Piano Trio: Mulgrew Miller & Armen Donelian

Francis Lo Kee By

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Mulgrew Miller
Live at the Kennedy Center, Volume Two

Armen Donelian
Sunnyside Records

The piano trio in jazz is possibly analogous to the string quartet in classical music. Both are established performing vehicles with long, important conventions and traditions but also with a history of innovation. Students of classical composition pour over the string quartets of Beethoven and Bartók; in jazz, the trios of Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell and Bill Evans inspire study, admiration and sometimes imitation in the service of continuing "the tradition." While pianists Armen Donelian and Mulgrew Miller have clearly done their research, they have also moved beyond mere imitation and developed their own unique, artistic voices. Their trios feature original compositions, virtuoso piano playing and sympathetic drumming and bass playing, with one more thing in common between them—both are instructors in the jazz studies program at William Paterson University, less than an hour from NYC.

"Song for Darnell" kicks off Miller's Live at the Kennedy Center, Vol. Two in triple meter, driving drums and attractive harmonies reminiscent of Chick Corea's "La Fiesta" though this piece leans towards the blues, inspiring extroverted soloing by both Miller and bassist Derrick Hodge. "Grew's Tune" sounds like the kind of steady groove that would work well for Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and, indeed, Rodney Green's wonderful drum solo is complete with piano and bass interjecting in shout chorus style. "Farewell to Dogma" starts with a lush piano introduction until bass and drums join with a soft and insistent bossa nova. Over its almost 12-minute duration, the track moves through various dynamics and densities, finally ending on a very intense tag. "Eleventh Hour" has an almost six-minute introduction, which could be a fantastic piece by itself. Yet after traveling during its 16 minutes from boogie-woogie through Art Tatum, it turns into a burning trio tune. There are five tracks on this CD with a total running time of 64 minutes, but it's never about gratuitous soloing—it's all grounded, vital music.

Donelian's Oasis begins with the title track and it's a beautiful, floating piece with a rhythmic basis somewhere between a bossa nova and soft R&B. It might remind a listener of Chick Corea or Keith Jarrett, yet its originality is undeniable. Even the two non-Donelian pieces—"Sunrise, Sunset" and "Django"—are satisfyingly organic, compositionally and improvisationally seamless. On the latter, for instance, Donelian's florid piano introduction melts into a softly singing bass solo—then his solo starts as a spare counterpoint texture that eventually gives way to a slightly more traditional linear right-hand, ending on John Lewis' enthralling original melody. "Sans Souci" ('carefree' in French) closes this CD: its light mood is no less technically accomplished or sophisticated than the other tracks and like most of the CD, refreshingly free of stiffness or pretense. In a music market filled with choices, this recording is an oasis of honest, multifaceted, breathing music.

Tracks and Personnel

Live at the Kennedy Center, Volume Two

Tracks: Song For Darnell; Grew's Tune; Farewell to Dogma; Old Folks; Eleventh Hour.

Personnel: Mulgrew Miller: piano; Derrick Hodge: bass; Rodney Green: drums.


Tracks: Oasis; Spree; Sunrise, Sunset; Waiting For Flora; Django; Easy Does It; Lady of Ghent; Sans Souci.

Personnel: Armen Donelian: piano; David Clark: bass; George Schuller: drums.


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