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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Bud Powell: Live at the Blue Note Cafe, Paris 1961 (ESP-Disk')

When I put together this reissue, my focus was on fixing the track indexing (on the original CD release, if you just played the whole thing through, you'd never notice any problem, but if you skipped to a track, you'd be starting a few seconds into it) and using the original cover art, a pencil drawing by Francis Paudras. I probably should have had somebody with more Powell expertise write the booklet notes, but had to economize and thus wrote them myself. I could not have managed without constant reference to Peter Pullman's detailed biography Wail: The Life of Bud Powell, which I highly recommend. I bought it directly from Mr. Pullman via his website, and so should you!

Bud Powell moved to Paris, France at the end of March 1959. A 1954 arrest in Philadelphia for possession of heroin had cost him his cabaret card after his 1955 guilty plea in the case, so, for several years, he had been legally barred from steady gigs in New York City and had had to, instead, rely on out-of-town bookings, which did not always go well, given his mental problems and addictions. In contrast, a two-week engagement in November 1957, at Club Saint-Germain in Paris, had gone well.

Once in Paris, Powell soon hooked up with drummer Kenny Clarke, with whom he had made history in the previous decade on the jam sessions and recordings in which bebop was created. Clarke had had a band with Lester Young at the Blue Note CafĂ©, from January '57 into March (following which, Young, quite ill, returned to New York and immediately died). So Powell's arrival was fortuitous; he and Clarke played at the Blue Note for all of April. In December, they reconvened at the club, with bassist Pierre Michelot and—avoiding the question of who was the bandleader, though it was Bud who called the tunes—billed themselves as The Three Bosses. With time out for tours and festival appearances, they worked there for much of 1960 and '61 The first three tracks here, with Zoot Sims, date from January 1961.

Powell's alcoholism, prankishness, or a combination of both got the best of him in January 1962, when the Blue Note fired him for stealing a customer's drink. (Kenny Drew replaced him.) Powell then worked in Switzerland, Sweden, Copenhagen, and Norway for much of the rest of the year. Eventually, another visiting American saxophonist, Johnny Griffin, asked for Powell to accompany him at the Blue Note, and Powell got back in the club's good graces by 1963.

The longer trio set, recorded by Alan Douglas, is from 1961, although one discography, without explaining why, puts it in 1962, without pinning the date down any further. Though this is unlikely, were it true, it would have to have taken place in the first week of January '62, just before Powell was fired. It's hard to believe that anyone, while listening to Powell navigate the fleet tempos of these bebop standards, would care all that much about what might be as little as a matter of a week's difference.

Powell's work, from 1954 on, is generally denigrated, and certainly this always erratic artist, after a police beating, various shock therapies crudely administered during involuntary stays at mental institutions, the ravages of heroin and alcohol abuse, and the side effects of chlorpromazine AKA thorazine, was only rarely able to approach the top-notch digital technique he had flaunted in his youth. But sometimes, as in these concerts, he had good nights, and the greater expressiveness of his later years has its own attractions. His time in France rejuvenated him and spared him the hassles and, to some degree, the temptations of New York that had dragged him down. Nearing the sunset of his career, his musical light could still burst through the clouds and dazzle his faithful listeners.

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