Thursday, June 26, 2014

Mulgrew Miller: "Living in the Shadows of Giants" [From the Archives]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Don’t cross a bridge to get home or to work:” I guess the expression contains more than a hint of caution and admonition, especially if you’ve lived some time in the San Francisco Bay area and seen the nightmarish traffic back-ups a closed bridge can cause on the local, television news.

Thankfully, I never experienced such a delay in all the years I lived and worked in San Francisco,

But I sure caught a taste of what such an experience would be like as I was headed north back to the Oakland, CA airport to catch a return flight to my relocated home in southern California following some business appointments in the Silicon Valley.

A major accident on the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland had caused a traffic back-up so serious that it extended south on US 880 to about 10 miles below the airport.

The was no alternative and plenty of later flights so I just relaxed and turned on the FM-Jazz station while I waited things out in the rental car that was crawling along at death-defying speed of 3 MPH.

The radio broadcast that I tuned into was an interview with pianist Mulgrew Miller who was appearing through the upcoming weekend with his trio at Yoshi’s Jazz Club located on a portion of the waterfront which the City of Oakland had reclaimed from surplus shipping docks and refurbished into a lovely commercial-cum-residential area.

I knew of Mulgrew’s work through recordings he had made during his long association with drummer Tony Williams’ quintet in the 1980s and 1990s, but I had never heard him play in person.

He sounded very warm and cordial during the radio interview and I thought, “Well, at the rate things are going with the crawling traffic, maybe I’ll just book into a local hotel and catch one of Mulgrew’s sets at Yoshi’s.”

Of all the remarks Mulgrew made during the exchange with the interviewer, one stayed with me: “It’s tough to get any recognition as a Jazz musician today because we are living in the shadow of Giants.”

This is not verbatim, but earlier in his talk, Mulgrew had said that many of the pianists  during the bebop era, for example Al Haig, Joe Albany, Dodo Marmarosa, John Lewis, and even some pianists during the later hard bop era like Sonny Clark, Horace Silver and Walter Bishop, Jr., were not original stylists.

They basically played in the manner of Bud Powell and gained a certain measure of recognition and approval for being able to do so.

But musicians like himself, who continue in this bebop piano tradition and perhaps add some of the newer influences like Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner or Keith Jarrett to their approach get little respect because we are not “… the next Bud Powell or Art Tatum or Bill Evans.”

“Why? Not all of us can be giants like Bud and Art or Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. We are doing our part to keep the Jazz tradition alive and even move it forward a little, but we get little respect for what we do accomplish and put down for what we don’t.”

None of this was conveyed with animosity by Mulgrew, but you could certainly sense his disappointment and his displeasure.

The interview then trailed off and was replaced by the playing of one of Mulgrew’s recordings in its entirety.

By some miracle I was just pulling into the hired car parking lot when the interviewer returned so I did not get to hear the rest of Mulgrew’s talk.

The following year The Mulgrew Miller Trio Live at Yoshi’s was issued as a double CD on MaxJazz [[MXJ 212/208] and I picked up a copy along with the March 1, 2005 edition of Downbeat in which the following article about Mulgrew by Ted Panken appeared.

Mulgrew passed away on May 28, 2013 and the editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it might be nice to remember him on these pages with a reprint of his Downbeat interview and the Nat Chinen obituary that was published in The New York Times.  

Copyright © Downbeat/Ted Panken/2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Mulgrew Miller: No Apologies  

“Ironies abound in the world of Mulgrew Miller. On the one hand, the 49-year-old pianist is, as Eric Reed pointed out, "the most imitated pianist of the last 25 years." On the other, he finds it difficult to translate his exalted status into full-blown acceptance from the jazz business.

"It's a funny thing about my career," Miller said. "Promoters won't hire my band, but they'll book me as a sideman and make that the selling point of the gig. That boggles my mind."

Miller would seem to possess unsurpassed qualifications for leadership. As the 2004 trio release Live At Yoshi's (MaxJazz) makes evident, no pianist of Miller's generation brings such a wide stylistic palette to the table. A resolute modernist with an old-school attitude, he's assimilated the pentagonal contemporary canon of Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, as well as Woody Shaw's harmonic innovations, and created a fluid personal argot.

His concept draws on such piano-as-orchestra signposts as Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal and Erroll Garner, the "blowing piano" of Bud Powell, the disjunctive syncopations and voicings of Thelonious Monk, and the melodic ingenuity of gums like Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Cedar Walton. With technique to burn, he finds ways to conjure beauty from pentatonics and odd intervals, infusing his lines with church and blues strains and propelling them with a joyous, incessant beat.

"I played with some of the greatest swinging people who ever played jazz, and I want to get the quality of feeling I heard with them," Miller said. "It's a sublime way to play music, and the most creative way to express myself. You can be both as intellectual and as soulful as you want, and the swing beat is powerful but subtle. I think you have to devote yourself to it exclusively to do it at that level."

Consequential apprenticeships with the Mercer Ellington Orchestra, Betty Carter, Johnny Griffin and Shaw launched Miller's career. A 1983-'86 stint with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers put his name on the map, and he cemented his reputation during a long association with Tony Williams' great cuspof-the-'90s band, a sink-or-swim environment in which Miller thrived, playing, as pianist Anthony Wonsey recalls, "with fire but also the maturity of not rushing."

By the mid '80s, Miller was a fixture on 
New York's saloon scene. Later, he sidemanned extensively with Bobby Hutcherson, Benny Golson, James Moody and Joe Lovano, and from 1987 to 1996 he recorded nine trio and ensemble albums for Landmark and RCANovus.

Not long after his 40th birthday, Miller resolved to eschew club dates and one-offs, and to focus on his own original music. There followed a six-year recording hiatus, as companies snapped up young artists with tenuous ties to the legacy of hardcore jazz.

"I won't call any names," Miller says, "but a lot of people do what a friend of mine calls 'interview music.' You do something that's obviously different, and you get the interviews and a certain amount of attention. Jazz is part progressive art and part folk art, and I've observed it to be heavily critiqued by people who attribute progressivity to music that lacks a folk element. When Charlie Parker developed his great conception, the folk element was the same as Lester Young and the blues shouters before him. Even when Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane played their conceptions, the folk element was intact. But now, people almost get applauded if they don't include that in their expression. If I reflected a heavy involvement in Arnold Schoenberg or some other ultra-modern composers, then I would be viewed differently than I am. Guys who do what I am doing are viewed as passé.

"A lot of today's musicians learn the rudiments of playing straight-ahead, think they've got it covered, become bored, and say, 'Let me try something else,'" Miller continued. "They develop a vision of expanding through different areas - reggae here, hip-hop there, blues here, soul there, classical music over here and being able to function at a certain level within all those styles. Rather than try to do a lot of things pretty good, I have a vision more of spiraling down to a core understanding of the essence of what music is."

This being said, Miller-who once wrote a lovely tune called "Farewell To Dogma" -continues to adhere to the principle that "there is no one way to play jazz piano and no one way that jazz is supposed to sound." He is not to be confused with the jazz police. His drummer, Karriem Riggins, has a second career as a hip-hop producer, and has at his fingertips a lexicon of up-to-the-second beats. When the urge strikes, bassist Derrick Hodge might deviate from a walking bass line to slap the bass Larry Graham style. It's an approach familiar to Miller, who grew up in 
GreenwoodMiss., playing the music of James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Al Green in various Upper Delta cover bands.

"It still hits me where I live," he says. "It's Black music. That's my roots. When I go home, they all know me as the church organist from years ago, so it's nothing for me to walk up to the organ and fit right in. I once discussed my early involvement in music with Abdullah Ibrahim, and he described what I went through as a community-based experience. Before I became or wanted to become a jazz player, I played in church, in school plays, for dances and for cocktail parties. I was already improvising, and always on some level it was emotional or soul or whatever you want to call it. I was finding out how to connect with people through music.

"By now, I have played jazz twice as long as I played popular music, and although that style of playing is part of my basic musical being, I don't particularly feel that I need to express myself through it," he continued. "It's all blues. The folk element of the music doesn't change. The blues in 1995 and in 1925 is the same thing. The technology is different. But the chords are the same, the phrasing is the same, the language is the same-exact same. I grew up on that. It's a folk music. Folk music is not concerned with evolving."

For all his devotion to roots, Miller is adamant that expansion and evolution are key imperatives that drive his tonal personality. "I left my hometown to grow, and early on I intended to embrace as many styles and conceptions as I could," he said. "When I came to 
New York I had my favorites, but there was a less celebrated, also brilliant tier of pianists who played the duo rooms, and I tried to hear all of those guys and learn from them. The sound of my bands changes as the musicians expand in their own right. I'm open, and all things are open to interpretation. I trust my musicians-their musicianship, insights, judgments and taste-and they tend to bring things off in whatever direction they want to go. In the best groups I played with, spontaneity certainly was a strong element."

Quiet and laid-back, determined to follow his muse, Miller may never attain mass consumption. But he remains sanguine.

"I have moments, but I don't allow myself to stay discouraged for long," he said. "I worked hard to maintain a certain mental and emotional equilibrium. It's mostly due to my faith. I don't put all my eggs in that basket of being a rich and famous jazz guy. That allows me a certain amount of freedom, because I don't have to play music for money. I play music because I love it. I play the music I love with people I want to play with. I have a long career behind me. I don't have to apologize to anybody for any decisions I make." -Ted Panken” 

Mulgrew Miller, Dynamic Jazz Pianist, Dies at 57

Copyright © The New York Times/Nate Chinen/May 29, 2013.

“Mulgrew Miller, a jazz pianist whose soulful erudition, clarity of touch and rhythmic aplomb made him a fixture in the postbop mainstream for more than 30 years, died on Wednesday in AllentownPa. He was 57.

The cause was a stroke, said his longtime manager, Mark Gurley. Mr. Miller had been hospitalized since Friday.

Mr. Miller developed his voice in the 1970s, combining the bright precision of bebop, as exemplified by Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson, with the clattering intrigue of modal jazz, especially as defined by McCoy Tyner. His balanced but assertive style was a model of fluency, lucidity and bounce, and it influenced more than a generation of younger pianists.

He was a widely respected bandleader, working either with a trio or with the group he called Wingspan, after the title of his second album. The blend of alto saxophone and vibraphone on that album, released on Landmark Records in 1987, appealed enough to Mr. Miller that he revived it in 2002 on “The Sequel” (MaxJazz), working in both cases with the vibraphonist Steve Nelson. Among Mr. Miller’s releases in the last decade were an impeccable solo piano album and four live albums featuring his dynamic trio.

Mr. Miller could seem physically imposing on the bandstand — he stood taller than six feet, with a sturdy build — but his temperament was warm and gentlemanly. He was a dedicated mentor: his bands over the last decade included musicians in their 20s, and since 2005 he had been the director of jazz studies at William Paterson University in New Jersey.

If his sideman credentials overshadowed his solo career, it wasn’t hard to see why: he played on hundreds of albums and worked in a series of celebrated bands. His most visible recent work had been with the bassist Ron Carter, whose chamberlike Golden Striker Trio featured Mr. Miller and the guitarist Russell Malone on equal footing; the group released a live album, “San Sebastian” (In+Out), this year.

Born in GreenwoodMiss., on Aug. 13, 1955, Mr. Miller grew up immersed in Delta blues and gospel music. After picking out hymns by ear at the family piano, he began taking lessons at age 8. He played the organ in church and worked in soul cover bands, but devoted himself to jazz after seeing Mr. Peterson on television, a moment he later described as pivotal.

At Memphis State University, he befriended two pianists, James Williams and Donald Brown, both of whom later preceded him in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Mr. Miller spent several years with that band, just as he did with the trumpeter Woody Shaw, the singer Betty Carter and the Duke Ellington Orchestra, led by Ellington’s son, Mercer. Mr. Miller worked in an acclaimed quintet led by the drummer Tony Williams from the mid-1980s until shortly before Williams died in 1997.

Mr. Miller’s survivors include his wife, Tanya; his son, Darnell; his daughter, Leilani; and a grandson. He lived in EastonPa.

Though he harbored few resentments, Mr. Miller was clear about the limitations imposed on his career. “Jazz is part progressive art and part folk art,” he said in a 2005 interview with DownBeat magazine, differentiating his own unassuming style from the concept-laden, critically acclaimed fare that he described as “interview music.” He added, “Guys who do what I am doing are viewed as passé.”

But Mr. Miller worked with so many celebrated peers, like the alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett and the tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, that his reputation among musicians was ironclad. And his legacy includes a formative imprint on some leading players of the next wave, including the drummer Karriem Riggins and the bassist Derrick Hodge, who were in one of his trios. The pianist Robert Glasper once recorded an original ballad called “One for ’Grew,” paying homage to a primary influence. On Monday, another prominent pianist, Geoffrey Keezer, attested on Twitter that seeing Mr. Miller one evening in 1986 was “what made me want to be a piano player professionally.”

In the performance from the At Yoshi’s 2004 double CD that forms the sound track for this video tribute to him, Mulgrew has cleverly adopted Comes Love to the arrangement Ahmad Jamal used on Poinciana from his At The Pershing Room Argo LP, one of the most successful Jazz recordings ever issued.

The insistent rhythm is formed by Karriem Riggins use of mallets on the drum set’s tom toms and the insistent accent played by the high hat on the 2nd and 4th beat of each measure.

On the original version, instead of the usual “clicking” sound made by stepping on the high hat’s cymbals to close them, Ahmad’s drummer, Vernel Fournier, played the high hat cymbals open [barely touching them together] creating more of a “chinging” sound to simulate finger cymbals.

You can hear this effect in a more pronounced manner as played by Karriem at 4:21 minutes of Mulgrew’s version.

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