The brilliant musician Mel Powell had a jazz career unlike any other I can think of. It had a stop and start, double-life quality with very long gaps, none of which were caused by the usual problems of drug addiction, imprisonment, alcoholism or nervous breakdowns. He was so prodigiously gifted that he was torn between jazz – as a top-flight pianist/arranger – and the world of “straight” music, where he was a respected composer of modern classical music (eventually winning the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1990) and an elite music educator and academic. For these reasons, Powell remains an obscure and shadowy jazz figure even to those who have heard of him; at this point, many likely haven’t. I mention all this because, although I’ve heard some of his records before, I recently heard a track for the first time, a 1954 recording of the standard “What’s New”, which astonished me. I’ll return to this later, but first some background and context on Powell from his interesting life.
Powell was born Melvin Epstein on February 12th, 1923 in New York City to Russian-Jewish parents, certainly a fertile lineage for both pianists and composers. He grew up in the Bronx within view of Yankee Stadium and was a rabid baseball fan. He was a child prodigy who graduated from high school at fourteen and for a time he entertained ambitions for a career as both a ballplayer and concert pianist. He began piano studies at six and was well on his way to a concert career when his older brother Lloyd took him to hear his first live jazz in 1936 – the Benny Goodman band at the Paramount Theatre. Just thirteen, Powell was floored by the band, saying he’d “never heard anything so ecstatic as this music, and yet so gleaming and crystalline in its precision.” He had no way of knowing that in a few short years he would be playing with this very band, or that Lloyd would be dead at twenty-one.
The graceful pianism of Teddy Wilson with Goodman’s band also got to him in a big way, this marked a major turning point in his musical life. He began fooling around playing jazz with other kids in the neighbourhood and listening to pianists such as Fats Waller, Earl Hines, Jess Stacy and Art Hodes. He was also studying advanced music theory with a professor from Juilliard and composing some chamber music in his teens. By the time he was fourteen he was the intermission pianist at Nick’s in Greenwich Village, where the Eddie Condon crowd played. He was soon the protege of Willie “The Lion” Smith and playing with the likes of Pee Wee Russell and Bobby Hackett. On one of these gigs a large black man leaned in behind Powell while he was playing and said in his ear, “Oh, you’re going to be a real one.” It was Art Tatum and the great pianist then sat down and played for Powell, who said that after this he never experienced any performance anxieties again.
In the spring of 1941, Benny Goodman was looking for a pianist and the jazz writer George Simon arranged an audition for Powell. Goodman quickly hired Powell as pianist and arranger at $500 a week, a lot of money in those days. The eighteen-year-old Powell was an immediate sensation, his was one of the most auspicious big-time debuts in the history of jazz for one so young, the sky seemed the limit for this wunderkind. The Goodman band of 1941-42 was slightly smaller than some of his others, but one of the most powerful he ever had. The trumpet section had Cootie Williams, Billy Butterfield and the tall Scotsman Jimmy Maxwell paying lead; Lou McGarity and Cutty Cutshall were the formidable trombone tandem. Vido Musso was the main saxophone soloist and there were many fine arrangements by Eddie Sauter, Jimmy Mundy, Powell and others. The real strength of the band however, was its rhythm section – Powell, Charlie Christian on guitar, John Simmons on bass and the great Sid Catlett on drums – here was a rhythm section to rival Count Basie’s, perhaps not as balanced, but more brilliant.
Unfortunately the foursome were not together for long, and the band itself made only a half dozen recording sessions, many of them given over to vocal performances by Peggy Lee. Tuberculosis soon sidelined Christian and would eventually kill him; Simmons (a favourite bassist of both Catlett and Buddy Rich), quit later in the year. Goodman eventually fired Catlett late in 1941, fearing he was being upstaged by the great drummer’s humour and easy-going showmanship. There is a wonderful CD of live performances by this band called “Roll “Em”, which captures it in full flight, the power and delicacy of Big Sid’s drumming and Powell’s mastery of all facets of swing piano, including boogie-woogie and stride. It’s too bad this band was so short-lived, it’s almost as though Goodman didn’t quite know what to do with such a galloping, free-spirited bunch. At at any rate, Pearl Harbour spelled its end for good.
Powell was drafted by 1943 and spent most of the War on a piano bench with Glenn Miller’s Army band, joined by such notables as clarinettist Peanuts Hucko, guitarist Carmen Mastren, drummer Ray McKinley and trumpeters Zeke Zarchey and Bernie Privin. After the War, he moved to California and was in the Hollywood studios as an in-house pianist and composer, providing music for short films, documentaries and cartoons, most notably “Tom and Jerry.” He also did some jazz playing and small-group recording in Los Angeles for Capitol records 1947-8. During this period he met and married the beautiful actress Martha Scott and also contracted a form of Muscular Dystrophy which confined him to a wheelchair for a while and for the rest of his life he would walk with the aid of a cane, effectively ending his ability to function as a touring musician.
By late 1948, Powell had tired of Hollywood and in growing restlessness abandoned his public career as a musician altogether, enrolling in Yale University to study composition under the German composer Paul Hindemith, who would have a profound effect on him as a musician. Hindemith wasn’t at all impressed by Powell’s jazz stardom and found him to be a facile composer; the older man would instill a greater discipline and intellectual rigor in his pupil which remained for life. Powell described his own composing as non-tonal rather than atonal, his work was in a similar vein to that of Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez and Luciano Berio. He spent a good deal of his career as a composer trying to work out a rhythmic idiom which dovetailed with the free-pitch system he used – he felt a lot of modern composers placed Schoenberg’s atonal discoveries over an older, nineteenth-century rhythmic structure – Powell felt the music needed to be non-pulse as well, or non-periodic. Ironically, it was similar with his jazz playing in his early-50s return – he was decades ahead of most other pianists harmonically, playing complex post-Impressionist ideas, but in the older rhythmic conception of the Swing Era.
In Whitney Balliett’s profile, “Whatever Happened To Mel Powell?”, Powell discusses his reasons for leaving jazz “I suspect it was this: I had done what I felt I had to do in jazz. I had decided it did not hold the deepest interest for me musically. And I had decided it was a young man’s music, even a black music. Also, the endless repetition of material in the Goodman band – playing the same tunes day after day and night after night – got to me. That repetition tended to kill spontaneity, which is the heart of jazz and which can give a lifetime’s nourishment.”
He wasn’t able to leave jazz entirely though, the pull of swing and improvisation drew him back to public performance with some Goodman-led small groups in the early 1950s, after he had completed his studies with Hindemith. In 1954, he recorded some trio sides with Goodman and various drummers for Capitol that show he had lost nothing as a pianist; if anything, the time away from jazz and his immersion in composition had given his playing more freshness and a determination to push at the boundaries of both the repertoire and style he was playing in. His playing here always swings mightily and is idiomatic, yet there are startling little touches of invention, decoration and re-harmonization that show a unique and deep musical mind at work. For those who have never heard Powell’s piano playing, imagine a combination of Art Tatum – his virtuosity and harmonic complexity – and the feathery tone, striding 4/4 tenths and grace of Teddy Wilson, plus some occasional touches of Earl Hines and Jess Stacy. Superficially, one could say that Powell plays less than Tatum and more than Wilson, yet he sounds like neither because he brings his own musical mind, with its absorption of both modern composition and classical piano literature – Debussy, Ravel, Bartok, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, et al – to the table.
Between late 1953 and 1956, Powell recorded five albums for the Vanguard label, each of them produced by John Hammond. Oddly, this burst of activity is barely mentioned in the Balliet piece or elsewhere, yet it would be the longest sustained period of recording as a leader in his career and represents the bulk of his jazz legacy. Vanguard Records was founded in the late 1940s by Maynard and Seymour Solomon and would become renowned for its dedication to quality music, natural recording techniques and superior vinyl pressings. It was initially a classical music label, later well-known for both folk and blues. In 1953, the Solomon brothers saw an article by Hammond in Melody Maker magazine, asking why jazz records were not afforded the same care in any facet of their production as classical ones were. This resounded with them and they invited Hammond to produce a series of jazz recordings under the name “Jazz Showcase”, giving him freedom to record whatever he liked.
Mostly what Hammond liked was free-wheeling, small-group swing, as he had since the 1930s. Although quite progressive politically, he had little use for what was called “modern jazz” at the time, i.e. bebop and cool jazz. Hammond of course was extremely wealthy, a good friend of Benny Goodman’s and had been very active as a producer and talent scout for Columbia Records in the ’30s – discovering and signing Billie Holiday, doing much to promote Teddy Wilson by making him musical director of Holiday’s record sessions, as well as persuading Goodman to hire Wilson and break the name-band colour barrier. He also discovered and signed Count Basie and his band out of Kansas City and produced the legendary 1938 and ’39 Carnegie Hall “Spirituals To Swing” concerts, which showcased the entire spectrum of black American music from gospel and spirituals, rural and urban blues, to boogie-woogie and swing, both of the small and big band variety. He not only loved jazz, but saw it as a key force in advancing racial equality and integration, a pet cause of his.
Hammond had spent most of the later 1940s and early 1950s on the sidelines of jazz and the invitation from the Solomon brothers provided him an opportunity to get back in the game, one he didn’t waste. His idea was to make records using as leaders some of his favourite swing veterans who had been neglected or under-recorded in those years – trombonist Vic Dickenson, trumpeter Buck Clayton, pianist Sir Charles Thompson, drummer Jo Jones – and mixing in some younger musicians who were well-versed in this style but would bring new ideas to the table – trumpeter Ruby Braff, drummer Bobby Donaldson, saxophonists Lucky Thompson, Paul Quinichette, Sam Margolis, trombonist Urbie Green and above all, Mel Powell. For a recording venue he used Masonic Hall in Brooklyn, with its excellent piano and warm, very live ambient sound, which required drummers who could play well with brushes, such as Jones, Donaldson, Jimmy Crawford and Les Erskine.
The records Hammond produced for Vanguard over the next four or five years were uniformly excellent, both musically and sonically, and very well-received by the critics. They helped give birth to the term “mainstream jazz” which has become somewhat jaded over the years, but originally meant a lyrical, swinging, timeless style that didn’t readily fit into any previous categories. This music was neither traditional jazz or bebop, it was mostly small-group swing, but with some modern, forward-looking touches. These reflected some of the more recent developments in jazz absorbed by the younger musicians involved, but were largely tied to the balanced, classic 4/4 rhythmic concept of Count Basie, using a repertoire made up of both standard songs and simple riff-based tunes. The free-wheeling quality of this music was aided by the longer-playing format of the 10″ disc and later the LP, which afforded the musicians more room and freedom to stretch out than before, giving many of the performances a spacious, unhurried, spontaneous feeling.
The first Vanguard jazz releases from 1953, two 10″ volumes of the Vic Dickenson Showcase, were a kind of shot over the bow, a manifesto for this new-old approach to jazz. If you haven’t heard these, you really ought to, they’re classics, among the very best jazz records ever made. I keep returning to them with renewed pleasure and each time I hear them is like the first time for me. They feature a septet with a front line of Vic’s trombone, Edmond Hall’s clarinet and Ruby Braff on cornet. The rhythm section is just superb, pure Count Basie – the great Sir Charles Thompson on piano, with Steve Jordan on rhythm guitar, Walter Page playing bass and Les Erskine on drums. (There was a second set from 1954 with this same group but with Shad Collins on trumpet and Jo Jones on drums.)
There are other equally valid approaches to playing jazz and other great jazz records, but these sides highlight the essentials of jazz – swing, lyrical melodic invention, individuality of tone and expression, spontaneity, intimacy, ensemble teamwork, relaxation, blues and humour – in a very pure and effortless way, with an immediacy as though these men were playing just for you in your living room. They have an ageless, time-has-stopped quality, unfolding like a leisurely conversation of statements from the three brilliant horns and Thompson’s piano, all dancing on the carpet provided by the propulsive and unhurried rhythm section.
Although everyone plays beautifully here, Ruby Braff really carries the day and puts the music over the top; these are the sessions which established him as a top-ranking new artist. More than anyone, Braff would become the face of this mainstream style of the Hammond/Vanguard issues. He made quite a few sessions for the label as both leader and sideman, and along with these Dickenson sides, I think Braff’s three records with pianist Ellis Larkins are the best the label produced, they’re masterpieces in the chamber-jazz art of duet playing. Although quite different, I would place Mel Powell’s two Vanguard trio records, “Borderline” and “Thigamagig”, alongside these.
They were recorded a week apart on August 17 and 24, 1954, and while each is a trio session, neither had the normal piano-bass-drums lineup. Both have Powell’s piano and Bobby Donaldson’s drums with a horn – Paul Quinichette’s tenor on “Borderline” and Braff’s cornet on the later session.
Though I’m a bassist, I’ve come to really like this bass-less trio format. The subtraction of the bass brings more space and a lighter, airier sound to a group and both puts a premium on and frees the piano player, allowing him greater leverage to interject ideas, giving this type of trio more of a contrapuntal, chamber music feeling. For this kind of trio to succeed the pianist must be a great, flexible player, such as Teddy Wilson (in the Benny Goodman Trio of the 1930s with Gene Krupa), or Nat King Cole (on the great 1940 Lester Young trio date with Buddy Rich on drums.) Other good examples are the trio records Dave McKenna made in the 1980s with Scott Hamilton on tenor and Jake Hanna on drums; because of McKenna’s penchant for playing left-hand bass lines, these almost feel like a band with a bass, but are still subtly different.
The version of “What’s New?” I mentioned much earlier is on the record with Quinichette. The song was written by bassist Bob Haggart in late 1938 and was originally called “I’m Free”, conceived as a ballad feature for trumpeter Billy Butterfield of the Bob Crosby Orchestra. It became very popular and the title changed to “What’s New?” when famed lyricist Johnny Burke wrote words for it. It’s a beautiful, very flexible song which works well vocally or instrumentally in various styles. It’s also very adaptable to various tempos – really, it’s a slow ballad, but I’ve heard and played it at a medium tempo to good effect and Shelly Manne’s quintet made a terrific live recording of it at a surprisingly fast clip.
It adheres to the common A-A-B-A, 32-bar song form, but “What’s New?” is unusual for a couple of reasons, firstly its harmony. Each A section begins in the home key of C major, then quickly moves to the unrelated key of A-flat major and from there to the related C minor, resolving back to C major. Secondly, the bridge simply takes the A section up a fourth to F major, which is dramatic but also rare – most songs have bridges with a different content than the A sections. This gives the song a cyclical, open-ended quality and when I play it I have to concentrate more than usual to keep my place in the form.
These interesting features all come into play in Mel Powell’s arresting version and may be part of the reason he chose to record it – I don’t know – but he surely takes the song on a journey, takes it apart and puts it back together again.
The Powell trio’s version lasts about eight minutes and forty seconds, very long for a ballad in that day. The original liner notes say that Powell felt the take was too long and they tried a shorter one which was never released; everyone else felt the longer take was an instant classic. It begins with a brief, out of tempo, piano introduction which doesn’t hint at the tune at all. It’s somewhat ambiguous, mildly dissonant and serves to establish a key and mood, as if to announce, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.” There’s a brief pause and suddenly they’re into the tune at a medium-slow ballad tempo of just faster than one beat per second, each of the four choruses taking about two minutes.
Quinichette made no bones about his devotion to the style of Lester Young and here he plays the melody fairly straight with his limpid, vulnerable, late-period Pres sound. Donaldson throughout plays time delicately but firmly, using wire brushes on the snare and ride cymbal washes. Even at this slow tempo he uses his bass drum; it isn’t a dull or jarring thud, but rather a low puff of sound, like plush velvet curtains draped around the bottom of the group. The song’s melody is slow-moving and spacious, Powell begins to subtly alter the harmonies underneath it right away, using some dissonant passing tones on the tonic C major chord in bar one, a DbMaj7 in bar two instead of the usual Bbminor7/Eb7 and an Fminor chord with some mild tensions in place of the normal AbMaj7 chord of bar three; these give the song a more elysian, pastoral quality. He breaks up the time in bar five with some long, staggered chromatic lines which use the extreme low and high registers of the piano like Duke Ellington often did.
In general, he fills the spaces around the melody with a counterpoint in eighth-notes, both linear and chordal, which accompanies the melody but also acts as a running commentary on it, probing and pushing at the underlying harmonies, altering the song’s mood and showing it in a new light. The entire track is very quiet and delicate; the melody chorus in particular is almost achingly gentle and there’s nothing busy or aggressive in Powell’s playing here, the energy comes from the force of his musical ideas alone. Within seconds, the image emerged in my mind of a spider spinning a web between the fixed points of the melody and Donaldson’s pulse. Indeed, what Powell plays has an eerie, gossamer quality which draws the listener inward.
Quinichette improvises over the three A sections in the second chorus, gently implying double-time occasionally, but still staying close to the contours and tonality of the melody as the piano continues to dissemble the harmony. Powell solos on the bridge, taking things further into polytonal territory.
Powell takes all of the third chorus with Donaldson continuing his stately watercolour of brushwork. The piano solo here is not the typical one of right-hand lines with left-hand comping, or locked-hand block chords, it’s more organic and orchestral, a mini-sonata of counterpoint and motif, increasingly abstract. While the tempo and form of the song remain intact, as I listened, time itself seemed to stand still and considerations of jazz style and when this was recorded dissolved as Powell’s inventions become more abstract and free of tonality. There are some delicious blues flourishes at the beginning of the bridge and he becomes more chromatic coming out of it and throughout the last eight bars, till the sense of a key and what song is being played have almost melted away, but not quite.
Quinichette re-enters with variations of the melody in the fourth chorus, the piano continuing to decorate with a kind of impressionistic stride-piano underneath him for sixteen bars. Powell again takes the bridge, using a spinning three-note motif between his hands for the first four bars, then begins a series of tonally ambiguous chords in eighth notes, moving in contrary motion from the middle of the keyboard to the very top and bottom simultaneously. The intensity of these build for the final four bars of the bridge to form a crescendo (with Donaldson responding in kind) into Quinichette’s return with the final eight bars of melody. The climax continues as Powell now backs the melody with a string of bigger, more dramatic chords, almost a Rachmaninoff-stride, and he plays a sparkling downward Art Tatum run into bar twenty-eight. At bar thirty-one, they slow and pause briefly on four chords – Cmajor, Eb7, Abmaj7 and G7 – with Quinichette playing short cadenzas on each, ending on the third of the final tonic chord, with Powell playing an ambivalent upward run as a closing flourish.
The whole track took my breath away, I was entranced right away and by its end I was limp and stunned, just bowled over by the creative intelligence of it and deeply moved by the feeling, the mood of rapture it conveyed. It’s lyrical and gentle, yet daring, profound and somewhat dark, a yearning threnody to the past and absent friends. And Powell’s sound on the piano – pearly, glowing, yet crackling. Very few pianists achieve this – Tatum, Wilson, Hank Jones, John Lewis, Bill Evans. In fact, the harmonic ideas and mood of this track remind me a little of “Peace Piece” from Evans a few years later, except that this is a group effort involving an entire song rather than an extended solo improvisation over two chords.
Aside from the listening pleasure its beauty affords, this performance carries some lessons, not the least of which is to trash some of our preconceptions about creativity, jazz styles, the pigeon-holing effect of arbitrary musical labels and the limitations of imaginary “periods”. I took the title of this essay partly from the song, but also to signify how fresh and new this track sounds to me. One could be forgiven for asking how I could possibly describe something recorded so long ago (two years less a day before I was born) as new, but remember that no matter how old a recording is, the first time you hear it, it’s new to you. And if it was as daring, unique and honest as this to begin with, these qualities will survive the passage of time. True originality and sincerity don’t have a shelf life. The fact that three musicians recorded something 58 years ago that still sounds so utterly fresh to me today is exactly my point. I’ve listened to and played an awful lot of music over the years and fear sometimes that my ears have become jaded, incapable of being surprised – the delight this track brings to me even after repeated listening is both proof of the pudding and a relief. The same goes for many great recordings both older and newer than this, their immortality lies in your desire to hear them again and again and that each listening is like the first one, just as in the excitement of hearing a great live performance.
Because jazz has so much improvisation, exists in the moment and is continually evolving and taking on new influences, many involved with it have become primarily concerned with the present only, discarding or ignoring much of the music’s history. This has resulted in scenarios such as university-level jazz students who don’t know any songs or much about bebop, let alone earlier styles such as swing or, God forbid, Dixieland. Or young players who think they’re really happening because they can play in 7/4 or “go all the way back to Coltrane.” To make matters worse, many contemporary jazz musicians have adopted the customs of written classical music, such as an increased emphasis on composition and complex time-signatures, while neglecting things they should be doing that classical musicians can’t do, such as swing, feel the blues and play with a personal, distinctive sound. I just don’t get it.
This historical disconnect doesn’t exist nearly as much in classical music, which goes back much further, but has a written tradition. Soloists or musicians who play in symphony orchestras and other ensembles are expected to know and perform the entire breadth of the repertoire and are trained to do so at the university level – I don’t see why it should be any different for jazz just because it’s largely improvised. And similarly, classical music concert-goers don’t object to a program containing music by Mozart or Bach, although they’ve each been dead for centuries; these and other masters are simply seen as part of the continuum of the music. Contrast this with some of the attitudes seen in jazz, such as reactionaries who insist that the music stopped with Benny Goodman (or whomever), or musicians who will only play their own compositions because standards are so old-news, as though the idea was to play originals, instead of to play originally.
A performance like this version of ‘What’s New?” can sweep all this tiresome nonsense aside and reminds me to drop considerations of style or age and focus instead on the big musical issues that never go away or grow old. Such as, how the music actually sounds and feels, how the musicians deal with structure and form, how much space is to be filled and by whom and how, does the music hang together and have rhythmic vitality and some contour, balance and dynamics to avoid monotony. In other words, is it any good? I’d rather hear a good Dixieland player than a bad bebopper and vice versa.
Although its success largely derives from the unique genius of Mel Powell, this track nevertheless shows how much can be done with the song form if musicians use their imaginations, play honestly and keep their ears and minds open. And if they really know the raw material of the song, its melody and harmony, and use these purely, without resorting to the rhythmic conceit of 7/4, 5/4 or other hat sizes. The music of Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh demonstrates this, as does the approach of the Keith Jarrett Trio. In fact, I’ve been lucky throughout my career to have had this point driven home repeatedly by getting the chance to play with great musicians who mostly have in common the love of improvising on songs – Ruby Braff, Ed Bickert, Fraser MacPherson, Warren Vache, Konitz, Zoot Sims, Jake Hanna, Reg Schwager, Scott Hamilton, Rob McConnell, Mike Murley. None of these men really came out of a “Style”, but each developed his own style out of the jazz tradition.
Another lesson from “What’s New?” is that while most of the inventiveness comes from Mel Powell, the more modest and functional contributions of Paul Quinichette and Bobby Donaldson are important too because they serve as contrast, bringing Powell’s daring originality into bold relief. Without contrast there can be no balance, without space there can be no focus, and both are essential to a good jazz performance, or any good art for that matter. I sometimes hear live jazz that suffers from a lack of these because everyone is trying to do too much all at once – the soloist is playing too many notes and the rhythm section is chasing each other around playing too busily or always at the same volume. The result is music that sometimes goes beyond the ability of its audience to listen comfortably because it lacks balance, contrast, space and the clarity these bring.
While not quite as singular as “What’s New?”, the rest of the music on “Borderline” is delightful. There are two fine Powell originals – the fast title track, with its percussive and syncopated melody – and “Quin and Sonic”, a medium tempo exploration of whole-tone harmony. Some old chestnuts – “Avalon”, “Cross Your Heart”, “Makin’ Whoopee” and “If Dreams Come True” – are given very fresh treatments thanks to Powell’s brilliance as a composer/arranger, they’ve never quite sounded like this. “Dreams” is particularly recast, as Powell plays the melody in block chords over a double-time tango/beguine rhythm. It’s all beautifully recorded and the piano playing throughout is a marvel. It’s subtle and refined, but also steams and jumps with bristling momentum and creativity. There are sparkling touches of the past – Tatum runs, some Teddy Wilson 4/4 stride, Earl Hines tremolos, some Basie splanks – but all filtered through Powell’s unique and kaleidoscopic sensibilities.
“Thigamagig” doesn’t have a track quite like “What’s New?”, but is maybe even better, with a broader range of moods and colours, some faster tempos and a little more jump. This is largely due to Ruby Braff, who’s a more daring and resourceful improviser than Quinichette, has the virtuosity and chutzpah to meet Powell on his own level. The two fast numbers here have the quality of friendly jousting and are reminiscent of the celebrated Louis Armstrong-Earl Hines 1928 duet “Weather Bird”, but with Donaldson’s drums chugging along underneath.
There are three Powell originals here, one of which, “Don-Que-Dee”, is a mambo featuring a very musical drum solo; Donaldson is given more room on this record and shines throughout. The second is the title track, fast and ebullient, with a beautiful, singing melody for cornet over a hyper-kinetic piano counter-melody, then into some exhilarating choruses with exchanges and breaks between all three men. The whole thing is over in less than three minutes, yet is almost exhausting. The third original is “Bouquet”, a complex and delicate mood piece, which starts with a stark melody played by Braff, his cornet sounding for all the world like a bugle, over some very Bartokian, percussive piano. It then moves into solos over an elusive set of changes at a medium-tempo which recall several standards without quite sounding like any of them. Powell plays some beautifully smooth stride-piano here, both while soloing and under Braff, then they move out of tempo and back to the melody. The record closes with a very fast, bravura treatment of “California, Here I Come”, with Powell playing the melody sounding like a man with three hands, Donaldson barely able to keep up. Powell and Braff take the gloves off and have at it, and there are brilliant breaks and exchanges between them and Donaldson before they suddenly take it out, leaving firecracker smoke trailing in the air.
I’ve been turning to these two records often in recent weeks, there’s just so much music here. They’re beautiful, swinging, thought-provoking, genre-busting and above all, fun. Powell’s other Vanguard records are not quite as rewarding, though very good. His first is a septet date from 1953, split between a straight-ahead group (featuring Buck Clayton, Edmond Hall and the trombone of Henderson Chambers), which is quite reminiscent of the Vic Dickenson dates, and a group playing some of his chamber music compositions. “Out On A Limb” is from 1955 and also has two groups, the first a septet given over more to highlighting his imaginative arranging and the second a terrific quintet featuring Braff, Donaldson, Skeeter Best on guitar and Oscar Pettiford on bass. From 1956, “Bandstand” has an octet including French horn and on some tracks a little-known, favourite singer of Powell’s named Joan Wile. All of these, save the chamber music stuff, are available on a two-disc set called “Mel Powell – Four Classic Albums Plus” from an English outfit named Avid Jazz that has been issuing similar packages of various artists recently. For good measure, they’ve also included a rare 1947 EP session from Powell’s California days. All of the original cover art and liner notes are also here, plus each album is issued with the tracks in their original sequence. I found my copy in a local record store for about twenty-five dollars, a bargain for five album’s worth of such rare and good music. The price is even cheaper if you order directly from Avid’s website: www.avidgroup.co.uk.
To complete the Mel Powell story, he retreated from jazz again in 1958 for a very long time. Hindemith retired from Yale and Powell was asked to take his place as chair of composition and he also had the chance to direct one of America’s first electronic music studios. He taught and composed there for about a decade, then in 1969 returned to California as a founding dean of the California Institute of the Arts. He hadn’t played jazz publicly for almost thirty years when he suddenly accepted an invitation to play at the 1987 “Floating Jazz Festival” aboard the SS Norway, alongside Benny Carter, Howard Alden, Milt Hinton and Louie Bellson. Although always devoted to the new, Powell preferred to do his jazz playing among swing-oriented musicians, albeit the very best of these. He liked drummers who laid down the time, walking bass, rhythm guitar, and lyrical, elegant horn players. He practiced rigorously for months to prepare and by all reports had a crackling good time in re-scratching his persistent jazz itch. A live recording was issued, called “The Return of Mel Powell.” I haven’t heard it, but I’ll be seeking it out. Powell returned to his teaching and composing and was much surprised to win the Pulitzer in 1990 for his “Dualities: A Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra.” It was the most prestigious of many decorations he received for musical or academic achievement. He died at 75 from liver cancer at his home in Sherman Oaks on April 24, 1998.
Had he not been a composer but “only” a great jazz pianist, Powell would have been more active and better recognized now as one of the greatest ever, which I still think he is, despite his brief and intermittent career. It doesn’t work that way though; without the composer dimension his playing wouldn’t have been what it was, you can’t have it both ways. It’s interesting, but often people of Powell’s prodigious talent and intellectual capacity tend toward seriousness and I think he satisfied this side of himself in his formal composing. His jazz playing, though creative, challenging and technically brilliant, is mostly very cheerful, light-hearted. When he plays jazz, he makes it sound easy, he’s playing, in the sandbox sense. His profound and playful sides come together though in “What’s New?”, making it my favourite Powell track. Because he played so rarely and was so unusually gifted, there was never any danger of there being a Mel Powell “school” of piano playing. He was literally inimitable and, like his career, unique.
© 2012 – 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.