird teased publicly was the English, when he played “Country Gardens” at the end of certain tunes. (Privately he could also do a hilarious English accent.)
At times some of the Powell trio repertoire verges on the corny, like a blah arrangement of “How High the Moon” replete with an unexciting boogie bass line. While Bird did play on some corny records, his impeccable elegance always hovers above the lesser material. Bird never actively participates in corniness the way that Bud did.
All those stories about Bird hanging out, talking, jiving, playing, and making everyone glad to be alive have no parallel in the Bud literature.
So Bird is greater of the two elite. Right?
Look and listen again to the solos on this page. What do you think? Who is the greatest master of High Bebop?
Unquestionably Bird's rhythmic virtuosity is greater. He also invented the style: Without Bird, there would be no Bud. (Although I hope these transcriptions lay to rest the fallacy that they played the same material.)
OK, let's give it to Bird.
But -- astonishingly -- Bud keeps on staying in the ring...