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Mulgrew Miller and Wingspan at William Paterson University

David A. Orthmann By

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Mulgrew Miller and Wingspan
William Paterson University
Wayne, NJ
February 26, 2006

Mulgrew Miller celebrated his recent appointment as William Paterson University's Director of Jazz Studies by reconvening Wingspan, a sextet he's intermittently led since the late 1980s. Miller dedicated the concert to pianist and composer James Williams, a "dear friend and brother, who held the Director's position at WPU until his untimely death nearly two years ago.

Without lecturing the audience, Miller and company made it clear that jazz is a living art form that demands individualism and draws deeply from precedent. They opened with "Wingspan, Miller's homage to Charlie Parker. The bright, medium-tempo bebop line was interpreted by alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, trumpeter Dwayne Eubanks, and vibraphonist Steve Nelson. At ease with a rhythm section consisting of Miller, bassist Ivan Taylor, and drummer Rodney Green, Wilson's solo displayed a chain of phrases that moved along in a brisk manner.

After a gospel tinged piano introduction, Miller's composition "When I Get There revealed the influence of another giant of modern jazz, Thelonious Monk. The leader's solo juxtaposed long, cascading single-note runs, pithy blues remarks, and short surging passages. Nelson played a steady stream of tightly organized ideas, contrasting long and short phrases, making a slightly dissonant sound by striking two notes in unison, and sometimes pausing to let a single note ring.

"Farewell To Dogma, one of Miller's tunes that has often been covered by other artists, began with the pianist's extended prologue. Showing off his firm touch, Miller played a melody that sounded like a standard you can't quite recall the name of, and then moved on to dark chords and dense, skittering clusters of notes. Taylor's turn incorporated an aggressive attack on the bass that gradually became more reflective. Wilson displayed a nice rounded tone on the soprano sax, and he held up well under the pressure of Green's vigorous Latin rhythms and Miller's insistent chords.

Steve Nelson, the band's charter member, was featured on the standard "If You Could See Me Now. After he played the introduction with 3 mallets, Nelson struck a balance between the melody and some lovely embellishments. Accompanied by Green's tasteful brushwork, Nelson continued to think in melodic terms during his solo, executing combinations of sixteenth notes but never sounding particularly busy.

Hank Mobley's lively hard bop theme, "Breakthrough, was a fitting concert closer. As Miller paused and watched him play, Eubanks started building his solo by repeating a phrase and then effortlessly moved into the upper register of the horn. Except for a few light cymbal crashes executed by the hi-hat pedal, Green's extended turn consisted of drums only. More concerned with structure and balance than wowing the crowd, he initially focused on the snare drum, leaving space between related patterns and integrating strokes to the tom toms. Loosely swinging without directly stating a pulse, Green then started traveling around the set, hitting the floor tom-tom repeatedly as the basis for yet another set of ideas.

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