Ethan Iverson’s suite “Bud Powell in the 21st Century” got its American premiere Thursday night at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, with Iverson on piano alongside the NEC Orchestra conducted by Ken Schaphorst.
Commissioned by the Umbria Jazz Festival, the suite celebrating bebop piano god Bud Powell was first performed in late December at the Umbria Jazz Winter Festival in Orvieto, Italy. At that world premiere, Iverson and a core group of American stars were supported by a big band of Italian musicians.
The Americans were in Italy in part to role play on three Powell compositions (“Bouncing With Bud,” “Wail,” “Dance of the Infidels”) and one of Thelonious Monk’s (“52nd Street Theme”), all of them made famous by a legendary 1949 recording date on which Powell was joined by Fats Navarro, Sonny Rollins, Tommy Potter, and Roy Haynes.
Those tunes’ complex horn lines were meant by Iverson to be reproduced note-by-note as a centerpiece to his suite. At Jordan Hall it was NEC students — Miles Keingstein on trumpet, Michael Talento on tenor sax, Alex Bilodeau on bass, and Marcelo Perez on drums — who were faced with the challenge of joining Iverson in replicating those four blistering-paced recordings as closely as possible. This time the big names were in the audience: Iverson’s NEC colleagues Dave Holland and Jason Moran. So was Powell’s son, John Powell.
Matching those songs’ melodies and the quality and compactness of the original solos may seem impossible for musicians so young. But Rollins was 18 the day the recordings were made and Powell himself was only 24. The students did an impressive job of keeping the music enjoyably recognizable.
Interspersed with those four pieces were “Five Simple Spells” by Iverson, short palate-cleansers designed to summon Powell’s presence. After the last of them, a scratchy recording of Powell’s voice was played, which his son admitted caused him mixed emotions, the recording having been made late in Powell’s short life, when he was suffering from tuberculosis.
But John Powell adored the piece that followed: Iverson’s gorgeous orchestral arrangement of Bud Powell’s “I’ll Keep Loving You,” featuring Rebekah Lorenz on French horn.
The suite had begun with its namesake two-part introduction, composed by Iverson. That was followed by Iverson’s big-band arrangements of two renowned pieces of Powell’s: “Celia,” featuring a trumpet solo by Eliza Block, and “Tempus Fugit,” on which Iverson dug hard into a solo of his own after Perez led off with a drum intro and Daniel Hirsch had soloed on trumpet.
The suite ended with Iverson’s “Nobile Paradiso,” which took on a Latin tinge as it concluded, and was followed by Powell’s Latin-influenced masterpiece “Un Poco Loco” and “Bud’s Blues” as an encore.
“Bud left us a lot,” Iverson had told the audience while introducing the quintet pieces, having stressed how modern Powell’s music remains. “We don’t know what he might have left us if he had been supported by his society.”
At Jordan Hall, Feb. 28
Bill Beuttler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.