Mulgrew Miller may not be a household name, but he should be no stranger to jazz fans, with more than ten recordings to date as a leader. Miller might be the only pianist who can cite regular stints with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the incredible Tony Williams on his resume. This new release is dedicated to another somewhat unsung pianist, James Williams, who passed away during the recording sessions. Williams was a friend and mentor of Miller, going back to their days at Memphis State University. Both were inspired by players like Cedar Walton, Phineas Newborn, Jr., and Oscar Peterson, which you can discern while listening to Miller's work.
This date was recorded during a week's stay at Yoshi's Jazz House in Oakland, California, one the finest jazz clubs in the US. Designed as an optimum performance venue for acoustics and audience participation, Yoshi's has been the source of other recent live dates from folks like Bill Bruford and Pat Martino. Miller is joined by the members of his current working trio, Derrick Hodge and Karriem Riggins, whose playing will be immediately appreciated as one commences listening.
The burner "Joshua" opens this set in brisk and swinging fashion, a simple melody with suitable changes forming the base. The tune shifts between 4/4 and 3/4 meter, providing interest and tension as it speeds along. Miller negotiates his way through with a combination of sinuous eighth-note runs and articulated chord patterns, paying attention to detail. Hodge is rock solid, anchoring the tune with voltage while intently responding to Miller's explorations. Riggins propels it wonderfully, judiciously adding power bursts and fire. One fill will certainly grab the attention of Tony Williams fans, sounding as if the master himself appeared for a brief moment.
James Williams' song "Road Life" exhibits a twofold quality: bluesy yet enhanced by a more complex harmonic structure and possessing a show tune-like opening phrase. Miller was obviously emotionally charged on this tune, presented in honor of his fallen comrade. Hodge and Riggins are right in line as well. Hodge begins his solo with a straight walk before he outlines and stretches the limits of the changes. Riggins trades sections with Miller, applying time honored rim sounds and elucidating an obvious grasp of classic kit technique.
The Rodgers and Hart tune "It's Easy to Remember" is a solo piece for Miller. One can learn quite a bit about the history of jazz piano on this cut, which he plays as a ballad. His approach is impeccable, fully exploring every nook and cranny of the harmony while using a plethora of tactics to convey his thoughts. His right hand forays are a thing to behold, as is his sensitivity to the sheer beauty of the melodic nature of this song.
Throughout the disc, interaction among the members of the trio is first cabin. Dynamics and spacing are intelligently administered. Recording quality is definitely on a par with other state of the art live discs, befitting the superb nature of the room. Straight-ahead bop fans will love this effort.