In the fall of 1956, pianist Bud Powell was an emotional mess. His brother, pianist Richie Powell, had died in June in the same car crash that killed his wife Nancy (the car's driver) and trumpeter Clifford Brown. Bud Powell was also suffering from schizophrenia and was on powerful meds following his release from a mental hospital in 1953. And only a month earlier, Powell's long string of recordings for Verve had ended with the Blues in the Closet session.
Powell played Birdland in New York that fall with bassist George Duvivier and drummer Art Taylor. Duvivier took notice of Powell's mental illness—even if he didn't know exactly what was going on: "Bud had become almost a complete introvert. We had no personal communication—only music." As Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr. notes in his book, The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop (University of California Press):
"Powell was a complete mystery to Duvivier. 'I can't tell you what the man was like. And I don't think anyone who worked with him before and after I did can do much better.' Duvivier believed that [Birdland owner] Oscar Goodstein had wanted him to be a 'babysitter,' a job that he didn't even consider. While he called Powell's playing obviously genius,' he felt that Powell was deteriorating gradually, and it impressed him how much effort and concentration it took for him to play well. Some nights his playing was 'pure genius'; at other times he'd mix up the form of songs. He and Taylor had to hang in there and try to keep up because rarely were there written parts."
In October 1956 and February 1957, Powell recorded two albums for RCA—Strictly Powell (1956) and Swingin' with Bud (1957), respectively, and both featured Duvivier and Taylor. The recordings serve as a bridge in the 12-inch LP era between Powell's Verve period and his second series of recordings for Blue Note in '57 and '58. Powell moved to Paris in '59 and died in '66.
Many people who write about these RCA trio sessions go out of their way to note that Powell was no longer at the height of his playing powers. Hogwash, I say. While Powell here may lack the ferocious snap of his late-'40s recordings for Prestige or the grandiose breadth on his Verve sessions, the RCA material is plenty taut, engaging and creative. As far as I'm concerned, there is no bad Bud Powell, and this material needs to be placed in context and viewed with fresh consideration.
Powell was suffering from multiple forms of mental illness at the time and yet, through music, he was able to express himself—not with glum blues and pained ballads but with robust and architecturally sound improvisation and rich chord-coloring. Were there a few wrong or missed notes along the way? Sure. Does Powell tear-up the keyboard with flawless bop runs as he did in earlier years? Not quite. But he's delivering spectacular work and he's at the top of his game—in a different creative period.
On these albums, you hear the artist struggling to manage the rational side of his brain—or shut it down—while letting his creative side off the leash. The results are really quite spectacular and chide those who misconstrue the creative beauty of these sessions.
Unlike the Verve recordings, the RCA tracks aren't processed through a slick filter. Instead, we hear Powell making his way through a range of strong songs—tiny warts and all. There are plenty of originals here, including Jump City, Another Dozen, Elegy, Midway, Get It, Coscrane and She. There also are fat standards ideal for chord-play, like In the Blue of Evening, Like Someone in Love, They Didn't Believe Me, I Cover the Waterfront and a fascinating Lush Life that gives Powell some trouble.
Music, like art, isn't about polish or perfection. It's about the message and soul of an artist and how both are conveyed to a sensitive audience. I find these two albums—with their dents and dings—far more intriguing than his buffed Verve work. For me, imperfection holds many surprises.
JazzWax tracks: Of the two RCA albums, only Strictly Powell is available as a download here. Or you'll find Strictly Powell and Swingin' with Bud on one CD—Bud Powell: The Complete RCA Trio Sessions here.
JazzWax pages: You'll find The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop (University of California Press) here
JazzWax clips: Here's Jump City from Strictly Powell:
And here's In the Blue of Evening from Swingin' with Powell: