Mulgrew Miller is in a sense the symbol of a whole generation of musicians – underappreciated but beloved by his community, equally forceful as a bandleader or sideman, as a composer or interpreter of standards (or modern “standards”), and able to meld bebop, more harmonically and rhythmically modern jazz and more accessible, soulful sounds in a completely organic manner. He is also a class act every step of the way. I’ve listened to him countless times live and on recordings, but my most resonant memory will probably always be the speech he gave at James Williams’ memorial concert at St. Peter’s church in NY, a “performance” that was the highlight of an all-star event and managed to navigate different terrain (in this case love, gratitude, humor and mourning) much the same way his musical vocabulary does.
As many in the jazz community know, Mulgrew is battling some serious health challenges right now. I don’t want to find myself paying posthumous tribute to him, so now’s the time to draw attention to some of his great work. Let’s all dig in and do some listening to him in hopes that the vibes will help swing him into good health.
Update: as most reading this probably know, Mulgrew has subsequently lost his battle. We grieve him as a musician and human being and we must keep his spirit and music alive even as he is no longer here to share it with us.
1 ) “Song For Darnell” (from Live at the Kennedy Center, Vol. 2)
Here is Mulgrew at his finest, leading his trio (here with Derrick Hodge and Rodney Green) through a whisper-to-a-scream epic performance full of soul and groove.
2 ) “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” (from Blue Skies by Cassandra Wilson)
This late-1980s recording pre-dates Wilson’s rise to stardom, and Mulgrew’s arrangement and piano playing here illustrate what a great accompanist he is, particularly for anyone who straddles the line between hip/modern and straight-ahead.
3 ) “Farewell to Dogma” (from Young At Heart by Tony Williams)
Mulgrew was a linchpin of Tony Williams’ wonderful quintets for years, but I decided to go for this intimate trio performance of a tune he contributed to Tony’s last recording.
4 ) “Giant Steps” (from Solo)
The rest of these selections highlight a handful of Mulgrew’s many important collaborations, but it’s important to remember that all he needs is a piano. This track shows that in full force, as well as demonstrating how someone can be soulful and expressive at this tune without compromising any of the technical facets with which it is associated. Honorable mention to his many other great solo recordings (sadly-omitted highlights include “Brooklyn At Dawn” from Bill “Prof” Fielder’s Love Progression and the ballad medley on Art Blakey’s New York Scene)
5 ) “It Don’t Mean A Thing” (from Four Pianos For Phineas by the Contemporary Piano Ensemble)
I could populate this entire list with tie-ins to his dear friend, the late, great pianist James Williams. This track is a good place to start, featuring ‘Grew and JW alongside fellow Phineas Newborn, Jr. devotees on either end of the age-spectrum in mentor Harold Mabern and disciple Geoffrey Keezer.
6 ) “Go East Young Man” (from The Sequel)
This totally irresistible song is one of many great representations of Mulgrew’s writing and ensemble direction. It gets bonus points as well for featuring two more of his frequent collaborators, vibraphonist Steve Nelson and saxophonist Steve Wilson. It was hard to leave off Mulgrew’s contributions to their own albums (such as the additional James Williams tie-ins on “Arioso” from Nelson’s Sound-Effect and “A Joyful Noise (for JW)” from Wilson’s Generations).
7 ) “Blues in the Afternoon” (from Introducing Kenny Garrett by Kenny Garrett)
Kenny Garrett is another musician whose wonderful collaborations with Mulgrew could populate this entire list, from African Exchange Student to Beyond the Wall. Here we get to also pay tribute to one of Mulgrew’s first legendary employers, the trumpet giant Woody Shaw. This tune (an original of Mulgrew’s) features fierce playing by all involved, as well as well as another frequent collaborator, the late Tony Reedus on drums.
8 ) “Body and Soul” (from Blue Night by Art Blakey)
Mulgrew came to a lot of people’s attention during his stint in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He was in the group at the same time as two more ongoing collaborators, trumpeter Terence Blanchard and saxophonist Donald Harrison, the latter of whom is featured on this elegant track.
9 ) “Golden Striker” (from San Sebastian by Ron Carter)
Mulgrew has played with Ron Carter on numerous records by each of them, as well as albums by Branford Marsalis, Benny Golson, Frank Morgan and numerous others. Most recently, Mulgrew has sat alongside Ron and Russell Malone in the “Golden Striker Trio,” well-represented by this eponymous tune.
10 ) “Song for Darnell” (from Key to the City, reissued on Chapter 1 & 2)
Recorded 17 years before the track that begins this list, this is the first track on Mulgrew’s first recording as a bandleader, a trio date with Ira Coleman and Marvin “Smitty” Smith. It is fascinating to hear both the evolution and continuity in Mulgrew’s playing over that time, but perhaps the most striking feature is how fully mature and compelling and downright soulful he is on both.