Bud Powell is one of the most influential jazz pianists of all time. His harmonic range and virtuosity led to his reputation as the “Charlie Parker of the piano.” His withdrawn and cool personality fit into the general spirit of the bop movement and added mystique to his artistic aura. His original style of musical interpretation was, also, the result of his struggles with his own private demons.
Powell was born on September 27, 1924. He started playing piano as a child and was drawn early to the jazz of Fats Waller and Art Tatum. By the age of fifteen, he was already a member of the Harlem scene and frequented the area’s after-hour-clubs, where his style was met with much hostility. However, it was there that he befriended the taciturn Thelonious Monk, whose style could arguably stand as Powell’s polar opposite. Powell struggled with psychological instability throughout his life, as well as constant trouble with the law, regular beatings and electroshock therapy. He died at the age of forty-one in 1966.
It was within a ten-year time frame, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s, that he recorded some of the his most important works. Here is a list of five of his landmark recordings from that period:
1 – “TEMPUS FUGIT” (A.K.A. “Tempus Fugue-It”) (1949)
Despite the title, “Tempus Fugit” is no fugue. However, it is arguably the first track in Powell’s recorded career as leader in which the pianist was able to showcase his trademark personal style, one defined by hysterical clarity. “Tempus Fugit” is an up-tempo masterpiece, recorded in a trio session – as most of his best recordings – with drummer Max Roach and bassist Ray Brown. Powell’s intricate melodies and improvisation makes it easy to see why he became known as the Charlie Parker of the piano. Though Parker himself always refused to hire him because, supposedly telling Miles Davis that he though the pianist was “even crazier than me!,” Davis himself would records his own version of “Tempus Fugit” in 1953.
2 – “TEA FOR TWO” (1950)
In 1950, Powell recorded with Brown and drummer Buddy Rich. That same year, the Doris Day musical Tea for Two turned the 1925 Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar title song into a hit. In the tradition of bebop, Powell’s reading of the tune is very different. Indeed, the story of Powell’s piano playing, treading a fine line between anarchy and controlled chaos is arguably more intense than the neatly packaged narrative of the Doris Day musical itself. This style is also very representative of the revered “Powell-style” and echoed the musician’s own struggle with his mental issues. The fast and furious approach of “Tea for Two” is enhanced by the fact that throughout its duration, pianist Powell and drummer Rich seem to be engaged in a race with one another, both testing the limits of the metronome in the process.
3 – “UN POCO LOCO” (1951)
One of the most critically acclaimed Bud Powell compositions, “Un Poco Loco” is a landmark jazz recording that showcases its composer’s ability to push the envelope of the standard jazz idiom. The track openly experiments with Afro-Cuban influences, integrating them within the bebop idiom in way more modern than artists like Dizzy Gillespie had done in the previous decade with such tracks as “A Night in Tunisia.” In its best version, a trio recording with drummer Max Roach and bassist Curley Russell, “Un Poco Loco” predates the works by pianist Herbie Hancock and others of the same generation and wave of jazz fusion from the 70’s. Some moments even directly recall modern music and techniques employed in hip-hop and R’n’B. Not bad for a track that was written more than 60 years ago!
4 – “OBLIVION” (1951)
The Genius of Bud Powell was released in 1951, produced by Norman Granz. The album featured 8 solo piano numbers that had been recorded that same year, alongside recordings in a trio from 1950. Of these stunning solo turns, revealing a master of pianism at the peak of his creative and musical powers, a number of them stand out. One of them is “Parisian Thoroughfare,” which alone opposes the argument that Powell was unable to be as remarkable with his ballads as he was with a fast or medium tempo. Yet, “Oblivion” is the true masterwork of the eight track. It is here that his trademark focused chaotic form is most resonant. A lack of a backing band brings the essence of his hysterical clarity even more to the fore, in turn allowing the listener to truly appreciate the impulsiveness of his technique and the emotional richness of his playing.
5 – THE GLASS ENCLOSURE (1953)
“The Glass Enclosure” is remarkable because it is fundamentally very different from the vast majority of Powell’s best known compositions. It is dark, unsettling and was recorded right after the pianist had spent six months in a mental institution. The recording, produced by Alfred Lion, features bassist George Duvivier and drummer Art Taylor. They were left for little room to improvise, a sign of Powell’s growing interest in composition and his distancing from the bebop idiom that had widely dominated his works up to that point.