Yesterday I posted on Claude Williamson and two albums he recorded for Capitol in 1954 and '55, making mention of his interpretations of several Bud Powell compositions. Today we swing way east to Paris, where René Urtréger recorded his own tributes to Powell seven months later, in February 1955. The tracks first appeared on Urtréger's 10-inch album for the Barclay label entitled Joue Bud Powell ("Plays Bud Powell").
Before we dig in, a little big picture: Both Kenton Presents Claude Williamson and Joue Bud Powell feature two white pianists in two largely white jazz environments—Los Angeles and Paris—interpreting original works by a black New York artist they admired. Why does this matter? It doesn't really, but by understanding the social and artistic forces at work in both cities in the mid-'50s, we're able to hear nuances in the playing styles that were specific to Los Angeles and Paris of the period. The jazz language was the same but the accents were slightly different. And in both largely white cities, jazz was beginning to have a profound influence on all of the arts—from photography and poetry to painting and film.
In 1954 and '55, Los Angeles and Paris were rapidly evolving and thriving jazz centers. Both were culturally isolated from the other—5,588 miles apart—and nearly equidistant from New York. Remember, this is an era before jet travel, the domination of television, and proliferation of discount record stores. It's even before the start of our own Interstate Highway System. Music (and film, to some extent) are the most potent agents for rapid cultural change.
As a result, all three cities were distinct environments and culture capitals in their own right—Los Angeles as the center of film, New York as the center of music and art, and post-war Paris as the center of style and fashion. All of these activities left a mark on the musicians who lived there, and the musicans, in turn, were influenced by the jazz they heard on records and in club performances.
In the Paris of the mid-'50s, French jazz musicians were in awe of visiting American jazz artists. For a French jazz musician, New York held enormous appeal, with its nocturnal mystique, vast ethnic diversity and creative freedom. California, by contrast, was just too far away to know and impossible to imagine or even love. For a jazz pianist in Paris, Bud Powell [pictured] was a powerful force.
By '55, Powell was recognized as a pianist of extraordinary gifts, and he had become the very embodiment of a jazz artist—thanks largely to the import of his early '50s Clef and Blue Note recordings. To be taken seriously, a budding French jazz pianist needed to be able to play Powell's music without fear, complete with the unbroken ribbons of tumultuous bop improvisation.
On Joue Bud Powell, Urtréger combines his veneration of Powell with the colorful touch of a devout French Impressionist. Urtréger's bop a la Powell is flawless, but the joyous Parisian spirit manages to slip through from time to time during long improvisational runs. While Urtréger tries hard to imagine himself as a New Yorker, there's a Conservatory polish and flourish that can't help but bleed through to delightful effect.
You can hear Urtréger's graceful touch on nearly every track, from Budo to Celia. Though Urtréger is faithful to Powell's stylistic approach, this album isn't an artistic forgery as much as it is a tender rendering. Perhaps no track displays this perspective, complete with a touch of irony, more than Parisian Thoroughfare— Powell's rollicking love letter to the city's bustling boulevards. Though Urtréger holds fast to the original, he re-interprets the billet-doux with a distinct lightness—perhaps his own reimagined impression of New York's busy streets.
Or catch Urtréger's bounce on So Sorry Please and his gloss on Mercedes, a reworking of Darn That Dream. Like Williamson, Urtréger's approach is less percussive and rhythmic, and sparer, with an emphasis on the right hand's antics rather than a pounding left hand.
But it's this economy that makes Urtréger's Powellian renditions so appealing. Rather than applying thick layers of sound, he comes at the material with watercolors, and the result is pretty and distinctly French, no matter how hard he tries to disguise it.
JazzWax tracks: René Urtréger's Joue Bud Powell, with Benoit Quersin on bass and Jean-Louis Viale on drums, can be found as a download or CD on Jazz in Paris: Joue Bud Powell here.
JazzWax clip: Unfortunately, tracks from Joue Bud Powell aren't available on YouTube. Instead, here's Urtréger's Tune Up from 1957, also with a delicate Parisian touch...