Thursday, April 3, 2008

Paris Jam Session: What Bud Did

Things start tentatively. Bud Powell, mere accopanyist to no man, kicks off 'Dance of the Infidels' as though he's teaching the melody to the other musicians - or perhaps even to himself. The young Jazz Messengers, perhaps in equal doses terrified and in awe of the illustrious keyboardist sitting in with them, play some safe but unspectacular solos, their lines rushed as though trying to get them over with as quickly as possible. Art Blakey, ever the stoic, hammers his drum kit with authority, hopeful that this makeshift line-up can overcome a sluggish start.

Then, Bud begins to fly. His solo is a mantra: it captures your attention, keeps you momentarily fixated, then allows your mind to wander before it sucks you back in. At its best, jazz is not simply improvised playing: the reaction the music and the mind make while colliding ensures that it can be improvised listening as well.

Lee Morgan eventually asserts himself with brief trumpet flourish that has you convinced that five years have passed since Powell's solo began, not five minutes. He suddenly posesses all the manic drive of Dizzy Gillespie, all the power of Clifford Brown and all the control of Roy Eldridge. By the time that 'Bouncing with Bud' rolls around every player is his best, shamed into inspired soloing by the cantankerous be-bop star on the ivories. Powell wasn't about to accept anything less than number one from himself - why should he be any different with his bandmates? The tune is cleaner and more accomplished than its predecessor but far less interesting; hearing a rag tag bunch get their act together always trumps tight solo dynamics.

Powell departs - the booming applause is more an attempt to continue the music than respond to it - but his shadow hangs over the Jazz Messengers as they finish off the gig. There's a hurried precision to 'A Night in Tunisia' that is impossible to imagine without 'Dance of the Infidels' and 'Bouncing with Bud' having come before. No way were they going to give the audience a colossal let down now that Powell was gone.

Good cop, bad cop: the Jazz Messengers often lacked the element of a strict disciplinarian to keep them in line. In Blakey, they had their kindly English literature prof to nurture them but they only sporadically had a hard driving Biology instructor to push them further. Horace Silver played that roll in the early days and Bud Powell filled in ably on this particular evening. He might have done more for the Jazz Messengers had he stuck around a little longer but didn't he do enough?

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