There have so many pianists that have shaped the legacy of jazz music but there is one who towers above them all. Without Bud Powell there would be no Wynton Kelley, no Horace Silver, no McCoy Tyner, and no Chick Corea. Certainly Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, and Sonny Clark would have sounded much different. Even the pianists you might think are not influenced by Bud, such as Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, owe a great deal to the master. Early Bill Evans recordings reveal a close stylistic affinity with Powell, and Jarrett has recorded many of Powell's compositions on his trio dates- enough to let you know that he has more than a passing fancy.
The first Bud record that I owned was s Verve "twofer" called The Genius of Bud Powell, which comprised his trio and solo work from 1949-1951. I was just fifteen, new to jazz, but from the opening off-to-the-races intro of Tempus Fugit, Bud had won yet another disciple.
It would be impossible for me to overstate his importance to jazz pianists. The connection I felt to him was instantaneous and thrilling. These sessions, recorded in such a brief span of time, are the lexicon from which future pianists would study.
His technique is prodigious, but not as frightening and daunting as that of Art Tatum. He's just mortal enough to allow you to have a smidgen of belief that it is attainable.
The technique, however, is the tip of the iceberg. Check out his clarity of ideas. He rarely repeats himself, even on the extended choruses of All Gods Children Got Rhythm, Tea For Two, and Parisian Thoroughfare. His attack is hard, yet he never forces the beat. He is secure in the center of the beat, rarely clams a note, and is so confident in the up tempo numbers that they hardly sound fast at all - just musical. His ideas, in fact, are so well-formed that he becomes a be-bop impressionist - painting in colors we could not dream of.
These sides, and I've heard them hundreds of times, never get old to me. I am as dumbfounded listening to them today as I wax 35 years ago. His ballad playing is like no other pianist I've ever heard. Phrases come in clusters, seemingly unrelated to the beat, but that is only an illusion; his time is never less than perfect. He appears to have found a way to use the maximum amount of pedal without ever slurring notes. He is romantic but never scmaltzy.
His personality looms over everything. From the startling originals, Hallucinations and The Fruit, to the clever re-working of the standards Tea For Two and Cherokee, he is in command and the music has such forward momentum that you almost get the feeling that his sidemen - Max Roach and Ray Brown - giants in their own rite, are merely along for the ride. This is bourne out on his solo sides of 1951, in which the tunes are so alluring, and his time so strong that on first listen one can be forgiven for not noticing the absence of a rhythm section! Bud, you left us far too soon, but thank you for all that you have given us. We can never repay you, and we will never forget you.