Mulgrew Miller: Reshaping the Familiar

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I think I have sought to become a more melodic player, and a more lyrical player than I was...
Pianist Mulgrew Miller may not have the star power of Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner or Herbie Hancock. Nor has he ever been a "flavor du jour —possessing the passing but often fleeting large-scale popularity that may look good while it lasts, but rarely bodes well in the long term. But one look at his massive discography, which includes recording and/or touring with musical legends including Art Blakey, Tony Williams, Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard and it's clear that Miller is one of the busiest pianists working in mainstream jazz today.

He's also created a relatively small but important body of work as a leader. While his own projects tend to be smaller-scale affairs, Hand in Hand (Novus, 1992)—a septet date featuring a younger Kenny Garrett beside the iconic Joe Henderson—demonstrated that Miller's compositional skills were every bit as finely honed as his undeniably impressive pianism. His Wingspan project which, along with Hand in Hand, featured vibraphonist Steve Nelson before he came to greater attention through his association with Dave Holland's Quintet and Big Band, is an on again/off again affair with two discs to its name—the 1987 self-titled debut on 32 Jazz, and the aptly titled follow-up, The Sequel (MaxJazz, 2002).

But the setting Miller calls home the most is the trio, with more than half of his 13 releases to date featuring the traditional line-up. His two most recent discs—Live at Yoshi's Volume One (MaxJazz, 2004) and Live at Yoshi's Volume Two (MaxJazz, 2005)—are both culled from the same 2003 run at the renowned Oakland club. While the emphasis is on standards, Miller's trio—bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Karriem Riggins—proves that, in the right hands, even the most well-worn of tunes can be taken to new places. All About Jazz's Gerard Cox caught up with Miller to talk about things past, present and future.

All About Jazz: So how do you feel about how the live records came out?

Mulgrew Miller: I was pleased under the circumstances. It was a fairly new unit at the time we made those recordings. The bassist had only been with us a few months at the time.

AAJ: A lot of people may not be familiar with bassist Derrick Hodge—care to introduce him?

MM: Fairly new, been around about 3 or 4 years at the time. He had only been in the trio about a year at the time we made those recordings. And he was such a fast learner though; extremely talented, and just a quick study.

The problem with the recording, maybe it's a problem only perceived by me, is that all the material was new, meaning that we had not actually been playing very long. So we just kind of whipped that record together for that record date.

AAJ: So was a lot of it arranged beforehand?

MM: Not long before, but after the record company found out we were going to play at Yoshi's, he said just a few weeks before, "well, let's record. So we could not record our repertoire as it stood then because we already had some of that stuff in the can, so we had to find new tunes and new material and kind of get it into shape in the last minute. But overall, I'm very satisfied with it.

AAJ: As far as putting this particular trio together, what do you look for from the other musicians in terms of what you need in a trio setting to be satisfied?

MM: Basically, I want guys who know how to listen, and guys who've learned a lot from listening, and who continue to listen, and know how to stimulate and inspire me. So that's basically what I look for in young musicians.

AAJ: Now is there a specific trio that you look toward as a template or a model for what you want to do?

MM: Uh, not at this point. I admire all the great trios—Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, right on down to Keith Jarrett's trio---when I say "right down to I mean time-wise (laughs). Tommy Flanagan's trio, Cedar Walton's trio, and I've heard Chick and Herbie play trio and of course, McCoy Tyner. So, I've learned so much from all of the great trios and piano players in jazz that play trio.

AAJ: While we're on the subject of trios, I wanted to ask you about a project you were involved with in Japan: Trio Transition, with Reggie Workman and Freddie Waits. This is mainly a free jazz record and I know more than a few people were a little surprised of your involvement in it, as the reputation you have is certainly as a "straight-ahead player. So what is your perspective on playing free?

MM: Well I do enjoy playing free..just as a part of what we do. It wouldn't be something I would want to commit myself to full time. But I think there's a place for free playing, yes. We actually play a free piece on the new record—it's called "One Grown Room. It's very free—no chord changes or anything. So I dibble and dab in that kind of thing.

AAJ: Your latest disc is dedicated to the late James Williams, whom I know was a good friend of yours. I wonder, do you have any favorite James Williams compositions that particularly come to mind when thinking of James?

MM: Really, so many of his compositions. One that I think is hauntingly beautiful is called "Take Time for Love. It's a ballad, and that when I heard it played it caught my ear. I didn't realize it was such a short tune—it's only about 12 bars. It's really beautiful. There are some other tunes—very fine songs that I love—"Focus that is kind of a straight-ahead minor blues, "Foreplay and all of those things. James was a brilliant composer, and all of his tunes have a kind of lyrical stamp on them.

AAJ: It's interesting how these Memphis pianists—James, Donald Brown, yourself, have also built reputations as being rather strong composers. I'm curious to know, would you rather be known for your composing or your piano playing?

MM: I would love to be known as both, but I don't think I would be known as being as prolific in the compositional arena as those other two guys were. I would probably be remembered more as a pianist-composer, as opposed to a composer-pianist.

AAJ: You're clearly part of a generation of musicians who were some of the last to play with "the greats —you having played with both Art Blakey, Tony Williams and Betty Carter among others. Other musicians in this generation who come to mind are Wallace Roney, Kenny Garrett, and Steve Nelson. Are you conscious of being a part of this generation, and what does it mean to be so if you are? Further, how do you think the outlook of this generation is different from the younger musicians on the scene now?

MM: That is the way that I would distinguish guys from my generation. Some of the younger guys will not have the chance to play as many of the greats as we had, because there are just not many alive today. That being said there are some very fine young musicians who play with Roy Haynes and, you know, those legends that are left. Some played with Elvin Jones in his last days. There were a couple of bands that played with Art Blakey after I left. You have a gentleman like Anthony Wonsey who played with Elvin.

AAJ: It's been more than ten years since you recorded Hand in Hand, which a lot of musicians point to as a great example of contemporary writing and arrangement. I'm curious how you look back on that record.

MM: Well, it was a challenge first of all. I remember conscientiously, taking on the challenge of writing a record of all original music. I was fortunate enough to get the quality of musicians that would help me bring it off successfully. There was an element of economics that came into play though. Joe Henderson could only appear on a couple of tunes. It was during the time that he got that big push, and his management would only allow him to do a couple of tracks.

AAJ: Any plans to record with Wingspan again?

MM: We're talking about that right now. We do have one more live date in the can, from the Kennedy Center. Maybe after that a Wingspan project or another special project..

AAJ: At this point in your career, are you thinking there are any special projects you would like to pursue that you have not been able to prior to now? Any musicians you would especially like to collaborate with?

MM: Yeah there are some.. I wanted to do a recording with Little Milton, who was a big R&B star when I was growing up in the Delta in Mississippi. I had somewhere in my mind to do something with him, but he died last month, so that was a dream that got away. I still would like to do something in that order.

AAJ: That's interesting, because I remember reading an interview of McCoy Tyner where he had said that he would really like to take a similar departure—to do a blues record, and in fact he mentioned specifically that he wanted to work with Robert Cray.

MM: (Gasps...) Well, I didn't see that interview but Robert Cray was actually the guy I had in mind. (hearty laughter)

AAJ: How do you feel like your playing has changed over time? I think someone who is familiar with your recording and playing from the '80s would certainly recognize you playing now, but that there are certainly also some differences.

MM: I think I have sought to become a more melodic player, and a more lyrical player than I was in those days. I think those were the main points that would distinguish my playing now from then.

AAJ: How is your relationship with MaxJazz?

MM: The relationship with MaxJazz is great. I feel the people who run the company—Richard McDonald and his son, are people who really care about the music, and they do a great job of getting the music out there, and getting it on the radio, and distributed...it's probably all-around the best relationship I've had yet with a record company.

The big thing that's happened in my life, which was kind of a surprise even to me, is that I've been appointed to be the director of Jazz Studies at William Paterson University. So this has been kind of a detour, but a big thing in my life right now. So that's kind of what I'm dealing with right now,

I'm still working on the trio and Wingspan. Actually the trio is kind of undergoing another personnel transition. The guys on the recordings are not playing with me. Right now I'm using Rodney Green on drums, and the bass situation is still undecided as we speak.

Selected Discography

Mulgrew Miller, Live at Yoshi's Volume Two (MaxJazz, 2005)
Mulgrew Miller, Live at Yoshi's Volume One (MaxJazz, 2004)
Mulgrew Miller & Wingspan, The Sequel (MaxJazz, 2002)
Tony Williams, Young at Heart (Columbia, 1998)
Mulgrew Miller, Getting to Know You (Novus, 1995)
Gary Thomas, The Kold Kage (JMT, 1991)
Tony Williams, Tokyo Live (Blue Note, 1992)
Mulgrew Miller, Hand in Hand (Novus, 1992)
Mulgrew Miller, Landmarks (Landmark, 1992)
Kenny Garrett, African Exchange Student (Atlantic, 1990)
Mulgrew Miller, From Day to Day (Landmark, 1990)
Wallace Roney, Standard Bearer (Muse, 1989)
Toots Thielemans, Footprints (Verve, 1989)
Art Blakey with Freddie Hubbard, Feel the Wind (Timeless, 1989)
Mulgrew Miller, The Countdown (Landmark, 1988)
Mulgrew Miller, Wingspan (32 Jazz, 1987)
Donald Byrd, Harlem Blues (Landmark, 1987)
Tony Williams, Civilization (Blue Note, 1986)
Woody Shaw/Freddie Hubbard, Double Take (Blue Note, 1986)
Mulgrew Miller, Keys to the City (Landmark, 1985)
Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Live at Kimball's (Concord, 1985)
Bobby Hutcherson, Color Schemes (Landmark, 1985)
Woody Shaw, Lotus Flower (Enja, 1982)

Related Articles:
Mulgrew Miller Returns To Boston For James Williams Tribute (2004)
Mulgrew Miller: Life on the Bandstand (2003)

Photo Credit: Courtesy of International Jazz Productions.

Interview conducted by Gerard Cox. Interview edited and introductory paragraphs written by John Kelman.

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