If pianist Bud Powell has a sweet spot, it's his January 10, 1947 trio session for Roost Records—his first date as a leader.
Mind you, I adore Bud's work as a bop sideman during the 1940s and his Verve trio dates starting in 1949. Both periods are spectacular for different reasons. But for me, his January 1947 recordings are still a notch higher. Not only is Bud at his creative peak but there's a delicateness and enthusiasm to his playing that's unmatched. On the Roost date, Bud actually seems to be listening to himself play—and enjoying what he hears.
After recording the eight tracks for Roost in January 1947, Bud was back in the studio in May with the Charlie Parker All Stars (Donna Lee, Chasin' the Bird, Cheryl and Buzzy). But as the year wore on, Bud suffered terribly from headaches, a painful condition that began after a brutal 1945 police beating in Philadelphia.
By November 1947, Bud was admitted to the first of several medical institutions and underwent shock therapy, remaining hospitalized for nearly a year. Some say Bud was never the same when he emerged, but that may be a bit of a dramatic overstatement.
Yet there is a certain something that exists in those January 1947 recordings that I feel is missing on previous and subsequent dates. A human quality, perhaps, or just pure joy. It's an ingredient that's hard to nail down, even after numerous listens.
Not content to bop his way through the eight song selections scheduled to be waxed that day, Bud chose instead to showcase his wide range of piano skills—almost as if he knew he might not get another shot for some time. Of course, the presence of Max Roach on drums and Curly Russell on bass provided Bud with all the rhythm he needed to experiment and have fun doing so.
Bud opens the January 1947 Roost session with I'll Remember April, which appears to foreshadow the hard bop movement that would be pioneered years later by Max Roach, Clifford Brown and Bud's brother, Richie. (Clearly Max didn't forget what he heard that day while playing behind Bud.)
Next is Indiana, which starts with a fascinating configuration of minor chords that quickly springs major and flies bop through to the end. Dig Max on the brushes and Curly ripping at the bass. Tremendous energy.
On Somebody Loves Me, we hear Bud shift to his lock chords technique, and he mixes in plenty of bop melody lines. Again, Curly Russell's bass work is something to hear.
I Should Care is even more cocktail-lounge lush than Somebody Loves Me. Taken at medium ballad tempo, this song is a rich mix of pastel chords and bop ideas, with impossible fills and playful trills. Bud takes the song off in a number of interesting directions but never once loses track of what makes the tune so pretty to begin with. This song has everything—a 'Round About Midnight feel with chord runs that are soft and astonishing.
Next comes the frantic Bud's Bubble, a pure bop show-off piece, followed by Thelonious Monk's Off Minor, which kicks off with a very un-Monk-like theatrical fanfare. You would never guess from the opening that the song Bud is about to play is Monk's. You get the sense that this is something of an inside joke—Bud musically telling Monk to lighten up.
In fact, Bud's opening tags on nearly every song he ever played are gems in and of themselves.
Nice Work If You Can Get It is taken at a brisk tempo, with Max employing fabulous brush work. After running with the melody, Bud turns the song inside out with bop interpretations.
The show-stopper, for me, is the closer— Everything Happens to Me—an almost tongue-in cheek tribute to composer-pianist Matt Dennis, who wrote the song and played it beautifully in super clubs. Dennis was famous for developing a lush, lounge jazz style. Bud honors Dennis but adds his own bop stamp.
When Bud left the hospital in late 1948, he was recorded live in a jam session at the Royal Roost in December. Then in January 1949, he signed with Norman Granz's Norgran Records (the predecessor to Verve) and began a long period of recording for the label through 1956.
The Norgran/Verve dates certainly have their own special, dark-and-stormy quality. But I don't believe they ever quite recaptured Bud's flare and graceful exuberance of January 1947.
Wax tracks: Bud Powell's complete Roost date is on Bud Powell: The Complete 1946-1949 Roost/BlueNote/Verve/Swing Masters. The CD, a remastered import, can be found here and is a must.
You also can find the eight tracks at iTunes— under an odd release from the Copyright Group called Bud's Bubble.
Wax clip: While I could not find any archival film of Bud in early 1947, go here to see Bud in Paris in 1959. Try to listen to Bud's left and right hand separately. It's as if two different pianists were playing together—and competing against each other.