Mulgrew Miller (1955-2013)
Mulgrew Miller was an American jazz pianist whose soulful erudition, clarity of touch and rhythmic aplomb made him a fixture in the postbop mainstream for more than 30 years.
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 with a trio or with the group he called Wingspan, after the title of his second album. 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.
Born in Greenwood, Miss., on Aug. 13, 1955, Mulgrew 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 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 joined 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. Among Mr. Miller’s releases in the past decade were an impeccable solo piano album and four live albums featuring his dynamic trio.
Source: New York Times, 2013
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Exclusive to Storyville Records, a previously unreleased live concert with jazz stars Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (bass) and Mulgrew Miller (piano) is now finally available for everyone to enjoy. For a short but magnificent time, the two played together, and our revival of their visit to the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland in 2000 testifies to their musical brightness and beauty.
In 1999-2000, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen was given the chance to make a studio recording on the occasion of Duke Ellington’s 100th birthday. For this duo session, NHØP chose Mulgrew Miller, whom he had heard, but never played with. Both were at the height of their careers, giants in their own right, and with totally different backgrounds. NHØP was born into the Danish folk high-school milieu that promoted freedom of thought and had a prolific song tradition. Growing up as the child of plantation workers in Greenwood, Mississippi, Mulgrew had his roots in gospel music and the racially divided USA of the 1960s. A Duke Ellington connoisseur, he had played with the Ellington Orchestra under direction of Mercer Ellington.
Still, from the moment NHØP and Mulgrew met and played together, the two had an affinity as human beings and musicians. They chose a repertoire based on the historic 1941 Duke Ellington—Jimmy Blanton duets. Mik Neumann, NHØP’s long-time sound engineer, says about their collaboration: “What was special was how their music assimilated the divergent influences of their younger days. Remarkable, too, was the degree of profundity in their interplay – a talent that demands years of experience for a musician to deliver, and possibly also for an audience to understand. At the same time, thanks to their ability to swing, and their inbred musicality, the music was also immediately accessible.” In many ways, piano-and-bass was the ultimate constellation for Niels-Henning and Mulgrew. Here, NHØP had the necessary room to display the same creative brilliance that revolutionized modern contrabass playing.
In 2000, NHØP and Mulgrew Miller embarked on a world tour celebrating Duke Elington’s 100th birthday. Mik Neumann recalls the special connection between the two musicians: “Not once during the tour did they sit down and discuss what they were going to play – it materialized on stage, in the moment.”
Recorded live, all the tracks on this never before released concert remain in the same order as the two masters chose that evening at the North Sea Jazz Festival. They are at the peak of their abilities, combining new version of the Ellington songs they had previously recorded together with jazz standards. Niels-Henning and Mulgrew have sadly passed away, but are remembered as intelligent and insightful musicians on and off stage, but also as unconditionally generous mentors and influences for generations of musicians after themselves.