Thursday, May 5, 2011

May 5: Bud Powell, "Parisian Thoroughfare"

Artist: Bud Powell
Song: "Parisian Thoroughfare"
Album: The Amazing Bud Powell
Year: 1951

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Perhaps moreso than any other genre, the world of jazz has more "giants" in its history, and this is largely due to the fact that over the course of just a few years, the genre splintered into so many sub-genres.  Throughout the 1940's and 1950's, it seemed that every few months, a new take on the jazz style was coming to the forefront, and it is due to this that it is quite difficult to give proper credit to all of those that caused this musical explosion.  However, there are a handful of performers that can be seen as absolutely essential to the overall development of music, and they represent a wide range of performance styles and instruments of choice.  In the top ranks of such a group is the great Bud Powell, and one can easily argue that he served as the main factor in the shifting of physical approach to the piano more than any other artist.  It was Powell's playing that served as the blueprint for nearly every "post-swing" piano player, and it was largely due to the fact that he ignored the traditional "purpose" of each hand on the piano and developed a completely new style in the process.  There is a freedom and tension within the playing of Powell that cannot be found elsewhere, and yet due to truly tragic circumstances, his period of expressing genius lasted a very short period of time.  However, before this set in, Bud Powell recorded some of the true "standards" of jazz, and among them was his absolutely brilliant 1951 composition, "Parisian Thoroughfare."

The history of the album on which "Parisian Thoroughfare" can be found is rather long and confusing, as there have been at least four different released bearing the same title.  However, in 2001, RVG released what is considered the comprehensive collection of all of the previous release versions, and it is this edition which listeners should seek.  In the case of "Parisian Thoroughfare," it was recorded twice; once as a solo piece, and again as a trio.  However, the trio version was aborted midway through the session, and it remains an incomplete take.  While both versions are readily available, it is the latter, trio version to which most are drawn, as it is has a swing and attitude missing from the former.  Throughout this version, the rhythm section stays well behind Powell, and yet bassist Curly Russell is clearly in top form, doing his best to keep up with Powell's fierce pace and almost wild progression changes.  There is a great amount of soul and swing within Russell's playing, and it is made even more clear by the drumming from fellow jazz legend, Max Roach.  This is without question one of Roach's finest recordings, as he seems to fly across the track, yet is able to do so without overshadowing either of his bandmates.  The speed and energy that can be felt throughout the entire run of "Parisian Thoroughfare" remains unmatched since, and one can only imagine what could have been had the session been completely.

However, while both Russell and Roach give some of the finest performances of their careers, it is Bud Powell who remains the focus of attention, and "Parisian Thoroughfare" is without question one of the two or three finest piano recordings in all of music history.  Even if one is not well versed in jazz theory or the technicalities of jazz piano, it only takes moments to realize and understand that there is "something" different going on within Powell's playing.  Not only in the sheer speed with which he navigates the composition, but there is an almost reckless freedom that one can feel, as after playing the main riff to the song, it is quite clear that Powell simply lets the emotion of the music lead his hands.  While he does not sacrifice any quality, there had simply been no other performer who worked the piano with such an almost playful manner, and even within his own catalog, the level of sheer joy one can feel on "Parisian Thoroughfare" remains unrivaled.  It is this speed and mood which make the title of the composition so fitting, as one can feel the bustle of a city street within the song, and the trio successfully imply a "stop and go" feeling, without ever actually making such literal rhythmic movements.  The sense of freedom and joy that can be heard throughout Bud Powell's "Parisian Thoroughfare" may seem "run of the mill" by today's standards, but one must look at the overall history of jazz to understand that it was his playing that caused this to become the norm.

Yet one can dig even deeper into the stylistic realities of Bud Powell's musical approach, and many rightfully make the case that due to the way in which he often worked single notes into long progressions, Powell was a close musical relative of Charlie Parker.  One can even go as far as saying that Powell was the first to properly interpret Parker's style on another instrument, and yet his style remains completely distinctive.  Unlike a majority of his peers and predecessors, one can detect which hand is working the piano at a given time, and it is in this fact that one can hear how rarely Powell uses his left hand for the traditional practice of bringing the chords of a given piece.  This almost stripped-down approach to the piano serves as one of the clear turning points in jazz music, as nearly every performer that followed took at least some aspect of Powell's performance style and integrated it into their own.  Though the best known version of "Parisian Thoroughfare" is cut short, there is so much energy and power flowing between the trio of performers that one cannot help but get caught up in the playing, and it is one of the few recordings that can truly transport a listener back to the studio space.  For so many reasons, one cannot understate the overall importance of Bud Powell, and one need look no further than his tremendous 1951 recording, "Parisian Thoroughfare," to completely understand just why he remains such an icon of jazz music.

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