Pianist Tim Whalen brings his powerful tribute to Bud Powell to the Jazz Estate

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Cover design for Tim Whalen’s “Oblivion: The Music of Bud Powell” by Jamie Breiwick for  B-Side Graphics. Courtesy www.timothywhalen.com

Oblivion: The Music of Bud Powell – Tim Whalen (WayHay Music)

The Tim Whalen Trio will perform on Thursday, April 6 at The Jazz Estate in Milwaukee.

“Oblivion,” the title of a Bud Powell tune, might be the single best word to describe the great pianist’s sad legacy. His name is in need of desperate repair, ravaged by the winds of time and his own peculiar fate. Pianist-composer Tim Whalen has gone a considerable distance in accomplishing that with his album Oblivion: The Music of Bud Powell. But we must backtrack a bit to understand the title’s significance.

It remains a matter of bald historical fact that Bud Powell was the mid-and-late 40s bebop era’s most sought-after pianist, yet he remains to this day probably the most underappreciated, given his true stature.

His direct contemporary Thelonious Monk has had his day in the sun, something to be celebrated, thanks significantly  to a composing style apart from, and more easily congenial, than the hard-core bebop that Powell excelled at. And their stories interwtine and lead to perhaps the most fateful day of Powell’s career, which also speaks to present-day concerns about police brutality against unarmed black men.

It’s unfortunate that Robin D.G. Kelly’s largely impeccable and voluminous 2009 biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, doesn’t note the cruelty and neurological damage done by a police officer on the night of January 21, 1945 to the man that Kelley calls Thelonious Monk’s best friend.  According to Duck Baker, album annotator of Bud Powell Paris Sessions (Pablo 2002), “Bud was foolish enough to interfere with some Philadelphia flatfeet who were getting rough with his best friend, Thelonious Monk.” The bludgeoning Powell suffered for his loyal courage “changed the course of his life, as Bud was led to a series of mental ‘hospitals’ where he was pumped full of pills and given shock treatments.”

Powell’s life generally spiraled downward after that, though he managed a resurgence in 1946, as evidenced by several recordings and, after being readmitted to a mental institution in 1947, by his celebrated Blue Note recordings (especially 1951’s The Amazing Bud Powell Vol. 1.) Also excellent are recordings in Europe in the late ’50s and early ’60s, including a late reunion with Dexter Gordon on the saxophonist’s superb Our Man in Paris. His career ended in “scuffling obscurity,” says jazz historian Alyn Shipton, due to his complicated mental problems and issues with drugs, and ironically to his return to New York in 1964. This was a man who, in his early 20s with the Cootie Williams Orchestra, had accompanied stage acts “so brilliantly that he outplayed the dancers he was supposed to be accompanying,” bassist Ray Brown recalls in Shipton’s book.1

Regarding the deleterious effects of shock treatment, I can attest, as it has been still used in recent years in sophisticated hospitals and clinics. I witnessed shock treatments given to my late ex-wife who suffered cognitive damage after undergoing them at the Mayo Clinic and other facilities.

Monk, for one, remained much attuned to Powell’s travails. “Bud was a genius, but you know, he was so sick, and now he’s fragile,” Monk once recalled. Another time, Monk commented, “Bud is beautiful. But he’s not doing so well in America, he’s sleeping in the gutter.” Those are both quotes from Kelly’s copious Monk biography, which amounts to a new sort of definitive history of the bebop era.

Nor have I done Powell justice over the years, having become enamored of the late recordings he did of Monk’s music for Verve Records (and his Portrait of Thelonious on Columbia), to the neglect of Powell’s earlier work. Those Monk recordings somehow managed to be marvelous but were recorded long after he had lost his prime bebop musical facility and suffered from many medical peaks and valleys. 2.

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Pianist Tim Whalen at the recording sessions for “Oblivion: The Music of Bud Powell.” Courtesy timothywhalen.com

All of this underscores the importance and value of Whalen’s recording, which he will be playing from when he performs Thursday, April 6 at The Jazz Estate in Milwaukee with bassist Jeff Hamman and drummer Dave Bayles.

Comprising all Powell compositions except one by Whalen, Oblivion opens appropriately enough with “Hallucinations.” It conveys how much Bud possessed a spirit as high as his tragic bop kindred Charlie Parker. Whalen’s solo pushes hard, as if pressing to make a point about the tune’s odd juxtaposition of exuberance and sense of suffering. His heavy percussive attack recalls another bop-era pianist Eddie Costa, although he negotiates the knotty changes with aplomb.

What follows is one of Powell’s dazzling masterpieces, an impressionistic miniature comparable to Duke Ellington’s “Daybreak Express.” After a fine chordal intro, Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare” glitters with an ensemble line evoking a bustling street scene, with the band sounding like a crazy chorus-line of dancing cabs in a Folies Bergere fever dream.

Whalen finds fresh inlets of light by carving out spaces and adding garlands, a sort of blending of street smarts with Francophile ornamentation. Tenor saxophonist Elijah Jamal Balbed is a modern post-Coltrane player with a rich yet grainy texture to his tone that alludes to classic tenor players and adds an offhanded gravitas to his playing. Guitarist Paul Pieper proves a swift co-conspirator in Powell’s most challenging harmonic gauntlets. Drummer Sharif Taher here has a powerful chugging style reminiscent of Tony Williams.

“Kind Bud” is a deeper, darker aspect of Powell’s bebop and for its blues lament, almost intimates a political statement about the tragic fate of such a gifted artist, especially regarding his awareness of his place in society as a black man in a white man’s world.

“Un Poco Loco” is another ironic commentary on his own afflictions and perhaps the album’s hardest swinging tune, especially on Balbed’s surging sax solo. Whalen, by contrast, allows the music to breathe a bit, while never betraying the tune’s structural integrity.

The CD’s ensuing “Blue Pearl” is a rather glimmering beauty with a slight Latin tempo. The comparatively little-known tune has a lapidarian quality, reflecting a craftsman of precise discipline that begets beauty. Here and elsewhere, bassist Eliott Seppa’s harmonizing with the piano-guitar-saxophone frontline recalls the Heath Brothers at their peak.

One would expect the title tune “Oblivion” to sound as abject as say, Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” but the band understands it as a “bouncing with Bud” blues that signifies a devil-may-care attitude. That suggests Powell’s peculiar brilliance as searingly self-possessed in the knowledge of how his black genius was betrayed. Yet he’d never let on, never let you see him pitying himself.

Bud photoBud Powell during the years he recorded with Blue Note Records. Courtesy estaticos 02.elmundo.es

Sometimes Powell’s themes and solos can be almost overwhelming, but you get a heaping helping of bop at its most modernistic and visionary and yet with a long shadow cast over it, as the CD cover’s noirish watercolor landscape superbly conveys. So perhaps even now, this music isn’t for everyone, but there’s no doubt it’s a bracing and historic statement of an art form evolving to extraordinary artistic heights.

Whalen offers his own ode to Bud, in “I’ll Keep Loving You,” a brooding ballad that feels like a stealthy suitor stealing into the beloved’s heart even if the lover’s been long gone, off in another world.

Still, Whalen and company assure that Bud Powell has returned, in hallowed honor.

Whalen is a distinctly ambitious musician who has led both a popular R&B/funk jazz ensemble and a nonet, largely of Madison-based musicians, for a number of years. Among numerous accomplishments since moving to Washington DC in 2010, he orchestrated the string arrangement for the Oscar-winning song “El Otro Lado del Rio” by Jorge Drexler from the film The Motorcycle Diaries.

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1 Alyn Shipton recounts Powell’s triumphs and tragedy in his A New History of Jazz on pages 491-495.

2. Despite Powell’s apparent loss of top-end technical facility in later years, the musical relationship between him and Monk remained crucial and vital. Some argue that Powell was Monk’s best interpreter. Seminal bebop drummer Kenny Clarke reputedly said, “Monk wrote for Bud. All his music was written for Bud, because he figured but was the only one who could play it.” https://www.amazon.com/Portrait-Thelonious-Bud-Powell/dp/B000002AHT

 

 

 

 

Dreamland in Blu: Thelonious Monk Music Reimagined at Cloud Altitude

 

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Dreamland’s cloud in Blu, 23-plus stories up.

This brief photo essay interprets the experience of hearing Dreamland, an imaginative and courageous ensemble which has worked hard in recent years to make much of the challenging Thelonious Monk repertoire alive for new listeners, and gratified old Monk fans.

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The band Dreamland is named for an obscure Monk tune rediscovered by trumpeter/bandleader Jamie Breiwick. Monk often seemed to live in his own private dreamland. Photo by Eugene W. Smith, courtesy UPI. 

The band, conceived and led by trumpeter Jamie Breiwick, performed Friday night at Blu, the nightclub located on the 23rd floor of the Pfister Hotel,  with stunning views of the downtown Milwaukee lakefront.
I began taking a few photographs with no agenda. Gradually it seemed that the band’s ambition in reaching high to master and re-imagine Monk’s technically vexing yet uncannily charming and intriguing music — in such an atmospheric noir setting — was worth a visual treatment, or a dream sequence.

Such stimulating variables may be partly why they’re one of my favorite music groups. So, though a longtime arts and jazz writer, and because this concerns the architecture of Monk and of Milwaukee, I am in letting the dreamland images speak for themselves (for the most part), mindful of a famous Monk quote: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

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Dreamland warms up the Blu night club audience shortly before dusk (L-R, pianist Mark Davis, bassist Clay Schaub, trumpeter Jamie Breiwick, drummer Devin Drobka).

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From Blu’s windows, you see the counterpoint of classic and modern Milwaukee architecture, looking south toward the Hoan Bridge. 

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At least one couple seems transported by Dreamland.

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The still-rising Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance tower is illuminated by many stories of its construction lights on the right tower portion. At, right, the blue flame atop the iconic Milwaukee Gaslight Building forecasts the weather.

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Blu is the rhythm of drums deep in the night.

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Dreamland begins heating up as darkness as falls on Milwaukee. 

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From Blu we see the end of the I-94 expressway in the foreground, curving into the southbound Hoan Bridge harbor overpass. Many years ago, when the I-94 ramp remained an unfinished precipice high over the ground level, it was used as “the expressway to nowhere” in the precariously climactic closing car chase scene in the film “The Blues Brothers.”

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Trumpeter Breiwick uses his hand over his bell to bend a mournful note on a Monk ballad.

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Even the carpeting in Blu has a dancing, dreamlike quality.

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Jamie Breiwick performing, and radiating, “Light Blue.”

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Just maybe, this is how Thelonious Monk – a genius of dancing, songful abstraction – might have viewed Milwaukee’s south shoreline along the Hoan Bridge.

P.S. Well, I’m fudging a bit on my promise to let the photos do all the heavy lifting, such as it is. But I’ll add a few more comments about Dreamland, whom I profiled previously here:

Trumpeter Jamie Breiwick “dreams” of Thelonious Monk’s music

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Now the band sounds like they are making Monk’s music their own. It’s in the increasing ease of articulation of the vital and sometimes profound ideas contained in often-hazardous chord changes and rhythmic trip wires.
Trumpeter Jamie Breiwick continues to pursue his Miles Davis-cum-Don Cherry influences, often pushing plummy accents into a slippery swing and, like a master baker, he consistently kneads the thematic material into whole, rounded melodic ideas. As the bandleader, he’s also imaginative and intrepid in delving into the mysterioso depths of the Monk book. Breiwick has an assurance and dedication to the material that I think would’ve made Monk proud, even though he was known as an often-exacting bandleader.

And for my ears, Devin Drobka is an ideal drummer for this music. As a Berklee-trained musician and vibist, he understands the implications of the harmonic changes better than most drummers, which helps keep the music bubbling and percolating with the right aroma and savor. And on some tunes, like “Light Blue,” his drum solo built directly from the harmonic and melodic charms of the melody itself.

Here’s the band stretching out on “Light Blue” from a previous live date:

 

On a longer previous solo, drummer Drobka dazzled in quirky wavelengths. I declare that Thelonious Monk himself would’ve danced around his piano (a not-infrequent Monk behavior) in response to Drobka’s solo — bristling, sashaying, hiccuping, all amid a push-pull tempo tension. Then he’ll fling out a few fractured march rhythms. But few fractured marchers can also dance, like Drobka’s Monk march can.

Pianist Mark Davis is a somewhat more supple and fluent phraser than Monk himself typically was. And yet Davis’ playing leaps and lopes at times, which brings to mind to the magisterially buoyant hard-bop pianist Sonny Clark doing a Monk take. And Davis rarely misses a chance to insert an acerbic Monk accent — often a buzzingly discordant second interval.

Bassist Clay Schaub is relatively new to the band, as a replacement for John Price. But he’s an extremely capable and musical player in negotiating the often-tricky changes.

I see Dreamland staking out their own high ground in the crowded strata of Monk interpretation. Their intelligence, fearlessness, youth and fire will keep this dreamland afloat, growing and prospering in ways yet to be imagined.

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All photos by Kevin Lynch, except as noted.