Sunday, July 31, 2016

`Abrupt, Articulate, Flashing Figures'

“Most important, Powell invariably gave the impression of being wholly confident about his ideas; one could almost see them start bright and bold from his mind and then, more often than not, twist away before reaching his fingers.”

It reads like a premature obituary. Bud Powell (b. 1924) had another two years to live, but Whitney Balliett is too tactful and too respectful of earlier accomplishments to say it bluntly: Something inside the pianist had died. Powell had returned to the United States in August 1964 after living in France since 1959. Among jazz critics and listeners, Powell’s health problems and multiple hospitalizations were common knowledge. Tuberculosis, mental illness and alcoholism had ravaged the pianist once present at the creation of bop, and who had played with Parker, Gillespie and Kenny Clarke. Sonny Rollins calls him “the great professor of the music.” Here is Powell performing “Get Happy” in Paris in 1959. On his return to the U.S., Powell was booked for a homecoming engagement at Birdland. His biographer, Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., writes in The Amazing Bud Powell (University of California Press, 2013):

“How the engagement went depended on whom you asked and which night they saw him. Greeted by a seventeen-minute standing ovation when he first took the stage, the night of August 25 was filled with promise. But when he didn’t show up for the gig one night in October and went missing for two days, it became clear that returning to New York was perhaps not the best idea for his health. Powell was fired from the gig, and things get worse.”

Balliett attended one of the Birdland shows. His review is a sort of valedictory, and the critic works hard to detect signs of the old genius:

“He has gained weight, which adds to his impassive Oriental look, and between numbers and during his accompanists’ solos he sat large and still, eyes hooded, slowly twiddling his thumbs. It was a stony inertia, and his playing reflected it. The old mastery was there, but it was caught in an eerie slow-motion. The long, barbed melodic lines hung together, but they flowed somewhere below the beat, like the delayed-action timing in a dream. Occasionally he caught up and held tight, only to fall below again, with a flurry of missed notes. Entire passages went by in a monotone, but they were relieved by abrupt, articulate, flashing figures.”   

Powell is a pianist I respect more than enjoy, unlike, say, Tatum, Garner and Evans. His early recordings can be breathtaking. His life was a long misery. He was a gifted composer, and his best known song is probably “Un Poco Loco.”  Powell died on this date, July 31, in 1966. He was forty-one.

[See Balliett’s frequent mentions of Powell throughout Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000 (2000).]

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