Let me begin by saying that I'm no Bud Powell aficionado. I understand there were undoubtedly times when he played far better than this, and times when he may have played even worse. All I can say with assurance is that had I not seen Powell's name and picture on this album, I never would have guessed it was him.
These unrehearsed sessions were taped in Paris between 1961-64, long after Powell's best days were behind him. This is Powell essentially alone at the piano, in Francis Paudras' apartment in rue de Boursault, noodling away on an Erard baby grand, playing for his own amusement and presumably never dreaming that his cursory exercises, taped on what is said to be an English Ferrograph recorder, might one day reach a wider audience.
Powell still knew where to place his fingers, which is more than I know, but the once-brilliant technique and unflagging imagination are rarely in evidence, which is especially apparent on the faster tunes ("Shaw 'Nuff," "I Hear Music," "Idaho"). I sometimes wonder how Bud felt about that. Whatever his emotions, he kept on playing, no doubt because he had no choice; that's what he was born to do.
At slower tempos there are traces of the old Powell, the one who admired Art Tatum, mastered his style and broadened it to form his own bop-centered vocabulary. But for the most part this sounds like almost any fair-to-middling pianist warming up in the privacy of his home or studio. The recording quality, of course, is quite variable, and one must occasionally endure Powell's rasping grunts and groans, most troubling on "Deep Night," wherein he sounds as though he were in the throes of some sort of seizure. And there are times when the piano is quite noticeably out of tune, as on "Mary's Improvisations" (which is actually the standard "Tenderly").
Considering Powell's enviable place in the jazz pantheon, the mystery to me is why anyone would want these tapes released to the public, least of all his daughter Celia, who took an active part in the enterprise, even chose some of the songs and writes in the liner notes that "the compilation exhibits the good, bad and ugly qualities near the end of [her father's] life..." If only the good weren't so conspicuously overshadowed by the bad and the ugly.
"Some people seek immortality because they never want to die," Celia Powell writes. "God gave Bud eternal life through the healing power of his music." Perhaps so, but without wishing to sound unfeeling, my guess is that this is not the Powell who will live forever in the hearts of music-lovers, nor is it the music on which God would likely have bestowed his blessing.