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Mulgrew Miller: Life on the Bandstand

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Of course, they can say that they played with Mulgrew Miller (laughs).

Mulgrew Miller gave us splendid glimpses of great hard bop and post bop with a persona that tamed his bass foundations while beautifully freeing his right hand to dance the keys like his boyhood idol, Oscar Peterson. Dance he did. Miller’s keyboard forays pushed to the edge of improvisational fervour but the crowd (mostly 50-plus) also bobbed gleefully to Hart and Rodgers’ “Little Girl Blue” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Wouldn’t You.”

These players come from two distinct and distinguished generations of jazz. As Miller approaches 50 years of age, his age of playing was tremendously augmented by the vibrant youth of bassist Derek Hodge and drummer Rodney Green. This version of the Mulgrew Miller Trio reflected Miller’s place in the hard bop landscape while displaying how much his younger band mates respect that tradition. This was especially true of Hodge, who seemed wonderfully comforted in his bass world so that, occasionally, he arched back with head raised skyward in focus. Miller reached a similar intensity numerous times, as did Green.

It was wonderfully refreshing to watch how Miller’s experience so influenced Hodge and Green. Clearly, they are learning greatly from each other. It was not that many years ago that a young Mulgrew Miller got his mandate from another great pianist: Oscar Peterson. “I was blown away,” recalls Miller. “It was a life changing event. I knew right then that I would be a jazz pianist.”

Derek Hodge already possesses a philosophical understanding of how powerfully bass works in a group context. His decisions ranged from the obvious traditional, rhythmic character on the older songs to the cutting edge that fuses styles and influences. This young native of Philadelphia may have a long and healthy career ahead. Mulgrew Miller thinks so of both his bassist and drummer.

Rodney Green caused a stir on this night, mostly to the good, often to the great. Although he was playing mostly on the bop downbeat, Green used almost every conceivable way to hit something in front of him with the touch of a feather. The effect was highly compelling to hear and tremendously interesting to watch. Only in a series of final rhythm breaks did one drop of sweat fall from his dreadlocks.

I had to close my eyes to confirm how Green’s playing slightly detracted from the trio: one too many soloists. The ear can digest only one main solo at a time. The trio deftly took turns at all the right breaks to make this distinction. However, Green’s rhythmic designs so aggressively supported Miller’s solos that the listener felt the need to choose on whom to focus. Their aural autonomy sometimes created an unnecessarily chaotic sound. This was unfortunate because both players were fabulous.

Live jazz always has its moments. Each member of this trio took turns exchanging quizzical looks at some unintended tangents. Miller, Hodge and Green all shared slight, knowing smiles at the end results. So did we.

Score another hit for Vancouver’s Jazz Cellar – a local joint that is making its name among the cats in New York. In the last six months, Mulgrew Miller and Kenny Garrett have travelled far to play The Cellar. Dr. Lonnie Smith arrives to take the stage in September.

On this night, the Mulgrew Miller Trio ruled.


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