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Highly Opinionated

Don Pullen: Ode to the Life Lived

By Published: August 22, 2008
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 Sroka—again 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 throughout—not 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 them—Pullen, 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 band—like 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.



Don Pullen 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..."



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