Bud Powell: Over the Rainbow

There can  hardly be a tune 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.

These thoughts came into my head when I was listening last night to this version of Over the Rainbow,  by the great Bud Powell, which I think is brilliant, despite the mawkish sentimentality of the original song. Bud Powell had serious mental illness to deal with – he suffered numerous breakdowns and was heavily medicated in an attempt treat his schizophrenia – and also had a long-term problem with narcotic abuse; the two issues were no doubt related.

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 demonstrated the virtuosity 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. Although clearly inspired by Art Tatum, Powell’s  treatment of the tune is startlingly original because 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.  By any standards, this is a masterpiece, and a vivid portrayal of the battle between light and darkness that mirrored his own experiences of life.

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