Pre-CalArts Mel Powell, Comping at the Savoy

Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

For the last three decades of his life, pianist Mel Powell was best known within the Southland cultural community as the Pulitzer Prize-winning, founding dean of the CalArts music school. But before he became an educator and a classical composer, Powell--who died of cancer last year at the age of 75--was a highly regarded jazz pianist, arranger and composer.

He became a member of the Benny Goodman orchestra when he was 18, composing and arranging pieces such as "Mission to Moscow" and "Jersey Bounce," and--after being drafted in 1943--played with Glenn Miller's large service orchestra. Classical music beckoned after the war, and Powell studied at Princeton with Paul Hindemith before transferring his creative allegiance to Arnold Schoenberg's serial approach to composition.

His last jazz dates (with the exception of some recordings in the late '80s) took place in the mid-'50s, shortly before he replaced Hindemith at Yale. And Vanguard has issued a healthy sampling of tracks from those dates in two CDs--"It's Been So Long" (****) and "The Best Things in Life" (****)--recorded between 1953 and 1956 with ensembles featuring, among others, trumpeters Ruby Braff and Buck Clayton, bassists Oscar Pettiford and Walter Page, drummer Bobby Donaldson, and guitarists Skeeter Best and Mundell Lowe.

The immediate thought that springs to mind upon hearing Powell's playing is: "Why in the world did he ever abandon jazz?" Virtually every number of the albums' 33 tracks is filled with bright, rhythmic, musically fascinating playing. Powell's influences were primarily from the pre-bop era, and his style is reminiscent of the rich, stride-powered playing of one of his idols, Teddy Wilson. But other qualities were also emerging in his music when these sessions were held. His soloing with Pettiford, a bop stalwart, on "Three Little Words" (on "The Best Things in Life"), for example, reveals sparser, more horn-oriented right-hand playing and a lighter rhythmic touch. And some of his compositions ("Bouquet" on the same album is a good example)--especially those performed by a seven-piece band, including French horn--have clearly been affected by his classical music studies.

It's hard to argue with career decisions that artists choose to make. But Powell--very much like Artie Shaw, who also abandoned jazz performing in the mid-'50s--still had a great deal to offer the genre. Obviously he has left behind a significant legacy via his compositions and his establishment of a major music school at CalArts. What a shame, however, that he didn't choose to at least make an occasional foray into jazz during his decades of pedagogical effort. In the meantime, we still have these fine recordings to speculate on what might have been. (But be aware that the track listings don't always reflect the correct instrumentation on some of the tracks.)

MORE PIANO JAZZ: In "Elegaic Cycle" (*** 1/2), Brad Mehldau takes his game up a level in a set of solo piano works that are remarkably successful at blending his jazz skills with a compositional vision that owes much to 19th century classical piano works. That he does so artfully, without losing the essence of each genre, is testimony to his growing skill--and his equally expanding importance--as a jazz artist.

Benny Green has always been an inveterate swinger, his music filled with a joyful enthusiasm and drive reflecting the style of his mentor, Oscar Peterson. In "These Are Soulful Days" (***), Green is working in the most felicitous setting imaginable, accompanied by guitarist Russell Malone and bassist Christian McBride. The result is jazz at its best, as the three all-stars continuously find ways to integrate each of their high level individual skills into stirring, collective renderings of a program that includes a selection of attractive pieces by Horace Silver, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan and others.*


Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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