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Bud Powell: Eternity

These two CDs are not record albums in the traditional sense but crumpled, faded postcards from the Other Side, arriving unannounced in one’s mailbox with 40-year-old postmarks.

The Chicago critic J. B. Figi once described the landscape of Bud Powell as “leaden earth, thorn trees, strange hues at the horizon…and in the center of that blasted heath, Bud, a gnarled gnomic tree through which the wind twists song.”

Eternity, with its distorted, distant sound, delivers the gnarled tree of Powell’s spiritual landscape with more inescapable truth than any of his professional recordings. Eternity was culled by producer Jessica Shih and Powell’s daughter Celia from homemade tapes of Francis Paudras, the man who is remembered as the pianist’s devoted friend and protector during his final years in Paris. He also recorded hours of Powell’s solo piano performances on an unreliable English Ferrograph tape machine-and they are chilling. Powell picks his way through “‘Round Midnight” and “Spring Is Here” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” in a ponderous process of searching and insistence. He blocks out each shape until it looms there, in the strongest possible contrast to silence, not exactly music, more like pure human suffering ennobled and transcended by the act of its direct expression.

Bebop also comes mostly from the amateur tapes of Francis Paudras, originally issued on his own Mythic Sound label and from the same early ’60s period as Eternity, but this time recorded in French night clubs with bassists and drummers. The CD reveals that Powell, even near the end, on his good nights, could still invent in long, melodic right-hand lines, propelled by dissonant left-hand clanging chords. He could, that is, still play Bud Powell. There are performances here like bebop’s soul preserved in amber: a 90-second elemental “Now’s the Time” and a stark “I Remember Clifford” that will freeze you right in your chair.

Bebop also provides six fun tracks from a 1948 Sunday matinee jam session at the Royal Roost. But the unforgettable moments on both of these albums contain only Powell, alone with the songs that the wind twists through him.

Originally Published