This is another compilation album in the superb Jazz Showcase series that gathers tracks from the original John Hammond-produced vinyl series that so raised the sound standard of jazz recordings in the fifties and proved just how commercial they could be. In this instance there are four mid-fifties Mel Powell albums involved: Mel Powell Sextet (1953), Thigamagig (1955), Out On A Limb (noted as circa 1956), and “The Mel Powell Bandstand”, (1956). All had a clutch of tracks chosen from them for this comp, aside from the earliest one that is represented by the sole track ‘You're Lucky To Me’ that features Buck Clayton on trumpet.
Born in 1923 in New York, Mel Powell learned his craft playing piano in small jazz clubs around that city, and during the Second World War raised his profile substantially through playing with both Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. After the war he was drawn towards an academic life as a music theory instructor, but was tempted back to recording in the fifties by Hammond for a short while before resuming his teaching. Hammond has been quoted as saying that Benny Goodman's small band with Powell and guitarist Charlie Christian was the best and most satisfying that he ever had, and listening to Mel's light and rhythmic touches on these recordings it is easy to understand this. His playing seems to skip and dance over the melodies, totally in sync with the bass and drums. Some tracks like ‘California Here I Come’ and ‘Everything I've Got’ swing in a most uplifting way, while others like ‘Button Up Your Overcoat’ are quieter mood pieces that explore the melodies. Others like ‘Bouquet’ shift moods in a more radical way, showing that he was well able to play in a wide variety of styles, though throughout his lightness of touch remains so evident. You almost feel his joy in his own playing.
Samuel Charters' fine accompanying notes describe how certain of the tracks here were fully and tightly arranged, but that most tracks were very much looser structures after key and tempo were decided, allowing a greater freedom for the players to improvise during the sessions. Fans of the Vanguard Jazz Showcase series will know that Hammond liked to put together groups of players who may not have played much together, if at all. This ploy worked well as the series has so much freshness, with comparatively new players like trumpeter Ruby Braff being given his head as on Bouquet and often being the only horn or reed player present, fitting expertly around players in either a trio or a quintet.
The material here is mostly made up of Powell's interpretations of others' works, including well-known tunes like ‘Ain't She Sweet’, ‘Beale Street Blues’ and ‘Everything I've Got’, though there are three tracks of his own that leave us with a yearning for more of his original material. For more of his work, listeners are directed to his other Vanguard CD “It's Been So Long” (VCD 79605) which offers further recordings he made as part of the fine Jazz Showcase series.