The best thing about Live at the Kennedy Center, Volume 1 is that there will be a Volume 2. Mulgrew Miller is a consummate captain of the piano trio and larger ensembles and has released a string of fine recordings on the MaxJazz imprint, including Live At Yoshi's, Volume 1 & Volume 2 and The Sequel. Miller is a large man and a commanding pianist, like Oscar Peterson, and I suspect that he will inherit the mantle that once belonged to Art Tatum.
Live at the Kennedy Center is a Thanksgiving Feast in five courses. Each of the carefully crafted selections clocks in, on average, at eleven minutes plus. That's a lot of music from few pieces, betraying Miller's tendency for fully exploring compositions in live settings. This is jazz studiously examined and freely performed. In 2002, the Kennedy Center inaugurated the KC Jazz Club, an intimate room on the roof of the center. Mulgrew Miller and his trio opened the club with the performance documented on this disc.
All the selections on this performance were arranged by Miller, who proves superb at the task. The majority are taken at a fairly fast clip. "If I Should Lose You is introduced with a highly impressionistic prelude, before breaking out as a 4/4 juggernaut with Rodney Green keeping time on the ride while dropping cymbal and drum bombs left and right in homage a la Tony Williams. Bassist Derrick Hodge stays right on the beat, if not a little ahead, giving the piece the feeling of spinning out of control, save for the centrifugal force of swing. His solo is at once progressive and traditional. Miller's harmonic sense is never taxed, and he spins out chorus after chorus of fresh ideas.
Miller's two original compositions, "When I Get There and "From Day to Day, juxtapose very different styles of writing. "When I Get There is frankly Monkian in tempo and harmony, with a heavy smattering of church and blues. Sections recall the late Gene Harris' impeccable command of the blues. The rhythm section brings the piece off with an orchestral flair. "From Day to Day, a lilting waltz of a certain complexity, is a bit of a different animal. Few traces of Monk here, more Bill Evans and, well, Mulgrew Miller.
The single ballad is a crackerjack. Miller is gentle with Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark. Hodge and Green are equally gentle, softly propelling the song. Midway through, the band breaks into a brisk 4/4 stride as Miller probes every nook and cranny of the standard. The trio takes the coda, Bird's "Relaxin' at Camarillo, at breakneck speed, as bebop should be. Miller demonstrates his grasp of the genre while remaining fresh and vibrant in his approach. I hope we don't have too long a wait for Volume 2.
Personnel: Mulgrew Miller: piano; Derrick Hodge: bass; Rodney Green: drums.