Pianist Mulgrew Miller stood out in the bands of, notably, Mercer Ellington, Woody Shaw, Art Blakey, Miles Davis and Tony Williams in ways that made commentators ache to hear him on his own. At almost every gig, Blakey would find time for a Miller solo medley.
It highlights the point that pianists in classical music are always soloists even when playing alongside others: it’s invariably a piano trio, a piano quintet and a piano concerto. In a conventional jazz line-up (apart from a trio) they are – well, members of the ensemble, however comprehensive their input.
On this wonderful album from Storyville’s Jordi Suñol archive, recorded before an audience almost 20 years ago, the pianist’s foot-tapping is inspired by the music, not laid down as a background tempo marker. There’s an “after hours” feeling throughout, that sense of a band musician poised between relaxation and thrilling expectation when the punters have departed and he’s discharged his contractual obligations, with time to kill before the premises are closed.
While finger-flying postbop informs much of what he does – on Gillespie’s Tour De Force and Woody ’n’ You, and John Lewis’s Milestones – his roots run deeper, feeding the virtuosity of an Art Tatum and the percussive brilliance of an Earl Hines as well as the variety of early keyboard styles in the 14-minute Miller compendium Excursions In Blue. In one of the album’s two spoken introductions, he says “I don’t know where we’re going to start and I don’t know where we’re going to finish.”
It might apply to every track, especially the luscious version of Misty, on which he pushes the changes around to create a picturesque, almost static, impression before a light stride rhythm noses things along. Dissonance cuts into the conventional harmonies of It Never Entered My Mind, which is full of rustling flourishes. He’s strong on the sounds of surprise, from the way he crashes mezzo-forte into the lower register to reaffirm and redefine the contours he’s been following, to the upward glissando that ends Ellington’s Just Squeeze Me (and the album) like the underlining of a signature.
Tour De Force; I Love You; Intro – O Grande Amor; It Never Entered My Mind; Milestones; Intro – Excursions In Blue; Misty; Woody ’n’ You; Just Squeeze Me (69.23)
Miller (p). Barcelona, 2 February 2004.