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Ethan Iverson/Umbria Jazz Orchestra: Bud Powell in the 21st Century (Sunnyside)

A review of one great pianist's take on the legacy of another

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Cover of Ethan Iverson album Bud Powell in the 21st Century
Cover of Ethan Iverson album Bud Powell in the 21st Century

Given that he was one of the primary architects of bebop—revered by Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Don Cherry, and so many others—it’s surprising to note that the piano giant Bud Powell only led one session with horns. On August 9, 1949, he, trumpeter Fats Navarro, tenor saxophonist Rollins, bassist Tommy Potter, and drummer Roy Haynes cut four tunes at WOR Studios in New York: Thelonious Monk’s “52nd Street Theme,” and Powell’s originals “Bouncing with Bud,” “Dance of the Infidels,” and “Wail.”

Decades later, this session caught the ears of pianist, scholar, and JazzTimes columnist Ethan Iverson. “This is tough, demanding music, nearly unfit for civilians,” he reported on his Do the Math blog, noting killing performances by each member. “What might have happened to jazz history if Powell had kept writing quintet music?” Judging by the scale of Iverson’s new album, Bud Powell in the 20th Century, he’s attempting to answer that question and then some.

For this ambitious hourlong program, Iverson fused a crack quintet—trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, tenorist Dayna Stephens, bassist Ben Street, and drummer Lewis Nash—to the Umbria Jazz Orchestra, an Italian big band. In a premise comparable to Brad Mehldau’s 2018 solo-piano album After Bach, Iverson juxtaposes Powell tunes—including the above four—with compositions inspired by Powell, like “Nobile Paradiso.” He intersperses the results with minute-long chorales called “Spells,” containing germs of Powell’s harmonic thinking.

Sans the buffer of sleeve notes and supplemental materials, what does this music reveal about Powell the man, who broadened harmony to divine dimensions, suffered physical and mental illness, and died young? Tough to say. Might it compel you to check him out—or, if you’re already hip to him, dig deeper? If so, Bud Powell in the 21st Century more than justifies its own existence.

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