Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Mel Powell: It’s Been So Long

The master of an already fully matured, swinging style based on a synthesis of both Jess Stacy and Teddy Wilson, when 18-year-old Mel Powell joined Benny Goodman in 1941, he was the most promising young jazz pianist on the scene. He recorded dozens of classic sides with Benny’s big band and combos and was soon an important member of Glenn Miller’s wartime band, only later to immerse himself in the world of modern European concert music as both composer and pianist, studying under Hindemeth and ultimately moving on to post-Schoenberg atonality. He resurfaced as a jazzman only sporadically in the late ’40s, but with his 1953-55 Vanguard recordings he reminded his many fans that he had not completely abandoned them.

This collection of Powell reissues draws from four of his LPs, and, quite happily, largely concentrates on the hotter, more swinging performances by this sometimes frustratingly diverse musician. For example, the first three tracks (“‘Swonderful,” “It’s Been So Long,” and “You’re Lucky to Me”) feature Buck Clayton, Edmond Hall, trombonist Henderson Cambers, and Powell over a Basie-type ground provided by rhythm guitarist Steve Jordan, Walter Page, and Jimmy Crawford, and are definitive examples of heated mainstream jazz. Track 4, a single excerpt from another album, showcases the long respected jazz French-hornist Jimmy Buffington on “When Did You Leave Heaven,” while from 1956’s Out on a Limb, we hear five tracks by a studio-based septet and rhythm quartet playing charts that were even then considered only minimally hip. What these sides reveal is that, while Mel was easily the harmonic equal of his contemporaries in the boppish mid-’50s, his rhythmic concept was still deeply rooted in older patterns, i.e., swing era phrasing grafted onto laid-back, West Coast cool sensibilities. It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now.

For this listener, however, apart from the free-wheeling opening session with Buck and Ed, the greatest pleasure derives from the complete 1954 trio date with Pres-styled tenorman Paul Quinichette and drummer Bobby Donaldson. On these seven performances, which were first released on LP under the name of Borderline, the critically under-appreciated Basie saxman justifies the faith that so many of his contemporaries had in him. Just listen to the way that he, a relatively unsophisticated, primarily self-taught, blues-based jazzman, adjusts himself to Powell’s haromically demanding compositions and challenging reharmonizations of standard tunes. Given the progressive nature of Powell’s charts, Stan Getz might have seemed a more appropriate choice as the hornman for this date, but the selection of Paul was unquestionably the best, most divine inspiration.

Originally Published