Don Pullen: Ode to the Life Lived
“ Pullen aims arrows at souls on earth from an ancient place...from the present...the voice of the jazz-mother-tongue singing from the future... ”
He is being carried on wings, a Black Icarus, further up, higher than the sun, so the wings will not fail this time. They carry him and the fingers of his leftand all those mad block chords from God knows whereand his right handrunning along the ebony and ivory keys drawing clusters of notes in elliptical swirls they call jazz, from knuckles and fingers into the rarefied atmosphere, where he hooks up for a gig in the sky. Mingus is there and Dannie Richmond, George Adams. He may just as well start the set with "Song from the Old Country." They play "Big Alice..." Then some Mingus charts: "Sue's Changes," "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," and just before Byard and Dolphy replace Pullen and Adams, "Goree..."
Don Pullen has tricked death. He wakes from a long sleep and pulls out the charts in his head, just as Jana knows down below. The gig is huge. Even Mingus is looking forward to it as no one will drink and ice will not clink in glasses. But everyone will sit down and "listen to what we have to say as the cats play their asses off... This is our music. Finally we will be heard," the voice in his head tells him. Don Pullen is flying right up into the peace of the infinite blue. Black up against the infinite blue... Mingus smiles as Brother Don aims arrows at souls on earth from an ancient place...from the present...the voice of the jazz-mother-tongue singing from the future... "Hello..."
I am in Jane Bunnett's house. The idea is to talk with her after listening and learning and listening again to everything... all the music that she has ever made. I am curious about how she connects with people... puts her bands together. It is not just about finding people that can play your music expertly. There is more and it has to do with a spiritual connection and worshipping at the altar of creativity and no compromise. Hence the spirit-sensitive musicians of Cubaespecially the folkloric groups such as Grupo Vocal Desandann, and musicians from Brazil.
And then there was Don Pullen... Bunnett, (husband) Larry Cramer and Don Pullen shared so much! Music and life on earth and in the spirit world... The lines blurred mostly when they played. They too talked about it too... And of getting to the heart of things...
Now, Bunnett, Cramer and I talk about Don Pullen in the fading light... About their trip to Cuba together and to Brazil... Then Larry Cramer puts on a CD... And we are listening to New York Duets, to "Gratitude." We are trance-like... And then Don Pullen appears in the fading light. I cannot say how it happens but I know that he is here, sitting by the large bay window. So does Jane Bunnett. No one says anything. Pullen wears a smile, enjoying the music from the other dimension where he lives. He once said that he never listened to his own music, always moving forward on to the next score... But now he has all the time to enjoy its many mysteries.
Suddenly it hits me: Pullen, the artist, the great nearly forgotten genius of a pianist, lives in a perfect continuum. He is at the heart of past, present and future. He lets us know as he plays brazen glissandos letting his hands and fingers run riot across the keyboard of the perfectly tuned grand at Jane Bunnett's house. His solo appears to abandon the melody and all the harmonic changes that should ordinarily have made sense. Pullen is in orbit. He is telling a story of peace and love in a troubled world. He is asking us to look at what we have done to ourselves, by abusing Planet Earth. Further onward... Upward... Every once in a while, a familiar note, you think it is 'back to the melody,' but Pullen hears it differently... He charges off on another expedition... Folks have gotta know... there isn't much time... The ideas come in splashes and sunbursts of sound... Notes fuse and separate... Every cluster and single note has its own bravely individual color... A blue ping... a blood red crashing cluster... Some are aimed like darts deep into your soul... others cascade and cure through the air... Where is the "Gratitude" for blessings received?
It is always the same every time Pullen plays... Somehow the old country is new again... Slavery is freedom... Blues and gospel... his playing is his sermon and everything touches every part of you. No 'this is for you to think about' and 'that is for you to feel.' The news and narrative of the song is in the wave of emotion that overwhelms you each and every time. That is why there is no separating past, present and future. Pullen inhabits everything when sits down and plays. And that is why you cannot separate the artist from the man... one subsumes the other and everything comes together in Pullen.
For years I was obsessed with finding out more about this man, this musician whom even Mingus admired. I caught a few gigs long ago in the Village, but mostly listened to the music The Solo Piano Album (Sackville, 1975), Changes One and Changes Two (Atlantic, 1975)... and the other Mingus records. Then there was Breakthrough (Blue Note, 1986), Song Everlasting (Blue Note, 1987)... Finally, as my collection began to grow I had Ode to Life (Blue Note, 1993), Live Again (Blue Note, 1995) and the triumphant, On Sacred Common Ground (Blue Note, 1995). Oh, how I wept when I read those liner notes and realized that there would be no other record from Don Pullen!
A few months ago, I was preparing for this Ode to Don and reviewing the tapes I had made with Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer and my blood began to bubble and boil...
Suddenly everything took on a new intensity. I could not get Pullen's music out of my head. I knew I had to do something. I was wrestling with Don Pullen day in and day out. I had to find the center. Thirty years of listening to the music and experiencing epiphany after epiphany I was convinced that there was something new and different. Pullen is that kind of torchlight... He is where mind and heart are conjoined and he dances with his hands and he sings to the soul.
I find Rainer Seekamp, a fan who has created a wonderful and exhaustive website in honor of Don Pullen. I write Rainer and magically he replies. Yes, he will send me an album I do not have, "Nommo" (SRP, 1966). He tells me that I must contact Bradley Sroka and Mike Bond. I write them both and Bradley replies. He is a graduate student at Rutgers University and has done a thesis on Don Pullen1specifically his early work. He sends me a copy of his thesis, which I devour. Through the analyses and Bradley's incisive analyses I begin to understand Pullen in a slightly different context. It is as if Pullen himself is willing us on, in some strange way... bringing a group together for yet another gig. So I keep reading Bradley Sroka's notes and he helps me remember a word I had all but forgotten. The word is "mestizaje" Mestizaje - Origins
In a brief, haiku-like turn of phrase that describes a philosophical interconnectedness it is defined thus: mestizaje implies cultural hybridity, but one where two or more entities have the same weight to the extent that they form one aesthetic... or, referring to a biological and/or cultural fusion that has "a history... tells a history... and embodies a history..."
In Bradley Sroka's thesis, this mestizaje is the perfect metaphor for bebop, where as a "musical acculturation," 1 the bebop aesthetic implies a genealogy of performance stretching back to New Orleans, Tin Pan Alley and Swing...Bebop appropriates all of these disparate musical ideas and idioms and subsumes them, becoming one homogenous musical entity. At a macro level, speaking of society, it is easier to explain than to do so with Don Pullen. But Bradley Sroka makes a leap of faithas we all must do if we love this musicand finds the heavenly connection between the anthropological uses of the word mestizaje and way pure ideas, historical fact and individual genius come together in Don Pullen's music. It is an inspired thought, but then Pullen is an inspiring sort of person... It is hard to understand why the world forgets him and many like him...
Bradley Sroka makes a wonderful analysis of Don Pullen's solo on the 1986 recording "Song From The Old Country." This is very mature Pullen, not that he was a kid in early incarnations of this music, but the music itself has matured like rare wine and he is in his element with a band that is home... For years' folksfans and casual listeners alikecould not understand Pullen's music. "How can he play with his elbows and still stay in tune?" one fan was heard as exclaiming at a concert that Mike Bond picked up and the gasp is now legend.
We find the key in Sroka's Schenkerian analysis. In Pullen's hands, dissonant glissandi, when the impulse to solo grabs him and he takes flight, become subsumed in the consonant harmonies of the music. Throughout the long piece, a sonic tapestry is being woven where the design of the individual threads appears and disappears as its master weaver waves his hands touching this note an that, sometimes gently, at other times in clusters with unfettered ferocity. Throughout, the song maintains its harmonic tonal structure, despite Pullen's extravagant expeditions over a sea of dissonant glissandi, until dissonance and consonance find togetherness in a definitive harmonic bed of sound. It remains a fine example of the 32-Bar song only Don Pullen takes it 'out' and brings it back 'in' again. This is a masterful analysis. Borrowing appropriately from performance studies scholar's theory of the engineered grafting of two (or more) dissimilar entities, Sroka gives this life to musical study, but finds that the entities, while forming a hybrid entity, still manage to remain separate, while in Pullen's music, everything comes together...he has the gifted technique and is inventive to an extreme degree.
So we graduate to 1925 and to Jose Vasconcelos, a Mexican educator and philosopher, who wrote "La Raza Cosmica" both to challenge western theories of racial superiority and purity and to offer a new view about the mixing of African, European and indigenous peoples in Mexico and throughout Latin America. (But he may as well have been speaking of North and South America as well. No doubt he was discredited... and don't we always? See what we did to Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop, the great Senegalese scientist who published his own thesis and many more deeply historical books on the African origin of civilization, who was likewise discredited after his thesis in Sorbonne in 1951. But we are off on a modal expedition here. Suffice it to say that the theory of mestizaje makes eminent sense when you listen to Pullen soloing on "Song from the Old Country" "Ah George, We Hardly Knew Ya," and so many of his extraordinary compositions.
Like Coltrane and the quintet in 1965 playing "Father, Son and The Holy Ghost," where the saxophonist dives in and out of a 'consonant' version of "Frèrè Jacques" as the ensemble flies unfettered through its deeply African and dissonant homage to the triune God. But it seems to me that Coltrane worked conscious and hard to give birth to the sound he was hearing in his head, whereas with Pullen it seemed to flow from the time he touched the keyboard, as early as when he debuted on record with Giuseppi Logan on The Giuseppi Logan Quartet (ESP, 1964). "Taneous" and "Bleecker Partita" are two of the early classic intimations of what was to flow from the heart and head, and from the fingers of Don Pullen.
But the 1960s were cruel. And they were hard on Don Pullen like they did everyone else. But he survived, unlike Logan. He did so as only Pullen can... by hunkering down and using his great gift of creativity and the Confucian character of bending like a supple tree in a ferocious storm.
On October 1, 1964 he participated in the October Revolution in Jazz. "This is our music!" it said, but many were afraideven musicians themselves. The music was so confrontational that almost everyone missed the whole point of it. They mistook the dissonant elements of the best music for a lack of 'musical understanding' and turned their backs on a host of musicians in the vanguard of the music that was so in- your-face that some felt it was a terribly revolutionary threat. And because the musicians refused to compromise in the way it was crafted, which was nothing new as Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had done and faced the same animosity (even from knowledgeable) musicians twenty years earlier, audiences were antagonistic and the music fell into decline... Few musicians survived.
Pullen had nerves of steel... and he believed in himself more than anything else... In 1966 he and Milford Graves started his own label, Self Reliance Program, and released two long playing records, In Concert, at Yale University Volume 1 and Nommo (SRP, 1966). "The social and political aspects made it just about the right time for us to go into this venture. Musicians were thinking about controlling their own music. We weren't going to sit back and wait for the Man to say, 'Well, here. Take this crumb.' We said, 'We'll do it ourselves.'"2
Of course, thumbing his nose at the establishment in America paid off, but in an unexpected way. Europe and Japanit's those older civilizations againresponded with respect for individuality and SRP sold many more discs there. But more than that, the artists were welcomed there like some had never imagined. Jane Bunnett told me (of a much later time, but of no less relevance) about how artists were welcomedand she spoke of Pullen and herselfin Australia. This was the 1980s... How much worse in the US of the 1960s and how refreshing must it have felt to be received differently in Europe?
But Don Pullen believed that it would all become right in the end. He was a stoic, like that; who believed that all good would come in the end... disappointed, but still happy to give of himself amid the brutality of everyday that unfolded after SRP was born. He may have been accused of turning his back on the so-called avant-garde, but he was only disillusioned because the music did not swing... something Pullen's music always did, even when it was at its most 'out.' He played in different venuesat universitieswith different musiciansNina Simone and Arthur Prysock, in different contextsR&B and soul, and even transferred his great keyboard skills to the organ, acquitting himself with flying colors on this unwieldy instrument. Pullen always stayed true to himself. His integrity was unshakeable... He was a rock... And he had wings and could flynot just across the musical firmament, but also across the keyboard. His mind just could not be contained.
Still, the impulse to create enduring art is preeminent. It will not be suppressed. What it hears must come out and be committed to tape and record... And so he played the music he heard constantly... and often he commited much to tape, for posterity. By the time the sixties were done, Don Pullen had four albums: two with Guiseppi Logan in 1964 and 1965, and two with Milford Graves in 1966. It is hard to make a living with this music and Pullen experienced that too. But then there was other music that he also heard in his head... And he wanted to experience more especially as if it is good enough to swing and dance to then it is good enough to be played. "I always considered that I was fortunate enough to be in any circumstances where I could play and always tried to take advantage of it. That way I had a foundation in all the different kinds of music that I was experiencing," Pullen once said. 3 And he fit in well, in any scene. He was a well-trained pianist by the time the gigs came in the late-fifties and early sixties. Mrs. Whitlock took care of that in Roanoke, Virginia, then Cousin Fats and then the cats who taught at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. And then there was the First Baptist Church in Roanoke. Pullen played and studied and played and learned... So when he met Muhal Richard Abrams in 1963, he was ready. Abrams heard the new music in him... "Muhal approved and encouraged me in what I was doing. I was trying to incorporate atonality into the standard formsthe blues and the standardsand to make whatever I heard fit that mode," Pullen once recalled.4
So, why was it so hard for those who heard his music from the sixties in the vanguard of the new movement to understand where he was coming from and where the music was at, then and there? Why, when Bernard Stollman, Founder of ESP-Disk heard the music he was recording with Giuseppi Logan in 1964: "At one point, I was standing with the engineer in the control room, and I thought the piece they were playing was stunningly beautiful. It sounded totally spontaneous, as if they were adlibbing and commenting like a gorgeous conversation. Suddenly I heard a 'thwuuunk,' and I realized that the tape had run out. The engineer and I were so absorbed, we hadn't been paying attention. I thought 'Oh God, this remarkable thing is lost. It was interrupted in the middle and it's gone.' Richard Alderson was the engineer, and he got on the intercom and said, 'Giuseppi, the tape ran out.' Without a pause, Giuseppi said, 'Take it back to before where it stopped and we'll take it from there.' So he did, wound it back and played some bars of it and they took down the record button, and they resumed exactly what they were doingthere was no way of telling where one or the other ended. It was unreal."5
So, why was it so hard...? Pullen could never understand. ..."The form, the structure, everything was there, (in the 1960's)... People weren't used to hearing it and so they said there was none."6 Bradley Srokaagain in that remarkable thesis confirms, "Pullen's assertion and points out a distinct theme, sections for solo improvisation, and deliberate musical events that signal or anticipate changes of form and direction in Logan's composition... My analysis of "Taneous," Giuseppi Logan Quartet (ESP- Disk, 1964) documents that Pullen's 1960s oeuvre is anything but arbitrary and formless."7 That this is being done again in 2008 must say something about our hard-headedness in this day and this century, towards the soul of jazz in the 1960s.
But damned we are... And Pullen must have thought just so of audiences in the 1960s as well. By the time the 1970s rolled around he was playing several contexts. And he made three records with rhythm and blues alto-saxophonist, Clarence Williams. I listen, as I write this, to Pullen's remarkable organ intro on "Bacon But Fat," from Clarence Williams (Mainstream Lp, 1971). His command of the instrument is majestic. This is a swinging 12-bar, bluesy turn of phrase... no room for those incredible splashes of notes that were to come soon on the keyboard, but the lightening, fast florid lines are beginning to appear already, and the emotion is intense throughoutnot just the song, but the entire records as well...
However, by 1973, Pullen was ordained to become an alumnus of the new Mingus band. Dannie Richmond welcomed the brother back to where he belonged. He appeared to slip in like he'd been there before, and before long George Adams brought the sound of his brazen tenor saxophone to the band... The three of themPullen, whom Mingus had anointed much like he did Jackie Byard in the 1960s, to play a pivotal role, because "he can play any kind of style," Dannie Richmond and George Adams creating a dizzying portfolio of sound right from the Mingus Moves (Atlantic, 1973) days. George Adams even contributed a song, "Flowers for a Lady," and Pullen "Big Alice" and "Newcomer," to that date. Don Pullen was already leaving his mark on the bandlike Dolphy and Byard did a decade ago. His fingers tore up the keyboard. Again and again... On the Sy Johnson chart, "Wee," he bridged a canyon that Mingus had not crossed in decades. He colored the music with a solo like that of a painter with a million brushes and tonal shades, stretching further than the eye could see. And then he was back again on his own, "Big Alice," and on "Newcomer," a classic ballad that winds taut in a lovers' embrace... Don Pullen made his presence felt all over again...quietly, firmly...
And soon it was time for the Mingus juggernaut to roll on... four years and counting. Like Hannibal, Mingus and his musicians conquered Europe all over again, especially at the live concert, Live in Montreux (Eagle Eye Media, 1975). The unsuspecting were treated to mind-expanding experience. Pullen set the piano on fire on "Sue's Changes," with an assault that was only rivaled by Mingus when he turned the rhythm around before and after Pullen's swirling, whirlwind solo. And then, when Gerry Mulligan and Benny Bailey joined in the festivities, he created an ocean of peace and tranquility for Mingus' great tribute to Lester Young, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," as his notes tumbled gently into the perfect night in Switzerland.
With Mingus, the world opened up. Pullen made history with him: Changes One and Changes Two and then Carnegie Hall... 1974 was a great year. Pullen also met Italian bassist Marcello Melis in New York City, where they recorded Perdas De Fogu with the magnificent Sheila Jordan singing.
Then in Toronto, in 1975, Pullen was persuaded by Bill Smith and John Norris to record a solo album. The extraordinary Solo Piano Album (Sackville, 1975) was made and features perhaps the most enduring Pullen composition, "Suite (Sweet) Malcolm (Part 1> Memories and Gunshots)." There may be many tributes to Malcolm X in poetry and in music, but none as sharp and incisive and everlasting in the memory they leave behind as Pullen's. "Richard's Tune (Dedicated to Muhal Richard Abrams," is no less unforgettable. The album also featured a solo version of "Big Alice" and the tantalizing, "Song Played Backwards." Years later, Cameron Brown, who played with Don for ten years, through his Italian and Blue Note sojourns, would tell Bradley Sroka in an interview that, "If that was the only thing he ever did...that record, I mean, the "Suite for Malcolm" is a masterpiece, No ifs ands or buts..."
The Italian connection had been made a year earlier. So in 1975, Giacomo Pellicciotti, already smitten by Pullen's genius and contributions to the new thing, recorded an intense feature with Sam Rivers, supported by Alex Blake on bass and Bobby Battle on drums. Capricorn Rising (Black Saint, 1975) blazed across what airwaves would have it played. Now Pullen was doing in Europe what he could never do at home. The label was so supportive. Everyone knew that this was historic. The music Pullen first made with Giuseppi Logan in 1964... now Pellicciotti would give Pullen's unique voice a fresh lease on life. The same year he did his solo record in Toronto, he recorded another tour de force solo for Black Saint in Milano. Healing Force (1975) is dark and introspective. Pullen bares all on "The Pain Inside" and it all comes together on the title track. Through his darkest moments in life, Pullen was focused, even driven. He is true to the music... Gospel and the blues... That mad, mad, swing and the swirls upon powerful swirls... Like Monk before him, when Pullen played a few bars and tilted into his solo, you always knew that it was him. No one could play like Pullen. No one.
By the time Giovanni Bonandrini bought out Black Saint from Pellicciotti, Pullen had become an icon in EuropeItaly at any rate. His oeuvre grew and he ended up recording eleven absolutely spectacular albums with that label. A lot of exploratory work got done, with Famoudou Don Moye and Fred Hopkins. It began in 1978 with Milano Strut, back to the format where he launched himself with Milford Graves a decade prior to this record. He paid tribute to Giuseppi Logan with a stirring "Curve Eleven" and to the city that adopted him with the title track. It was a fine record and Pullen's restless star was on the rise. At the end of July, 1979 he cut The Magic Triangle, with Joseph Jarman and Don Moye, a record that gave back to what he heard a long time ago on an Ornette Coleman record. One that had first opened his mind to the space within the beats at the secret heart of jazz and the melding of harmony and melody... in his own fiery way...
On January 5, 1979, Mingus died in Cuernevaca, Mexico at the age of 56. The anger melted away. Feelings came in waves... He wrote profusely. Later that year Pullen formed one of his most electrifying bands with George Adams, Cameron Brown and Dannie Richmond. Shortly after All That Funk (Palcoscenico, Nov. 1979), they record Don't Lose Control first. It's as if the four of them had been playing for years. As Mingus once told Adams, "Well, don't be like all the rest of the whores..."8 and they played their hearts out. Pullen contributed "Remember?," a turbulent number that recalls, perhaps in short order, the jumping turnarounds that Mingus popped on the three of them. Pullen was nodding at Mingus.
There is a strange sense of what did notbut always had toget done. The George Adams-Don Pullen Quartet roamed large in Europe, finding another recording haven in Holland, with the Dutch label, Timeless. The air here was thick with music. Pullen, Adams and Richmond recorded Earthbeams (1980) and Lifeline (1981), with its soul-searching revisiting of "Newcomer, Seven Years Later," after he first laid the track down with Mingus on Mingus Moves. They also recorded both the breathtaking Melodic Excursions, with the deeply spiritual "God has Smiled on Me," and City Gates in 1983, featuring the first appearance of another tribute, "Thank You Very Much Mr. Monk" and the classic spiritual, "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," recalling almost, the vocalastics of Paul Robeson. Decisions came in 1984and again the spiritual voice is haunting on "His Eye is on the Sparrow"and in 1985, Live at Montmatre, the spectacular version of "Song Everlasting," that was to appear in an exciting incarnation a decade later.
Meanwhile, back at the Bonandrini's ranch, with an impulse to perform a quick nod to vocal gigs he once did with Nina Simone, Pullen broke away between gigs with the guys in Holland, and recorded Angedras (Black Saint, 1983), a fine conceptual album with Marcelli Melis, who started it all in the first place. Pullen's triumphant return to New York in 1983 and the August 19 gig at the Village Vanguard was captured on record to forever celebrate the great affection that Pullen had for NYC, starting twenty years earlier. Thanks to Max Gordon, the group did a long gig and, once again, Giovanni Bonandrini was there to capture it all. Pullen's by now quite classic "Thank You Very Much Mr. Monk" and "Big Alice" rub shoulders with Adams' "City Gates," Duke Ellington's "Solitude" and Mingus' exquisite ballad, "Dianne."
That same year Pullen made one more solo record, the last he would do with his own work on it. Evidence of Things Unseen digs deepest into his heart and soul. What's inside can never really get out, but once in awhile you just may catch a glimpse of it. Jane Bunnett once said that Pullen never really talked much about the cards that life dealt him and the ones he played in his own life, but this album is as close as it ever gets.
Don Pullen (l) with George Adams (r)
Sadly, the gig with Black Saint ended. It will not go gently into that night, as Dylan Thomas might have written about this end too. The Sixth Sense (1985) features a quintet with Olu Dara on trumpet, Donald Harrison on alto saxophone, Fred Hopkins on bass and Bobby Battle on drums. With Pullen pulling out all the stops, the record sings directly to the heart. Dara stars as does Harrison, who recalls the mighty rhythmic intensity of Dolphy. Pullen is stunning, preaching his lonely gospel and dazzling to excess.
Michael Cuscuna describes the impact Pullen and Adams, Richmond and Cam Brown had on him in 1981, at a festival in Molde, Norway: "As much as I'd admired their individual artistry, I was not prepared for the impact of these four men together. They danced through tempos, harmonic shifts, styles and genres with the greatest of ease, never relaxing their creative reach and always stimulating each other. I wanted to tell the world about how extraordinary they were. The chance would come five years later when Bruce Lundvall signed them to Blue Note."9
Indeed, it did. Breakthrough (Blue Note, 1986) was more than that. Brash yet sophisticated, it was down-and-dirty-in-your-face, yet exquisitely classy. Clearly the message was, "We've Been Here All the Time." The Quartetfunny how Coltrane-esque that sounds and how just it is to give such credit as well was at the top of its game. Sadly just one more record followed, Song Everlasting (Blue Note, 1987). "Sing Me a Song Everlasting" was to become the torchlight as the notes of the perfectly sent sunbursts of sound pierced the silence of the nightany night, even today. Contrary to what I had believed until this search for Don Pullen, the band broke up before Dannie Richmond passed on. There was talk of 'difficulties' with the reading of some music, but this would hardly have been the case. Ten years must have been a long time and restlessness may have caught up in the end... And the impulse, not just to look, but to also move forward...always. And, the, of course, Dannie Richmond died suddenly on March 15, 1988 and things would never be the same again. But that year, Cuscuna brought Pullen and Tony Williams together socially in Japan. Fortuitously, Pullen decided to do a record with Williams and Gary Peacock.
The breathtaking trio record, New Beginnings (Blue Note, 1988), followed. This could well be, even today, one of the finest piano records ever made. Exquisitely recorded by the great David Baker, Pullen's musical expedition wove in and out of familiar sonic landscapes and shot brilliantly into uncharted territory. His supremely unique technique was in full bloomunorthodox fingerings, crossed hands to play complex, counter-melodies; elbows to hammer out precise and percussive block-chords and knuckles to create splashing spirals and dazzling runsmade the music new again... and again and again. Especially on "Warriors" and the title track. The success of that album begat the last trio record that Pullen made, Random Thoughts (Blue Note, 1990). Pullen was becoming infinitely more introspective and the thoughts were far from random. "Endangered Species: African American Youth" is one of those songs that sear the brain, echoing with a power with which few could preach.
By now, Pullen's musical canvas had grown larger, like so many geniuses before him. His tonal palette was growing. He was hearing new and infinitely more complex sounds in his head. Although, as always, because of his deep dedication to the music, he continued to play and even record with and in many different contextsespecially with Kip Hanrahan, Roots (and saxophonists Arthur Blythe, Chico Freeman and Sam Rivers) and Jane Bunnett (especially on the beautiful, New York Duets (Denon, 1989)in his heart something huge was growing.
Digging deep, Pullen made a spirit journey, as he had done years earlier with Beaver Harris on A Well Kept Secret (Shemp, 1984). He began to explore the musical territory from Africa to Brazil and back. His new band, African-Brasilian Connection, began to tear up the sound waves again. Kele Mou Bana (Blue Note, 1991) brought together Senegalese master Mor Thiam with Brazilians Nilson Matta and Guilherme Franco, and Panamanian Carlos Ward. It seemed that the music was taking a swirling path to encompass the heart of jazz and bluesthe African and Afro-Brazilian roots... once again, a visit to the "Goree" of history.
The music embraced voices and chants. The circle was both widening and closing in, with the music echoing cerebrally and in every heartbeat. Pick almost any chart over thirty years, but to keep it simple, listen to "Mr. Smoothie" from 1986's Breakthrough (Blue Note) and then to "Listen to the People" on Kele Mou Bana or "Ode to Life" on the eponymous album. The former all sounded bright and carefree, but on the latter there was something urgent and nourishing. Perhaps it was a sense of mortality and how could you blame Pullen? By November, 1992 George Adams was dead too. And it was not long before Pullen too would be diagnosed with the cancer that ultimately took his rich life away as well. He was always deep and it was reflected in his music. But he rarely talked about what he believed in. One instance was when New Beginnings was released. "Warriors we must be in the continuing fight against the insanity of hatred, racism, homophobia, the madness that is destroying our planet and all the ills that keep our society divided. Unless seeds of peace and love are planted, changes made, a new consciousness embraced, all that can be reaped is whirlwind.
"Silence about issues surely equals death. (Echoed in "Silence=Death") The 'powers that be' are at war with nature, the ozone layer, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the trees, the grass and all the things that make life and this planet beautiful.
"Once upon a time this was not so. It does not have to be so today. We can begin anew and rededicate ourselves to peace and love and harmony."10...
That was in 1988. Now, at the time of presenting Ode to Life in 1993, the urgency was a becoming a benediction. Mingus... Dannie... George and now me, Don... Oh, Mama... The final score took shape towards some kind of finality as well, then. Pullen's magnum opus, "Meditations on Integration..." his "Ninth Symphony," with its own "Ode to Joy..."became Sacred Common Ground (Blue Note, 1995), a collaboration between the pianist and his African-Brasilian Connection, with Joseph Bowie and the Native American Chief Cliff Singersa group of Kootenai drummer/singers from Elmo, Montana. It was bound for glory. It sang of an uncomfortable truth that Pullen had always sung through his music, then written for a record in 1988 which had now become the underlying score of his final masterpiece.
How he must have missed Adams and Richmond and Mingus and those that went before him. How he worked night and day to finish his perfect score before he was robbed of his life can only be imagined with a chill. What it must have taken to get out of bed at times to go into the studio and record. "You know," He told Michael Cuscuna, "we throw around a lot of words like courage. You haven't seen courage until you've sat in a waiting room for four, five and six year-olds who are literally dying of cancer. You can't imagine their strength and spirit."11
And suddenly it all begins to make sense... Love of the planet into which he and we are born... the one we do not own, but take care of for our children and our children's children's children... The one we are destroying, the one the indigenous peoples knew long ago how to care for... but whom we destroyed with our hate. This was the poignant significance of the masterpiece, Sacred Common Ground. It digs deepest into the heart of Pullen's very being. Inward looking and at its very depth spontaneous improvisations clash and swirl around, energized by unbridled creativitya daunting task, considering his physical state. Yet it all comes together in a score that features vintage Pullen pianism melded with vocalastics of an almost otherworldly nature. And, for the first time in centuries, a musician was able to bring the ancient wisdom of Native America into the realm of Afro-American blues and jazz, in a score that is old, yet new and, like its composer, of the past...in the present...and in the future.
He probably did not go gently on April 22, 1995 (the very same day that his friend and compatriot on this musical journey, Charles Mingus was born). He must surely have raged against the dying of the light. But in his own way, because as he found, "Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room. Whatever we were to each other, we still are. Call me by my old familiar name. Speak to me in the same easy way you always have. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Play... smile... think of me and pray for me. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it always was. There is absolute, unbroken continuity. Why should I be out of your mind because I am out of your sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner. All is well. Nothing is past. Nothing has been lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was beforeonly better. Infinitely happier. We will be one, together forever."12
And when you think about it, that is what this music we call jazz is all about. And, of course, it was everything that Don Pullen was all about, even when he was not playing a note. So to believe, we keep playing and keep listening to his musica light burning on a lintel somewhere in the hope that he will see and come for a listen, like he did to me and Jane Bunnett on that cold Toronto evening not too long ago...
Spirits and Dedications
With deep gratitude to Don Pullen for the music...always. To Jane Bunnett, who relit a smoldering fire on a cold day in March 2008. To Rainer Seekamp, for always keeping a flame burning through www.donpullen.de and for opening so many doors, the widest one to Bradley Sroka, who gave me access to his brilliant and insightful thesis on Don Pullen's music and also sharing so much of the music with me. (You're a star in your own write, Brad). Also to Flavio Bonandrini at Black Saint, who provided me with an embarrassment of riches and so generously opened his Don Pullen archives to me, and to Fumi Tomita of ESP-Disk, who did the same and provided the rarest of rare gems, Giuseppi Logan Quartet. Finally and, as always, to Mike, John, Chris and Samuel... always ever so close at All About Jazz.
Rainer Seekamp's amazingly full and detailed Don Pullen discography can be found herecreated with commendable depth and dedication. Here, however, are some of Pullen's more important records:
Don Pullen, Mosaic Select 13 (Mosaic, 2004)
Don Pullen, Sacred Common Ground (Blue Note, 1995)
Don Pullen's African Brazilian Connection, Ode to Life (Blue Note, 1993)
George Adams/Don Pullen, Melodic Excursions (Timeless, 1985)
George Adams/Don Pullen, Don't Lose Control (Black Saint, 1979)
Don Pullen/Sam Rivers, Capricorn Rising (Black Saint, 1976)
Don Pullen, Solo Piano Album (Sackville, 1975)
Charles Mingus, Changes One (Atlantic, 1974)
Charles Mingus, Changes Two (Atlantic, 1974)
Giuseppi Logan, The Guiseppi Logan Quartet (ESP-Disk, 1964)
1 Bradley Sroka, New Beginnings: The Music of Don Pullen and a Re-Contextualization of the 1960s Jazz Avant-Garde (Graduate Thesis) (Rutgers University, May 2008)
2 Vernon Fraser, "Don PullenAn Interview by Vernon Fraser," from Coda (October-November, 1976 p2-3)
3 Howard Mandel, "Don Pullen: Piano Inside & Out," from Down Beat (June 1985, p21)
4 Leslie Gourse, "Don Pullen," from JazzTimes (November 1989, p21)
5 Bernard Stollman, in liner notes to Giuseppi Logan Quartet (ESP-Disk, 1964). Also in Clifford Allen,' Bernard Stollman: The ESP-Disk Story (All About Jazz, November 21, 2005).
6 Vernon Fraser, "Don PullenAn Interview by Vernon Fraser," from Coda (October-November, 1976 p3)
7 Bradley Sroka, New Beginnings: The Music of Don Pullen and a Re-Contextualization of the 1960s Jazz Avant-Garde (Graduate Thesis) (Rutgers University, May 2008)
8 Lee Jeske in liner notes to George Adams' Don't Lose Control (Soul Note, 1980)
9 From "Postscript," Michael Cuscuna's liner notes to Mosaic Select: Don Pullen (Mosaic, 2004)
10 Don Pullen, in "Some Notes on the Music," from liner notes to his album New Beginnings (Blue Note, 1988)
11 From "Postscript," Michael Cuscuna's liner notes to Mosaic Select: Don Pullen (Mosaic, 2004)
12 Recited by Don Pullen at the funeral of George Adams, November 1988, and from 19th Century Sermon titled "The King of Terrors," written by the Anglican Clergyman, Henry Holland. With thanks to Benj DeMott on "First of the Month."
Top Photo: Michael Wilderman
Photo of Don Pullen and George Adams: Courtesy of Giant Maw
Bottom Photo: Guy Fonck