Mulgrew Miller: Live at Yoshi's, Vol 1

Robert R. Calder

Mulgrew Miller

Live at Yoshi's, Vol 1

Label: Maxjazz
US Release Date: 2004-05-25
UK Release Date: 2004-06-28

It has to be long ago that the broad-shouldered Mississippian with the Irish surname for a first name was in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, or looking slightly at odds with the crazy figure flailing at the top end of the piano with one finger of each hand (Lionel Hampton, on a TV show about Betty Carter). Tommy Flanagan was quoted in a short-lived British jazz publication as saying Mulgrew's playing was about as good as any of his contemporaries managed.

The Duke Ellington centenary was 1999, and there was Mr. Miller touring in a tribute duo with Niels-Henning Ørsted Pederson, sitting quietly at the grand piano while the Dane mugged, clowned, joked, and almost dropped his bass (held at a slope, butt-end on the floor, the way a child holds a full-size guitar). Miller was slotting in a flawless chorus of the tune commonly called "Oh, Danny Boy" into his solo on Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" (whose name, one presumes, is Danielle, due to an intimate relation with the old Irish air?).

This CD's opener returns me to "If I Had a Bell", which cropped up on three of the first six CDs I reviewed on this page. Too many recurrences of this tune and it will lose its membership of the few hundred ideal items of jazz repertoire, the wonderful vehicles which haven't been ridden too often. By and large, this CD is a selection exclusively from that list. This tuneful stuff opens as if Miller meant serious fun.

He doesn't shun various devices which have arisen since there was anything seriously to be considered as jazz piano. On an Ellington obscurity called "Don't You Know I Care" he even produces a Luckey (perhaps the first virtuoso jazz pianist) Roberts sort of run on the way to an unaccompanied passage. In any filigree-seeming run, each note serves a rhythmic function.

By the time bass and drums drop out to leave him solo, he's also thrown in a two-handed Oscar Petersonism hardly any non-Canadians would be able to think about playing; and somebody pardonable in the well-behaved audience has been so stirred by the succession of pianistic achievements his own hands can't be prevented from coming together.

He likes his affectionate quotes, does Mr. Miller, not having missed the chance to do a few Ellingtonian things in the lead into a tune rather I thought close to a 1920s chestnut often sung "Whoddle I Do/ when you..."

He shows more appreciation there than he sometimes does of an original melody, for more frequently he extracts melodies from the harmonic substrate of an original composition. Why does the audience applaud when at the turn of an umpteenth chorus of the Ellington tune the bassist starts walking quite heavily? It's almost as if one soloist had taken over from another, but then Mr. Miller does look fairly powerful, physically (soloing strength of three men?) The study in Brown (Ray) gives the performance a second wind before the coda mentioned a few sentences back, and the unaccompanied out-of-time slow stride reprise. No wonder the audience went audibly gaga.

"What a Difference a Day Made" does turn into a pretty standard but fun piano trio just on the chords of that tune, until Derrick Hodge plays the nearest thing I've heard to a Claude Williams fiddle solo double bass. Thrilling, and followed by a demonstration of the distinct Miller sound in a conclusion which isn't terribly remote from the Peterson-Ray Brown-Ed Thigpen trio schtick.

Miller's own "Pressing the Issue" is a nice closer in the post-Bill Evans Tyner mode, never getting too intense, taking wing at times toward the Gulf of Mexico, even the Persian Gulf. Here's Miller's sense of what can be called melodic economy, something not omnipresent in the music of some of his many-noted predecessors. I suppose he's listened to Teddy Wilson, judging from the amazing development of a Wilson left hand device early in "If I Were a Bell" -- which I'd bet loosened up the wrist and fingers!.

I hadn't known the "Waltz for Monk" of Donald Brown, an earlier Jazz Messengers pianist whose career was interrupted by arthritis, and so haven't heard any of his own takes on a composition on which Miller never lets the standard drop, though the major interest lies in the beginning, which is really inspired, and in the bass solo and its piano accompaniment. The Monkisms at the end are well-delivered and indicate an even larger palette than fully exercised here.

Jobim's "O Grande Amor" has an exceptionally nice beginning, Miller even when only tolerably creative can nonetheless always make his piano sing. He could get away with a succession of three-minute performances. He always starts interestingly, and this would be turned to some productive purpose too. In the Jobim, he builds and builds until the final reprise of the theme reveals quite how much tension has accrued, all those unpredictable lines which come in from the left hand. Then the trio goes round and round in circles, postponing the inevitable end by always thinking up something new.

Woody Shaw's "The Organ Grinder" starts dark with ominous left hand and opens out, at seven-and-three-quarter minutes the shortest track The rest get eight-and-a-half, barring the opener's nearly 12 and the just over 10 of the one Ellington tune.

The Shaw tune really brings out the pianist's best; it's quite stunning, with a couple of very apposite drum solos in its lengthy course. Miller gives himself the chance to show how he can phrase quite rapidly fingered lines, and also make little short phrases, almost spread chords, peal, on Horace Silver's "Peace". There he manages to bring the bassist into a kind of dancing-together, before a bass solo on which both men are still (metaphorically!) dancing together, with the impressive Hodge taking the lead. Each man seems so much each to be anticipating the other that with no breath of a pause the piano's re-entry picks up exactly the line the bassist has been playing. And what a lovely unaccompanied piano coda.

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