Bud Powell biographer Peter Pullman refers to 1953 as the busiest year of the pianist’s career. It didn’t begin in the best of ways: Powell ended 16 months of occupancy in mental institutions. Before the calendar turned again, he would participate in the “Greatest Jazz Concert Ever,” at Toronto’s Massey Hall with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and Max Roach. But before and after Massey Hall, the pianist played almost weekly trio dates at Birdland, which were recorded and broadcast over the radio. His bandmates changed frequently yet Powell never ceased to amaze, playing with a stream of creativity that seemed to flow effortlessly from his hands. ESP-Disk’ and a few other labels have released these performances previously in single albums, but this three-disc collection offers a closer look at a very important time in Powell’s life.
A few years prior to these shows, the pianist recorded his now-classic tunes “Un Poco Loco,” “Dance of the Infidels” and “Glass Enclosure” for Blue Note. Hearing them live offers proof that they existed outside of the studio and that, in most cases, they were expanded and deepened on a regular basis. Art Taylor’s snare and brushes ably take the place of Max Roach’s vociferous cowbell in three solid versions of “Un Poco Loco.” Powell plays the intro to “Dance of the Infidels” in tempo, leading into a furious torrent of ideas, especially on the second of six versions, with Taylor and Mingus moving right with him.
Surprisingly, Powell the composer doesn’t reveal himself until the third disc. The first two discs feature a heavy dose of standards with a few bebop vehicles showing up along the way. Unlike his peer Thelonious Monk, Powell leaves the melody of “Tea for Two” after the head, coming up with his own hybrid of Art Tatum’s influence and bebop’s burgeoning rhythmic tricks. It arrives in the opening set, the first of two to include stellar support from Oscar Pettiford and Roy Haynes. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker drop in separately for a few dates. Fresh from Massey Hall, Gillespie, Mingus and Powell (and Haynes) burn through “Salt Peanuts.” Parker plays beautifully on another “Dance of the Infidels” and returns a week later with Candido to play his own “Moose the Mooche” and “Cheryl.” While a few of the tracks stray beyond the five-minute mark, all of the participants are adept at distilling their ideas down to a few enthralling choruses.
Considering the era and context of these recordings, it’s no surprise that the production sounds a bit flat. A few tracks even have the pop of a 33-rpm record, which throws the source recordings into question. At the same time, everyone can be heard relatively clearly, so there’s no real reason to quibble.