Archive for Bud Powell

The Quintet at Massey Hall

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2014 by telescoper

Time for a quick Jazz review, I think. This time I thought I’d pick a classic live performance from May 15th 1953 at Massey Hall in Toronto. Originally released as a vinyl LP with only 6 tracks on it, and called The Quintet of the Year, but subsequently re-released in various versions on CD, with various titles including Jazz at Massey Hall. The whole concert  is now available on Youtube here:

This concert was planned to unite the greatest stars of the bebop era who had performed together earlier in their careers but had gradually evolved different styles over the intervening years. The line-up is Charlie Parker on alto, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Bud Powell on piano, Charles Mingus on bass and the great Max Roach on drums which is stellar by any criterion!

Gatherings of star jazz players have often turned out to be disappointing, largely because very great musicians can sometimes interfere negatively rather than positively with each other, not necessarily consciously but because they can have ideas incompatible with one another. This evening, however,  was a glorious exception to this rule, doubtless because all the musicians had worked together in the past, and their subsequent individual development had not taken them too far beyond their shared musical background. It is true that the ensemble passages are slight, but that doesn’t matter much because the solos are of such a remarkable and consistently high standard. Charlie Parker turns in some of the very best of his later recorded work, giving the lie to those who argue that his musical abilities were in decline at this time. He might not play as elegantly as he did on the classic Dial and Savoy sessions, but he is significantly more adventurous, with startling melodic contrasts in much of his work. At times this is a bit of a problem in that he seems to full of ideas that what comes out is a sequence of breathtaking fragments rather than a cohesive solo. This happens on A Night in Tunisia, for example, which never quite fulfills the promise of its magnificent opening break. On other tracks, though, especially Hot House his improvisations are just brilliant. It’s hard to imagine listening to this that in less than two years he would be dead.

Dizzy Gillespie matches Parker in superb fashion, betraying none of the offhandedness that often afflicted his later recorded performances, and the pyrotechnical quality of his playing is as exhilarating as it is instantly recognizable. Gillespie was an extrovert on stage and his frequent dancing around on the stage results in him going on and off mike from time to time, but it doesn’t detract from the performance once you realize why he’s fading in and out. It is, after all, a live performance and if you shut your eyes you can imagine Dizzy Gillespie the showman without any difficulty at all!

Most Jazz reviewers confine their comments on the rhythm section to a few kind words, but in this case that would be a travesty. The limitations of live recording technology in 1953 result in a rather unbalanced mix, but the flip side of that is that you can hear  particularly well the pivotal importance of the bass playing of Charles Mingus. Between them Mingus and Max Roach lay down a relentlessly propulsive beat as well as taking gripping solos; the drum workouts in Wee and Salt Peanuts are astonishing in their interplay of rhythm and texture. Trumping even them, however, is the genius of Bud Powell who plays at a level consistently high even by his own standards.

Bud Powell is a fascinating musician for many reasons. Much less of a formalist than many Jazz pianists he nevertheless seems to generate a real sense of unity, more through the  emotional drive underpinning his phrases than by imposing any set structure on his improvisations. His solo on Wee offers a fine example of this: moving inexorably towards a shattering climax as the right hand figures vary ceaselessly in their length and the chords punched out by the left hand grow more frequent and more percussive.

This album is another must-have for any serious collector of post-War jazz. The individual parts are all superb, but the whole is even greater than their sum.

PS. I had the pleasure of attending a concert at Massey Hall myself, when I was on sabbatical in Toronto in 2005/6.

Over the Rainbows

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on May 3, 2010 by telescoper

I had the misfortune a few weeks ago to see a bit of a terrible BBC TV show called Over the Rainbow, the main aim of which seems to be to use TV License payers’ money to provide free advertising for a forthcoming West End production of the Wizard of Oz. Anyway, when I was thinking yesterday about cover versions of tunes that turned out better than the original, the tune Over the Rainbow sprang to mind. Since I’ve been on holiday today – studiously avoiding doing very much at all – I thought I’d put up some interesting jazz versions of that particular song.

There are hardly any tunes ever written that some jazz musician somewhere hasn’t taken a fancy to and done their own original version, however unpromising the raw material. Louis Armstrong had a particularly amazing ability to turn base metal into solid gold, making glorious music out of tunes nobody else wanted to touch. I’ve picked three quite different versions of Over the Rainbow, all of which I think are brilliant despite the mawkish sentimentality of the original song.

The first is from a concert by Keith Jarrett in Tokyo in 1984. As well as being a brilliant jazz musician, Jarrett is an accomplished classical performer who, for example, made an exceptionally fine recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations a few years ago. Quite a few people seem to get put off by watching his antics at the keyboard. I can see why. I think he sometimes looks like the piano is playing him, rather than the other way around. But if his contortions bother you, just listen to the music, which is just gorgeous… 

When I was still at school back in 1980 or 81 I had the good fortune to get to see the great alto saxophonist Art Pepper playing live with a band led by pianist Milcho Leviev. He played so beautifully on that concert that I became an immediate fan and tried to get hold of as many of his records as I could. I was devastated to hear just a couple of years later that he had died. Like many jazz musicians of his generation, Art Pepper had a serious drugs problem and he spent long periods in jail as a consequence. He joked that San Quentin Prison had better musicians than any establishment on Earth.

His tender, lyrical sound and graceful improvisations are  beautifully represented on this track recorded with George Cables (piano) and – I think - Charlie Haden (bass) and Billy Higgins on drums.

The last one up is by the great Bud Powell. He was another musician who struggled with narcotics, but he also had serious mental illness to deal with – he suffered numerous breakdowns and was heavily medicated in an attempt treat his schizophrenia. Although he moved to Paris in 1959 to make a fresh start, his self-destructive tendencies caught up with him. The quality of his playing deteriorated, his behaviour became erratic and he eventually died in 1966. Before leaving the States, however, Powell had made a number of recordings in which he demostrated the virtuousity and musical imagination that established him as one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, and certainly the leading stylist of the bebop era.

Bud Powell’s version of Over the Rainbow is one of my all-time favourite pieces of music. He puts so much variation into the way he plays it, alternating a lush romantic style with jagged boppy lines and dark undertones introducing a strong element of parody juxtaposed with a more orthodox treatment of the melody. As much as I love the other two versions, this is my a favourite. By any standards, it is a masterpiece.

Happy Birthday Bird!

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on August 29, 2009 by telescoper

I was listening to Jazz Record Requests on BBC Radio 3 this afternoon, which reminded me that today is the 89th anniversary of the birth of the great Charlie Parker, who was known to his friends as “Bird”. Looking for something to celebrate with, I was delighted to find on Youtube this version of the classic bebop tune Anthropology, which appeared on another blog post of mine about Bud Powell (who also plays on this track). This clip (inevitably without video I’m afraid) is in fact taken from the first ever Charlie Parker LP I bought when I was about 15 and which I still have. Sadly, it has never been released on CD so I’m very glad I held onto the LP for so long.

No information is provided on Youtube, but referring to the sleeve note reveals that the track was recorded from a radio broadcast live from  Birdland in New York City on March 31st 1951 using a primitive disc recording machine by an amateur recording buff called Boris Rose. The sound quality isn’t great, but he deserves much greater recognition for capturing this and so many other classic performances and preserving them for posterity.

The personnels consist of Charlie Parker (alto saxophone), Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Bud Powell (piano), Tommy Potter (bass) and Roy Haynes (drums).

Here’s what the sleevenote (written by Gary Giddens) says about this track:

“Anthropology is an “I Got Rhythm” variation which originally appeared, in a slightly different form, as “Thriving on a Riff” on Parker’s first session as leader. The tempo is insanely fast; the performance is stunning. Bird has plenty of ideas in his first chorus, but he builds the second and third around a succession of quotations: “Tenderly”, “High Society”, “Temptation.” Gillespie’s second chorus is especially fine – only Fats Navarro had comparable control among the trumpeters who worked with Bird. His blazing high notes tend to set his lyrical phrases in bold relief. Bud, the ultimate bop pianist (and much more), jumps in for two note-gobbling choruses: no quotes, though, it’s all Powell. The four bar exchanges that follow demonstrate Hayne’s precision.

Spot on, but words aren’t really enough to describe this scintillating music, so listen!

Anthropology

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on February 21, 2009 by telescoper

Just to balance the books here’s a wonderful version of the classic bebop tune Anthropology, performed by Bud Powell who I mentioned in my previous post about Thelonious Monk.

This really is authentic bebop, with its complex yet propulsive drum patterns and jagged melodic lines characterized by unusual intervals and little punctuating tags at the end of each phrase in the solo. Also brilliant, but quite different to Monk, Bud Powell was very much a direct translation onto the keyboard of the saxophone and trumpet styles of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

The tune was written by them too, although it uses essentially the same chords as George Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm. It  was a standard bebop procedure to write a new melodic line on top of an existing harmonic structure and give the result a new name. Jazz improvisation is always based on the harmonies (chord changes) rather than the tune, so this is a way to build new compositions quickly with the knowledge that the harmonic foundations would be sound. In the  40s there was a classic Charlie Parker recording session during which the band decided to do such a variation of the standard Cherokee (written by Ray Noble). In the middle of the performance they absent-mindedly played the Cherokee theme and there was a cry of anguish from the control room by the Producer who obviously hoped that if they stayed off the actual tune of Cherokee he wouldn’t have to pay composer’s royalties. So that take was abandoned, and they did another. The final version was called Koko and it’s one of the Charlie Parker classics. Many other classic bop tunes were made in this way, with different standard tunes underneath them. Necessity and budget restrictions are the mothers of invention.

Oh, and just listen to the fantastic double bass by the brilliant (and then very young) Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen who drives it along like the clappers!

When you read about the structure of bebop it seems so complicated and obscure that it’s hard to believe that the result is such a thrill to listen to. I think it  is the highest point of twentieth century music-making, both in the creativity and skill of its proponents and in the sheer excitement of its sound which is made all the more remarkable when you realise how difficult it is to play!

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