Mel Powell: Four Classic Albums Plus
Four Classic Albums Plus
Mel Powell replaced Teddy Wilson in the piano chair in the Benny Goodman band, took over the Glenn Miller Orchestra after the leader's demise, and followed both gigs with a career in the studios as a pianist and arranger. Then in the 1950s, he made the bold move to give up his career to study composition with Paul Hindemith and emerged five years later with a style that had one foot in the swing traditions of the big band era and the other in the compositional styles of the modernists while ignoring most of what had developed in between. His excellent 1950s solo work, collected here, swings like music from the 1930s yet with a modern compositional sensibility. The moldy figs probably didn't care for it, but Powell created an appealing style where chestnuts like "Button Up Your Overcoat" could sit comfortably next to more daring ideas.
Borderline and Thingamagig, two trio sessions from 1954, are absolute gems. Borderline features Bobby Donaldson on drums and Paul Quinichette on tenor sax; no bass, which gives the music an extra buoyancy and fleetness. They come roaring out of the gate on the title track, a tricky original with unexpected twists and turns in the head. This is followed by a laid back "Makin' Whoopee" and a sublime, nine minute "What's New." Throughout, Powell drives home some stride and boogie woogie influences which Quinichette floats over with laid back aplomb. "Avalon" closes out the session at a fearsome pace; Powell channels his inner Fats Waller for some dizzying runs.
On Thingamagig Quinichette is replaced by Ruby Braff on trumpet and the quintet goes even farther afield. "Bouquet" is an atonal Powell original, while "Don-Que-Dee" has a heavy Cuban influence. But then "Ain't She Sweet" is about as traditional as they come, Powell's hands pounding out the rhythm while Braff ambles overtop.
Out On a Limb from 1955 is Powell's masterpiece, in that it combines adventurous compositional tendencies with some fine traditional playing from an expanded group. "Pennies From Heaven" becomes a suite with an extended piano introduction and a tempo much slower than usual while the melody of "Stompin' At the Savoy" is fractured and put back together with counterpoint as the glue. Rarely do all the men play at once; rather, Powell picks and chooses from the arsenal those instruments that best suit the tonal range and mood he seeks. Although not afraid to tackle oldies like "Beale Street Blues" and "When Your Lover is Gone," the end result is a blend of the old and familiar with a new sensibility, sort of a Dixieland chamber music. "Cooch" is the best example of this approach. It's a number that quietly swings with understated guitar and piano and the barest hint of horn riffing.
The remaining sessions find Powell harkening back to days of yore, playing music that wouldn't have sounded out of touch with either Goodman or Miller. The Mel Powell Bandstand from 1954 is the real winner and boasts talented veterans like Buck Clayton on trumpet, Edmond Hall on clarinet, Walter Page on bass and Jimmy Crawford on drums in the lineup for four absolutely stellar performances. Powell uses the workhorses at his disposal to play rousing numbers from the golden age which caught everyone on a good day. The Mel Powell Bandstand from the same year is not as memorable; other than Mundell Lowe on guitar no one can match the firepower of the previous sessions and a couple of vocal numbers are forgettable.
The last tracks are from 1947, right before Powell went on hiatus and are of interest if only because they show the pianist leading a band before he took his sabbatical. We see a gifted bandleader and pianist who seems delighted to channel Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson at every turn, showing glimpses of the exploratory sense he would later develop.
Mel Powell may be one of the great lost pianists in jazz and these sessions have been very difficult to come by up until now. Although Powell's legacy will rest largely on his work for other people, for a brief period of time in the 1950s he produced some classic sides filled with invigorating music and a wealth of great ideas.
Tracks: CD1: Borderline; Makin' Whoopie; What's New; Quin and Sonic; If Dreams Come True; Cross Your Heart; Avalon; Thingamagig; You're My Thrill; Button Up Your Overcoat; Do-Que-Dee; Bouquet; Ain't She Sweet; Take Me In Your Arms; California, Here I Come; Gone With the Wind; Bunny Hug; Pennies From Heaven; Stopming at the Savoy; When You're Lover Has Gone. CD2: Cooch; Beale St. Blues; Three Little Words; You're Lucky To Me; Liza; The Best Thing For You Would Be Me; Rosetta; Ezz-May; My Last Millionaire; Everything I've Got; Firebug; Easy Swing; Soon; When Did You Leave Heaven; 'S Wonderful; It's Been So Long; I Must Have That Man; You're Lucky To Me; Anything Goes; Hallelujah; There's a Small Hotel; Way Down Yonder In New Orleans.
Personnel: Mel Powell: piano; Paul Quinichette: tenor sax (CD1#1-7); Bobby Donaldson: drums (CD1, CD2#1-7); Ruby Braff: trumpet (CD1#8-15, CD2#2-7); Al Mattaliano: trumpet (CD1#16- 20, CD2#1); Peanuts Hucko: clarinet (CD1#16-20, CD2#1); Nick Caiazza: tenor sax (CD1#16-20, CD2#1); Tommy Kay: guitar (CD1#16-20, CD2#1); Arnold Fishkin: bass (CD1#16-20, CD2#1); Oscar Pettiford: bass (CD2#2-7); Skeeter Best: guitar (CD2#2-7); John Glasel: trumpet (CD2#8-14); Chuck Russo: clarinet, alto and baritone sax (CD2#8-14); Joe Kay: bass (CD2#8-14); Jimmy Buffington: French horn (CD2#8-14); Boomie Richman: tenor sax (CD2#8-14); Mundell Lowe; guitar (CD2#8-14); Eddie Phyfe: drums (CD2#8-14); Joan Wile: vocals (CD2#9, 14); Edmond Hall: clarinet (CD2#15-18); Buck Clayton (CD2#15-18); Henderson Chambers (CD2#15-18); Steve Jordan: guitar (CD2#15-18); Walter Page (CD2#15-18); Jimmy Crawford: drums (CD2#15-18) Bumps Myers: sax (CD2#19-22); Jake Porter; trumpet (CD2#19-22); Lee Young: drums (CD2#19-22); Red Callender: bass (CD2#19-22).