Bud's Bubble

The pianist Bud Powell was mad even by bebop's standards

Speed in music can be a form of abstraction. About fifteen or twenty years ago the vibraphonist Milt Jackson, of the Modern Jazz Quartet, played an engagement at a Philadelphia neighborhood lounge, accompanied by a trio of uninspired local musicians. Visibly unhappy, Jackson sleepwalked through the first few numbers, nearly sinking to the level of the house trio instead of trying to raise it to his own. To make matters worse, a patron at the bar, who was either drunk or eager to show the rest of us how down with bebop he was, acted as if Jackson were taking requests.

The man wanted to hear a certain Charlie Parker tune. "How 'bout some 'Scrapple From the Apple,' brother?" he whined before every number, disrupting the band's concentration as Jackson counted off tempos.

After enduring this several times, Jackson fixed the man with a contemptuous stare. Without a word of warning to his sidemen, he tossed off the opening bars of "Scrapple From the Apple" at a tempo about twice as fast as Parker's moderate gallop. Racing to keep up with him after joining him on the bridge, the local musicians were soon playing way over their heads. The tempo kept accelerating, with Jackson's hands and mallets disappearing into twin blurs. Small talk at the tables came to a stop, and there was an extra split second of silence at the end, before we could bring our hands together to applaud. It lasted just long enough for Jackson's final note to echo gracefully, and for a familiar voice to plead, "'Scrapple From the Apple,' huh, Milt? Do it for me?"

I doubt the barfly would have recognized "Tea for Two" at the diabolical tempo the pianist Bud Powell chose for the ten consecutive versions he recorded, one right after another, at a 1950 recording session with the bassist Ray Brown and the drummer Buddy Rich. Some of these may have been false starts or incomplete takes; only the fifth, sixth, and tenth have ever been released. These three turned up again last year on The Complete Bud Powell on Verve (Verve 314 521 669-2), a five-disc set of Powell's recordings from 1949 to 1956 for Norman Granz's various labels (Mercury, Norgran, and Clef, as well as Verve).

Take ten is the killer. Powell begins slowly, as he does on the earlier takes, with an arioso statement of the seldom-performed verse, all the while half humming and half grunting an eerie countersong (a tic he shared with Glenn Gould); the ghost "voice" here could actually be Brown bowing his string bass. After you've heard Powell play "Tea for Two" and know what's coming next, your pulse begins to race in anticipation. A pianist I know says this performance is in "one," by which he means that no bandleader could count off four beats that fast without getting tongue-tied. Powell's improvised choruses hurry along at 336 quarter notes a minute, though a metronome would be useless in clocking his accelerating parade of sixteenths. This is not a tempo you could tap your foot to--who can tap his foot that fast?

Recognized by fellow musicians as the seminal bebop pianist almost from the moment in 1943 when, as a teenager, he made his professional debut as a sideman with the trumpeter Cootie Williams's big band, Powell is usually spoken of today not as an innovator but as a carrier of innovation. That is, he's credited with "translating" Charlie Parker's harmonic ideas to piano, much as J. J. Johnson is credited with translating them to trombone and Milt Jackson to vibraphone. This is meant figuratively--a way of saying that Parker showed the way and others soon followed. But the guitarist Bill De Arango tells an anecdote that puts a literal spin on the idea. Powell could be obnoxious as a young man, and De Arango once heard him bedevil Parker at a jam session by echoing each of Parker's phrases on piano a split second after Parker delivered it on his horn.

Some performances of Powell's sound like direct replies to Parker. A good example is "Bud's Bubble," from Powell's daredevil first session as a leader, in 1947. It's included on Bud Powell: The Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings (Blue Note CDP 7243 8 30083 2 2), a four-disc set that arrived in stores almost simultaneously with The Complete Bud Powell on Verve and overlaps with it chronologically; the set begins in 1947 and ends with a track recorded in Paris in 1963, three years before Powell's death from tuberculosis, malnutrition, and the effects of alcoholism. Nearly all the important recordings Powell made as a leader in the late 1940s and very early 1950s are on one or the other of these two sets, together with hours of performances from 1953 onward that trace his irreversible decline.

"Bud's Bubble" finds Powell at the top of his game. The tune itself--the "line," as musicians say--is essentially a speeded-up, more percussive version of Parker and Little Benny Harris's "Crazeology," which was itself based on the chord changes in George and Ira Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm." The specific Parker performance that Powell is chasing is probably the warp-speed "Ko Ko" that Parker had recorded just two years earlier, with Curly Russell on bass and Max Roach on drums--the same rhythm team as on "Bud's Bubble." The tempo here might actually be a hair faster than on the tenth take of "Tea for Two," and given that hornlike lines delivered with such velocity on piano require that each note be struck with even pressure and achieve equal duration, Powell's effortless articulation becomes even more impressive than his speed. But the most impressive aspect of all might be his ability to phrase coherently at such a daunting tempo--to think that fast and to translate his thoughts into action.

Presented by

Francis Davis

"If I go to a concert and I'm supposed to be reviewing it, and I'm taking notes, I sometimes wind up jotting down as much about the audience as I do about the performers," Francis Davis recently told The Atlantic in an online interview. "I'm interested in what music means to people: what does it signify to them?" A contributing editor to The Atlantic since 1992, Davis's interest in the social and intellectual significance of jazz, musical theater, pop, and blues has brought a unique depth to his career as a music critic and historian.

Davis's writing career began to take form in the scripts he wrote for a Philadelphia public-radio show (which he also produced and hosted) that specialized in playing out-of-print jazz. When his scripts evolved into more sophisticated jazz criticism, he started submitting them for publication and became a staff writer at a small New Jersey newspaper. Since his first article for The Atlantic, "The Loss of Count Basie" (August 1984), he has authored seven books: In the Moment (1986), Outcats (1990), The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People From Charley Patton to Robert Cray (1995), Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century (1996), Like Young (2001), Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael (2002), and Jazz and Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader (2004)

Davis writes for a variety of publications, including The Village Voice, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Stereo Review. A 1994 Pew Fellow in the Arts, he teaches a course in jazz, blues, and folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently working on a biography of John Coltrane and a history of jazz.

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