Solo In Barcelona
by Robin Kidson
In February 2004, American pianist, Mulgrew Miller, gave a solo concert in Barcelona. A recording of that concert has recently been released as an album called Solo in Barcelona on the Danish record label, Storyville.
Even amongst jazz fans, Mulgrew Miller isn’t exactly a household name for reasons to which we’ll come later. Born in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1955, he began learning the piano as a child. After graduating from Memphis State University, his piano playing had developed to such an extent he was invited to join the Duke Ellington Orchestra, no less. The Duke had died in 1974 but the orchestra continued, led by his son, Mercer. Miller played and toured with the orchestra from 1976 to 1980 before leaving to become singer Betty Carter’s pianist. He was a member of Woody Shaw’s Quintet from 1981 to 1983, and then joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, staying with them until 1986. From 1986 to 1993, he was pianist with the Tony Williams Quintet.
Mulgrew Miller built up a formidable reputation with fellow musicians in the 1980s, and, in addition to his regular slots with Blakey, Williams et. al., was much in demand as a sideman on recording dates. Top rank musicians with whom he recorded in these years include Wallace Roney, Terence Blanchard, Kenny Garrett, and Freddie Hubbard. He also began composing his own work and leading his own units. In 1987, he formed the group, Wingspan, and released an album, also called Wingspan. Here is the title track, composed by Miller with himself on piano, Kenny Garrett (alto sax), Steve Nelson (vibraphone), Tony Reedus (drums) and Charnett Moffett (bass).
Mulgrew Miller’s career blossomed both as leader and sideman. Such was his standing that, in 1989, he was able to call on a trio of jazz superstars – Joe Henderson, Ron Carter and Tony Williams – and lead them in a recording session which produced the album, The Countdown. In the 1990s, he appeared on albums by a range of different artists including Gary Burton, Joe Lovano, James Moody and Dianne Reeves. He was also a member of Ron Carter’s Golden Striker Trio and of bands led by Dave Holland and John Scofield.
In 2005, Miller became Director of Jazz Studies at William Paterson University in New Jersey. He had a stroke in 2010 which led to a reduction in his considerable workload but he still found time to perform as a piano duo with Kenny Barron, and tour Europe with Yusef Lateef and Archie Shepp. Here he is with Barron at the Vienne Jazz Festival in 2012 playing Day Dream .
Mulgrew Miller had another stroke in 2013 and died shortly after. He was only 57.
The sleeve notes for Solo in Barcelona, written by Benny Green (one assumes it’s the American pianist Benny Green rather than the late British jazz musician and broadcaster Benny Green), claim that Mulgrew Miller “along with Kenny Barron, was the most recorded jazz pianist of the 1980s and 90s”. Certainly, Miller’s discography is huge and he played with some of the giants of jazz – Blakey, Ellington, Tony Williams, Ron Carter: these aren’t the run of the mill partners of some journeyman. He was clearly held in the highest regard by fellow musicians so it’s slightly surprising that he’s not more widely known. Part of this may be down to his personality: self-effacing, modest and gentle by all accounts, not one to blow his own trumpet. It’s also significant that out of that enormous discography, only a handful of albums feature him as a leader. Perhaps he was more comfortable in a supporting role and focused all his attention on developing his skills in that art, becoming the sideman’s sideman in the process. (Although, having said that, his performance on Solo in Barcelona, which is full of vigour and self confidence, isn’t that of some retiring backroomer).
But speculations about Mulgrew Miller’s persona only tell part of the story here. There is something more fundamental and interesting going on that says much about the nature of jazz. It’s an art form which places a lot of emphasis on innovation, on continuing development, on the 'new'. Part of this is down to the improvisatory nature of the music – in a sense, every performance of any particular piece has to be fresh and new. But there is also some inner drive always pushing the music to new places. That drive meant jazz went from a people’s dance music to the intellectual avant garde in very short order indeed –fifty or so years from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917 to the serious minded abstractions of John Coltrane’s Ascension in 1966.
Also, the free jazz of Coltrane, Ayler et. al. in the 1960s often became, on the one hand, an expression of anger and rebellion and, on the other, a not quite coherent reflection of spirituality, of peace and love. In other words, jazz had to have a message beyond its sound.
Mulgrew Miller wasn’t an innovator or someone who thought jazz needed to convey some extra musical message. He was steeped in a modern post bop jazz tradition which still emphasised rhythm and melody and sought to convey an emotion rather than a sermon. He expressed his feelings about jazz in a much quoted interview for Downbeat magazine in 2005:
“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”.
Ben Ratliff in his book about Coltrane (Coltrane: The Story of A Sound) quotes this interview in relation to what happened post-Coltrane when some musicians, notably Wynton Marsalis and the so-called “young lions”, began to move away from both free jazz and the dilutions implied by jazz-rock fusion and back to what they would argue was a purer form of jazz. Ratliff has this to say about Mulgrew Miller:
“There is no identifiable element of extramusical transgression inside or outside his playing; he is not combining languages; he is not giving bourgeois culture the finger; he is not straining credulity. He is not asking you to alter your life. He plays jazz as black music, and there is a deep sense of propriety to it, but it’s not also history and politics and musicology and philosophy: it is music alone.”
Mulgrew Miller didn’t really want to play “interview music” and thereby become the next new big thing in jazz. He was content to develop his technique so he could play music in the best way possible. The reference books mark him down as a musician in the hard bop tradition but that is a genre very difficult to define. Listening to Solo in Barcelona, the musician he most closely resembles is Oscar Peterson. The similarity also applies to their respective physical appearances - both big men with big hands, delicate of touch. They also shared a bassist at different times in the shape of Great Dane, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (NHØP to his friends). NHØP was both a long time member of Peterson’s trio and collaborated with Miller in a piano/bass duo in the late 1990s/early 2000s.
Solo in Barcelona has 11 tracks with a mix of jazz standards and selections from the Great American Songbook. Only one, Excursions In Blue, is a Mulgrew Miller composition. It’s the longest track on the album and is also one of the highlights. Miller introduces it by saying it’s a series of vignettes or snapshots of the blues and he doesn’t know how it will start or finish. It has the feel of a spontaneous improvisation and it says much for both his skill and confidence that he can pull it off. He moves from slow, languorous and deeply soulful blues to passages of quick fire boogie woogie, then back again. The simplicity of the blues form often means it’s difficult to do anything new with it but Miller, in his embellishments and improvisations, adds complexity and drama, drawing out an unexpected new dimension. Rarely have the blues been explored so thoroughly and distinctively. Listen to Excursions In Blue:
What comes through again and again on Solo in Barcelona is Miller’s formidable technique with passages of dazzling, note filled arpeggios. But technique never overshadows the conjuring of mood and emotion. Nor does it get in the way of Miller’s profound sense of swing. On a piece such as Cole Porter’s I Love You, for example, he takes the tune on an exhilarating trip up hill and down dale, into corners from which it’s deftly extricated, and through thrown bombs of dissonance without ever losing the swinging, foot tapping beat. Here’s a video of Mulgrew Miller playing I Love You from a session in 2010 which gives some sense of the Barcelona performance:
On a ballad such as the Richard Rogers composition It Never Entered My Mind, Miller turns the melody inside out creating a rich tapestry of sound and telling a sort of story. He knows exactly when to turn on the virtuosity and when to let the tune speak for itself. He knows when to play loud and dramatic, and when to be relaxed and almost whimsical. He knows when to surprise with sudden freer passages of dissonance. And it all fits in with the texture and dynamic of the performance creating a most satisfying whole.
There are exuberant performances of two Dizzy Gillespie numbers, Tour De Force and Woody’n You; a deceptively relaxed rendering of Duke Ellington’s Just Squeeze Me; and a supremely confident go at John Lewis’s Milestones on which Miller hits a groove where one begins to feel he could do anything. Errol Garner’s familiar Misty is given a characteristically vigorous work out and, finally, another highlight, a relatively straight version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s O Grande Amor. This has a lovely ear worm of a melody which Miller wisely allows to shine through. Some of the playing has an almost classical feel and there is a hint from time to time of John Lewis in his MJQ days. Listen here:
One comes away from Solo in Barcelona with a deep sense of regret that Mulgrew Miller, this most accomplished of pianists, did not record more solo performances to add to his extensive discography. An album running to over an hour of solo piano runs the risk of losing the attention of the listener but Solo in Barcelona is never less than compelling. It’s a fitting tribute to a musician who left us far too soon when he was still on top of his game.
Further information on Solo in Barcelona, including samples and how to get hold of the album, are here.