Benny Powell (1930-2010), a trombonist with a commanding, smooth sound who began his recording career in Lionel Hampton's r&b orchestra of 1949 and then spent 12 critical years starting in 1951 with Count Basie's "New Testament" band, died yesterday at New York's Roosevelt Hospital while recuperating following spinal surgery. He was 80. [Photo of Benny Powell by Ed Berger]
Benny was a low-key, humble musician who viewed all of his experiences with Basie and other jazz greats matter-of-factly. But Benny knew full well the flavor and dynamic he added to any band and small ensemble. Benny's most famous solo was his straight-ahead reading on Count Basie's 1955 recording of April in Paris, a date that Benny told me didn't recall being any more remarkable than all of the others.
Benny's style wasn't flamboyant or loud. Instead, his trombone had a firm conversational sound—direct and tasteful rather than independent and rambunctious. The personality he sought for his horn was one that blended in, adding an understated, soft flavor to groups. Benny wasn't a soloist along the lines of other trombonists, but he knew that the prettier and more directly he played, the more the listener would lean forward to hear what he had to say on the instrument. [Photo of Benny Powell by Ed Berger]
When I interviewed Benny in December 2008, he talked about the Basie band's trombone section:
JazzWax: Did the trombonists in the Basie band get along?
Benny Powell: Oh, yes. We were like stepchildren because we didn’t get the first solos. After the trumpet players finished, the tenor saxophonists would get a shot and then the drummer. Then maybe we’d have eight bars. We felt we didn’t get our just props. We stuck together as a result.
Whenever I called Benny, he was always jovial, charming and eager to answer questions about his experiences. In fact, we spoke as recently as four weeks ago for a liner notes project I was working on.
One of my favorite times on the phone with Benny was viewing YouTube clips together of him
playing in Lionel Hampton's band. As we watched the same clip on each end of the phone, Benny reminisced about the band and the musicians. The one who stood out most during our conversation was alto saxophonist Bobby Plater [pictured], who became a Basie arranger.
At one point, as we watched the Hampton clip, Benny said, "Wow, that was some band. I learned everything I needed to know about music, rhythm and phrasing in those two years with Hamp."
You'll find Benny on the following 1950s recordings:
- Complete Count Basie Verve Fifties Studio Recordings (Mosaic).
- Trombones Featuring Frank Wess (Savoy)
- The Complete Tony Scott (RCA)
- The Magnificent Thad Jones, Vol. 3 (Blue Note)
- Donald Byrd/Gigi Gryce's Jazz Lab (Columbia)
- Complete Atomic Basie (Roulette)
- Nat King Cole: Welcome to the Club (Capitol)
I'm going to miss hearing Benny's voice on the other end of the line. This has always been my favorite clip of Benny, recorded a few years ago with saxophonist TK Blue...
Joe Maini. Following my post on alto saxophonist Joe Maini and daughter Tina Maini's heartfelt recollections of her father and his tragic death, Tina sent along the following email...
"I shared my JazzWax reflections about Joe with my Aunt Elsie, dad's sister. Here's what she wrote back: 'My dear Tina, I am so proud and appreciative of your 'telling the true story' of your Dad, my brother. Yes, it was a difficult time, and how excited and happy your Dad would be for your tremendous effort to speak for all his friends and family. Thanks so much. I love you, Aunt Elsie."
Here's Joe Maini on alto sax (all the way to the left) as part of a Buddy Rich-led stage band in a nightclub scene from Jerry Lewis' Visit to a Small Planet (1960). The clip will fast-forward automatically to the music and dance scene...
Frankly Jazz. Jazz musician Bill Kirchner wrote last week to alert readers to a gold mine of YouTube clips of Frankly Jazz, a West Coast TV show hosted by Frank Evans in the early 1960s. Here's one example, featuring alto saxophonist Bud Shank and pianist Clare Fischer. For more clips from this show, go to YouTube and type in "Frankly Jazz"...CD discoveries of the week. Pianist Herbie Hancock has just released The Imagine Project, a follow-up to his Grammy- winning River: The Joni Letters. Like Hancock's exploration of Joni Mitchell's femme-folk works, this new CD forms a fascinating bridge between jazz, pop, soul and folk-rock. By envisioning a safe house where all forms of music can intermingle freely and find common ground, Hancock has managed to smarten up contemporary works without losing the material's original intent and edge.
What makes this album special is the new form of music that emerges. Here you have jazz interacting with rock-oriented music and artists without taking a back seat to the genre. Hancock's jazz piano serves as an equal partner here, bonding the music's spirit and adding a heightened sense of drama, mood and sophistication.So on John Lennon's Imagine, Hancock accompanies India Arie, Jeff Beck, Pink and Seal. On Bob Dylan's The Times, They Are A' Changin', Hancock's chords splash amid vocals by The Chieftains and Lisa Hannigan. Each track offers surprises. On Lennon-McCartney's Tomorrow Never Knows, Dave Matthews' voice emerges from a Hancock-created cloud of Sgt. Pepper-like sound effects and dubs. It's cool stuff.
One of the album's many highlights is A Change Is Gonna Come, featuring James Morrison. This is jazz and soul, not jazz-soul, in which Morrison's rich voice shares center stage with an extended piano solo by Hancock.
This isn't a tribute album but a revisionist work with a whole new outcome, much in the way sand heated produces glass. As on Head Hunters (1973) and Thrust (1974), Hancock blends many different forms to yield music that resonates long after the album is off.
You'll find Herbie Hancock's The Imagine Project (Hancock Records) at iTunes and here.
Another interesting crossover CD is Renee Fleming's Dark Hope. The soprano is most famous for her performances on the world's great opera stages. But for this project, Fleming took on progressive rock compositions, many of which are unknown to older music listeners. Again, if you can get your head around the fact that the star of La Traviata is taking on Mars Volta's Twilight as My Guide, you'll find a rather peaceful but authentically angst-ridden reading of today's music. Try sampling Today, where Fleming sounds very Carly Simon in the 1970s.
You'll find Renee Fleming's Dark Hope at iTunes and here.
Oddball album cover of the week. Recorded in Paris in 1965, this LP by organist Lou Bennett included drummer Kenny Clarke, guitarist Rene Thomas and a crew of French jazz musicians. I'm not sure whether this cover is the deft handiwork of French or Dutch art directors, but the image leaves us hanging. Is Bennett leering, glaring or appraising? And why is the model wearing a plaid cap and looking off-camera?