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ESP-Disk reissues its audio document of Bud Powell at Birdland in 1953

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At the end of last month, ESP released a three-CD set consisting entirely of performances featuring the pianist Bud Powell performing at Birdland during the year 1953. These recordings were possible because Birdland had its own facility for audio capture, primarily for the sake nationwide broadcasts of live performances presented through the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Fortunately, the content of many of those broadcasts were also recorded; and much of that material was later released on vinyl on the Alto label owned by Boris Rose. This is the technology responsible for the almost three hours of Powell performances now available on CD.

It goes without saying that this was not “high fidelity” technology. Nevertheless, it documents a significant time in Powell’s life. In late 1951 he was committed to a mental hospital after having been arrested for possession of marijuana. He remained there until February 5, 1953, when he was released into the guardianship of Oscar Goodstein; and the first session documented on this new collection took place on February 7. The span of the collection continues through September 26.

My guess is that Powell’s most serious fans will not be overly enthusiastic about this release. They tend to view the Blue Note recordings made between 1949 and 1953 as Powell at his peak as both a pianist and a composer. They view 1953 as a year when he was trying to get himself back together again, with only limited success.

Nevertheless, these are recordings of performances at Birdland, rather than studio sessions. This is Powell “in the moment;” and it would be both inaccurate and unfair to call these the struggling efforts of a damaged mind falling back on old reflexes. Most importantly, Powell is always in the environment of supportive colleagues. Thus his trio for the two February recordings consists of Oscar Pettiford on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums.

By March 14, the bass player had become Charles Mingus. Most people who know their jazz history know that two months later, on May 15, there would be a concert at Massey Hall in Toronto, which would be the last occasion on which Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker would play together in a group. The rhythm section for that group included both Powell and Mingus (responsible for both organizing and recording the concert), as well as Max Roach on drums. The sounds from that concert continue to reverberate through the recorded collections of just about every jazz lover.

Both Gillespie and Parker also appear on the Birdland recordings but on separate dates. Nevertheless, Powell is always the focal point of all of these gigs. When one listens to the energy that pours forth from his inventive keyboard work, it is hard to think of him as “afflicted,” either mentally or physically. Perhaps music was the one agent that could click Powell’s mind into focus, because there is a confident certainty in the ways in which he shapes his phrases around his toolbox of intricate embellishment techniques.

Much as I enjoy may of Powell’s original compositions, I have to confess that I am always most impressed by the way he handles the songs of George Gershwin and Cole Porter. Those averse to bebop tend to think that the style would take any singable tune and distort it beyond all recognition. Powell never allowed this to happen; and he could play a song like “Embraceable You” as if he was getting the piano to sing in place of his own creaky voice. This collection provides three hours of irresistible material to anyone willing to listen to it through ears more interested in music than in either recording equipment or historical context.

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