Bud Powell at Birland, 1953

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The modern jazz piano starts with Bud Powell. It's almost impossible to listen to any post-World War II jazz pianist without first studying the recordings of Powell. If you're new to Powell, the best entry point is The Complete Bud Powell on Verve, a five-CD set that covers Powell in a trio studio setting from 1949 to 1956 on the Clef, Norgran and Verve labels. If you're already familiar with Powell, a terrific live set you might be unaware of is Bud Powell: Birdland, 1953, a three-CD set on the ESP-Disk label. The live recordings at New York's Birdland has enormous energy and zest, with Powell's speed on display along with his lush chord voicings on ballads.

Born in New York in 1924, Powell was classically trained but also found time to to experiment with stride and boogie-woogie while listening to James P. Johnson and Willie “the Lion" Smith. Friends with Thelonious Monk, Powell began to create a singular improvisational style in the mid-1940s that was similar in approach the one to that of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. From February to September 1953, Powell played at Birdland in different trio configurations. Fortunately for us, the club had its own radio broadcasting booth wired into WJZ and distributed by NBC. The recordings on the set were originally broadcast.

As noted by Powell biographer Peter Pullman (Wail: The Life of Bud Powell), 1953 was the busiest year of the pianist's career. Earlier in '53, Powell was released from 16 months in mental institutions being treated for depression, a period that included electroshock therapy. When Powell was released, he was declared by New York State to be “incompetent" and placed in the care of Oscar Goodstein, his manager and Birdland's manager. Goodstein booked Powell into Birdland for 20 weeks. Able to play all night long, Powell was happy as he regained his technique lost in institutions.

Powell's playing on this set is thrilling. You can hear his exuberance and delight in every track. His hands are magical, moving expressively but with regimented control. His trills, block chords, spirited runs, percussive style and delicate touches become a perfectly mixed jazz cocktail. Despite his extraordinary execution in 1953, Powell had to be hospitalized intermittently throughout the 1950s. He moved to Paris in 1959, and in 1963 he came down with tuberculosis. In 1964 and '65, Powell's health deteriorated and he died in July 1966.

Despite his health limitations and relatively short life (he died at age 41), Powell re-invented the jazz piano was admired by virtually all modern players, both for his technique and his fine understanding of how to tease out the beauty and excitement from a song. This set at Birdland does tow things: It illustrates how Powell sounded live, we hear how far ahead of time Powell was and we can't help but cheated that we didn't get a chance to hear him play.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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