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Mulgrew Miller: Reshaping the Familiar

AAJ Staff By

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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?

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