Pianist Bud Powell’s career had near cinematic arc. He had all of the technical tools needed to move into the front rank of players by the time he was in his late teens. He was the first pianist to truly understand all of the melodic, rhythmic and harmonic implications of the new music that wound up being termed bebop. If he fell slightly short of being Charlie Parker, he was at least the equal of Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro, the only other players whose mastery of the idiom was complete. It could be argued that he was the most compelling player of the group — a man incapable of not showing his in-the-moment emotions in his improvisations.
But by the early 1950s, Bud’s mental health had deteriorated to the point where his technical brilliance had become imperiled. From there on, what becomes most valuable in his work is the degree to which this descent sits in a kind of artistic equipoise with his expressivity. Moods is Bud Powell’s creative midpoint; as such, it is in some ways his greatest album. It’s dark — very dark — but poised, heartbreakingly beautiful, harmonically challenging, and was recorded early enough in his life that Bud’s dexterity was still largely intact. More than anything else, Bud Powell’s playing was deep; never was it deeper than on Moods.
Anyone listening for the young tyro who tore through “Cherokee” or “Salt Peanuts” may be initially disappointed, as the program is largely made up of ballads. But what ballads! Powell’s understanding of great standards like “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Spring is Here” and “Time Was,” goes past matters of melody or harmony. He moves to the tunes’ emotional centers with the same kind of sympathy a great vocalist like Billie Holiday would bring; that these are tunes with lyrics is almost self-evident. All of the performances feature bass and drums, and although the sidemen are uniformly excellent (with Art Blakey and Art Taylor dividing the drumming chores, and George Duvivier, Percy Heath, and Lloyd Trotman handling the bass assignments), Moods is a one-man show; the rhythm section merely serves in Bud’s support.
What strikes me most about Powell’s interpretations is how thoroughly invested he is in melody — often making a stately double octave thematic introduction with chords between — and in the movement of internal harmonic voicings. He is less concerned than in his youth with linear exposition. The pianist seems to have dipped back a full era from Bird to Art Tatum as a primary source. I’m very taken by the small secondary lines that Bud plays on “Moonlight in Vermont.” They serve as connectors between phrases. “Spring is Here” is cut from the same cloth, played with great respect to the melody, but with an added understanding of harmonic implications; Powell emphasizes the minor major 7th opening chord in a way that makes it poignant. “Buttercup,” a Bud original dedicated to his wife, is more boppish than the rest of the set. It shows that, when he chose, the pianist was still entirely capable of stringing together inspired single note lines. “Fantasy in Blue” reinforces this impression. Played simply, evoking profound melancholy, “It Never Entered My Mind” is a masterpiece of concision. The man playing it is unmistakable. He was often billed as “The Amazing Bud Powell.” “Amazing” doesn’t begin to cover it.