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Piano Spoken Here: Bud Powell and His Descendants

June 02, 2002|DON HECKMAN

Bud Powell was one of the two piano giants of the bebop era. (The other was Thelonious Monk.) But there's more than bop to Powell's story because, vital as he was to the revolutionary jazz sounds of the '40s, his influence ultimately reached well beyond the music's relatively hermetic world.

Aspects of Powell's loping melodic lines, roving freely across harmonic borders, can be heard--in one form or another--in pianists ranging from Horace Silver, Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans to Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea. And most of those stunningly innovative qualities are present in a splendid, newly released recording.

Bud Powell, "Live in Lausanne, 1962" (***1/2, Stretch Records Archives). This collection, never before available, was reportedly brought to the attention of Corea (who is the founder of Stretch Records) by Powell's daughter Celia. Chronicling a radio broadcast in June 1962, it was a time when the pianist, intermittently suffering from mental breakdowns, was living in Paris and generally functioning at a high productive level. That was a particularly fruitful year for Powell, yielding a fine recording with French bassist Pierre Michelot and Kenny Clarke, as well as a booking at Stockholm's Golden Circle Club that produced material for an impressive five-CD set eventually released in the mid-'90s.

In the Lausanne set, recorded a few months after the Golden Circle gig, Powell is accompanied by a little-known pair of European players, bassist Bob Jacquillard and drummer Mike Stevenot. Unfazed by their relatively modest skills, he simply picks up the music and punches everything into high gear. Perhaps because of his unfamiliar companions, however, Powell plays a program almost completely devoted to bop standards--"Anthropology," "Billie's Bounce," "Woody 'n' You" and "Ornithology" among them--rather than his first-rate originals.

The results are nonetheless superlative--less so in terms of the sort of sheer invention of Powell's earlier years than in his capacity to generate a relentless sense of swing. Usually praised for his harmonic vision and bebop chops, Powell was too infrequently acknowledged for the masterful propulsion and upbeat rhythmic lift that brought his music to life. Here's a good opportunity--despite the less than optimal recorded sound--to check out both those qualities.

Randy Weston, "Ancient Future/Blue" (***, Mutable Music). Weston, 76, started out from the inside of piano bebop, so to speak. Wynton Kelly was a cousin, and Monk was one of his earliest mentors. That association was highly visible in Weston's early work, enhanced by a gift for melodic hooks that resulted in a pair of well-known jazz standards, "Little Niles" and "Hi-Fly."

Weston's musical vision was transformed when he visited Nigeria in the early '60s and lived in Morocco from that time into the early '70s. That immersion in the continent's rich cultural currents has remained a constant factor in his musical thinking.

This new release consists of a reissue of a 1984 LP, "Blue," and the recent collection "Ancient Future (recorded in June 2001). Both are richly inventive solo piano meditations, largely exploring Weston's own material, with the addition of "Mystery of Love" on the "Blue" CD, and "It Don't Mean a Thing," "Come Sunday," "Body and Soul" and "Out of the Past" on the "Ancient Future" disc.

Traces of his association with Monk surface on "Ballad for T" (presumably for "Thelonious"), and on many of the tracks Weston manages to invest his piano work with echoes of African percussion and the plangent sounds of the kora and mbira.

Jessica Williams, "This Side Up," (***, MAXJAZZ). Williams' bebop roots reach through the playing of Bill Evans, as they do for so many other pianists in her age group (she is 54). But the real key to her playing lies in the logo on the inside of her album's cover: "Improvisation Transforms Feeling Into Music."

Working with bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Victor Lewis--two of jazz's finest accompanists--Williams offers a program devoted almost exclusively to originals.

Three pieces celebrate individuals she considers primary mentors. "Miles to Go" recalls the grooving Miles Davis lines of the mid-'50s; interestingly, in her solo, Williams somehow manages--it's not quite clear how--to slide the pitches on some of the notes within her piano melodies in blues-accented fashion.

"The Judge," a tribute to bass great Milt Hinton, recalls the blend of lyricism and swing that was always present in his playing. And "I Remember Dexter"--honoring Dexter Gordon--captures the tenor saxophonist's gutsy drive via a blues that switch suddenly back and forth between 6/4 and 4/4 time.

Williams' playing throughout is filled with the crisply articulated accents and catchy melodic phrasing that have long been characteristic of her appealing improvisational style. Sadly, after decades of fine playing, she still hasn't received the recognition her talent deserves.

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