René Urtréger: Plays Bud Powell


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Yesterday I posted on Claude Williamson and two albums he recorded for Capitol in 1954 and '55, making mention of his interpretations of several Bud Powell compositions. Today we swing way east to Paris, where René Urtréger recorded his own tributes to Powell seven months later in February 1955. The tracks appear on Urtréger's 10-inch album for the Barclay label entitled Joue Bud Powell ("Plays Bud Powell"). 

Before we dig in, a little big picture. Both Kenton Presents Claude Williamson and Joue Bud Powell feature two white pianists in two largely white jazz environments—Los Angeles and Paris—interpretting works by a black New York artist they admired. Why does this matter? It doesn't really, but by understanding the social and artistic forces at work in both cities in the mid-'50s, we're able to hear nuances in the playing styles that were specific to Los Angeles and Paris of the period.

In 1954 and '55, Los Angeles and Paris were rapidly evolving and thriving jazz centers. Both were culturally isolated from the other׫,588 apart—and nearly equidistant from New York. Remember, this is the era before jet travel, the domination of television and proliferation of discount record stores. It's even before the start of our own Interstate Highway System.

As a result, all three cities were distinct places and capitals in their own right—Los Angeles as the center of film, New York as the center of music and art, and post-war Paris as the center of style and fashion. And all of these activities had a major influence on the musicians who worked there.

In Paris of the mid-'50s, French jazz musicians were highly influenced by visiting American jazz artists who played, recorded and lived there. For a French jazz artist, New York held enormous appeal, with its nocturnal mystique, vast ethnic diversity and creative freedom. California, by contrast, was just too far away to know and impossible to imagine or even love. For a jazz pianist in Paris, Bud Powell [pictured] was a powerful influence.

Powell was a pianist of extraordinary gifts and had become the very embodiment of a jazz artist—thanks largely to the import of his early '50s Clef and Blue Note recordings. To be taken seriously at this point in time, a French jazz pianist needed to be able to play Powell's music without fear, complete with the unbroken ribbons of innovative bop improvisation.

On Joue Bud Powell, Urtréger combines his veneration of Powell with the colorful touch of a devout Impressionist. Urtréger's bop is flawless, but the mannered Parisian manages to slip through from time to time during long improvisational runs. While Urtréger tries hard to sound like a New Yorker, there's a conservatory polish and flourish that can't help but bleed through to delightful effect. 

You can hear Urtréger's graceful touch on nearly every track, from Budo to Celia. Though Urtréger is faithful to Powell's stylistic approach, this album isn't an artistic forgery but a tender rendering. Perhaps no track displays this perspective complete with a touch of irony than Parisian Thoroughfare— Powell's rollicking love letter to the city's bustling boulevards. Though Urtréger holds fast to the original, he re-interprets the billet-doux with a sheer lightness, perhaps his own reimagined impression of New York's busy streets.

Or catch Urtréger's bounce on So Sorry Please and his gloss on Mercedes, a reworking of Darn That Dream. Like Williamson, Urtréger's approach is less percussive and rhythmic, and more spare, with an emphasis on the right hand's antics than a pounding left hand.

But it's just this thinness that makes Urtréger's Powellian renditions so appealing. Rather than applying thick layers of sound, he comes at the material with watercolors, and the result is distinctly French, no matter how hard he tries to disguise it.

JazzWax tracks: René Urtréger's Joue Bud Powell, with Benoit Quersin on bass and Jean-Louis Viale on drums, can be found as a download or CD on Jazz in Paris: Joue Bud Powell here.

JazzWax clip: Unfortunately, tracks from Joue Bud Powell aren't available on YouTube. Instead, here's Urtréger's Tune Up from 1957, also with a delicate Parisian touch...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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