Don Pullen: Ode to the Life Lived

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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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...
Don PullenHe 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 left—and all those mad block chords from God knows where—and his right hand—running 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 Cuba—especially 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?

Don Pullen 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 Pullen1—specifically 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..."

Don Pullen 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 faith—as we all must do if we love this music—and 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' folks—fans and casual listeners alike—could 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.

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