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Mulgrew Miller Trio Performs for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society

Victor L. Schermer By

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Miller swings with an intensity and fullness that distinguish him from his contemporaries without isolating him from the jazz mainstream.
Mulgree Miller Trio
Philadelphia Chamber Music Concert Series
Elaine C. Levitt Auditorium, Gershman Hall
February 16, 2007

Philadelphia is fortunate to have an outstanding ongoing series of concerts sponsored by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. The series is held at various venues throughout the downtown area and offers some of the finest classical instrumentalists, vocalists, and small ensembles on the world scene, with occasional forays into jazz and other musical forms. The jazz events this fall have featured vocalist Nnenna Freelon, guitarist Pat Martino, and now, pianist Mulgrew Miller. The setting for most of the jazz concerts is the University of the Arts Levitt Auditorium, housed in the Gershman YM/YWHA, which currently shares its space with the rapidly expanding University. "UArts now has several auditoriums along Broad Street (aka The Avenue of the Arts) near the Kimmel Center and the Academy of Music.

Mr. Miller came out on stage, alone, dapper, and very professional. His large frame and cool, relaxed manner inspired immediate confidence and trust. He bears a certain physical resemblance to the young Oscar Peterson, and much of his playing is inspired by the latter's lyrical romanticism combined with a swinging rhythm and deft technique. Miller began with two piano solos, "Who Can I Turn To? and Thad Jones' "A Child is Born, both displaying the pianist's lyricism, rich chord structures, powerful touch, and use of the full range of the keyboard. What is most striking about the pianist in comparison with peers like Renee Rosnes and Fred Hersch is his stylistic debt not just to Peterson but Erroll Garner. Miller swings with an intensity and fullness that distinguish him from his contemporaries without isolating him from the jazz mainstream. His creativity is manifest in the complex rhythmic and stylistic variations he is able to integrate within a post-bop, forward-looking modern idiom.

Bassist Ivan Taylor and drummer Rodney Green then came out to perform with Miller. Both "young lions in the business, they perfectly complemented the pianist. Not only did they generate a steady swing that provided a flattering musical setting for Miller's rich and sometimes complex improvising, but they more than held their own on solos and "trading fours" and "eights with Miller. The old ballad standard, "If I Should Lose You, was taken at rapid tempo, acquiring a lively "bounce. Taylor's solo on bass displayed his ability to think on his feet as he developed nuanced variations on a theme. He reminded me of Paul Chambers or Ray Brown, both in his powerful command of the instrument and his modest attitude and musical sensitivity.

The familiar standard was followed by a funky untitled Mulgrew Miller original which, along with another composition, "Farewell to Dogma, showed the pianist's ability to develop a simple blues theme into complex variations. On the latter tune, he segued from a laconic melody into a heavily rhythmic Latin mode, for which drummer Rodney Green provided spirited backup. Jobim's "Au Grande Amor brought out the beauty inherent in this composer's grand legacy. "You and the Night and the Music was taken up-tempo, with Miller evoking Erroll Garner's great walking walls of chords in the left hand, followed by Taylor and Green trading fours with Miller, giving the performance some of the spontaneous feeling of a jam session. "Body and Soul was done in the favored manner of the bebop era, emphasizing the chords and understating the melody, even ocasionally obscuring it. Miller finished off the chestnut with an extended Gershwin-like cadenza with a boogie tag and a hint of "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen. The finale, Charlie Parker's "Relaxin' at the Camarillo, was played with a vengence, incorporating rapid-fire melodic phrasing by Miller answered rhythmically by Green. The group received a standing ovation by an otherwise conservative audience of seasoned concert-goers.

The acoustics, sound system, and Steinway grand piano were excellent. Unfortunately, the positioning of the performers—in front of the stage rather than on it—and the venue's appearance as a re- gentrified version of your average "high school auditorium made the visual aesthetics somewhat disappointing. Finally, I wish someone had recorded the concert—which sadly was not the case. However, typical of both the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society and Mulgrew Miller and associates, the high quality of the music more than made up for these minor shortcomings.

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