Mulgrew Miller, the supreme accompanist, plays a rare solo show at Jazz&Blues Co.
Thursday, May 26, 2005
With his gentle smile and wide linebacker’s frame, Mulgrew Miller occupies a piano bench with quiet authority. When he starts playing, his big ringing sound leaves no doubt that his keyboard charisma is as powerful as his physical presence.
One of the most respected pianists in jazz, Miller has carved out a sterling career as a consummate accompanist, a player in constant demand by masters such as Joe Lovano, Ron Carter, James Moody and Benny Golson. He’s also excelled as a leader, recording a dozen albums for leading jazz labels, most recently MaxJazz. With his commanding sound, sonorous tone and compelling sense of swing, Miller brings a dynamic optimism into every context he finds himself in. He performs a rare solo concert on Saturday at the Jazz&Blues Company.
Miller grew up in Greenwood, Miss., and started playing rhythm and blues gigs with his older brother’s band. His family wasn’t particularly musical, but before he became a teenager his keyboard prowess was already evident.
“They would let me tag along and feature me on two or three songs,” Miller says. “In those days I must have been about 11 or 12 and I was trying to play like Ramsey Lewis, playing the hits he had out in those days, like ‘Wade in the Water.’”
He studied music at Memphis State before landing his first major gig with Mercer Ellington’s orchestra. He joined Betty Carter in 1980 and honed his craft with the great vocalist, but it was during his three years with Woody Shaw that he really started gaining national attention. Shaw, a dazzling trumpeter who combined an avant garde streak with hard bop chops, gave Miller encouragement to write his own tunes.
“It was a very fertile time for me to be in the band,” says Miller, 49, whose most recent recording is a stellar trio session, Live At Yoshi’s, Volume One. “It was such a great experience for a young player. Woody’s music was wide open. We did everything. We played blues, standards, ballads. We played in, we played out. You name it, we played it.”
Miller anchored Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the mid-’80s, contributing numerous compositions and arrangements, and then spent almost a decade with the drummer Tony Williams. It was during his tenure with Williams that Miller started making his own albums and leading his own bands. Unfortunately, Miller’s consistently rewarding recordings have been unavailable for a number of years. His gorgeous albums for BMG’s defunct jazz label Novus are no longer in print, for instance, but fortunately the 32 Jazz label recently reissued some of Miller’s early Landmark recordings.
In a conversation several years ago, the legendary producer Orrin Keepnews described why he recruited Miller for his Landmark label.
“Every once in a while you run into somebody where as an individual the person so thoroughly matches what they give you musically that it’s really breathtaking,” Keepnews said. “I felt this was true of Cannonball Adderley, Wes Montgomery and Wynton Kelly, and it’s very true of Mulgrew. Actually, the comparison to Wynton is very apt, because in his day he was the most sought after and capable accompanist, and Mulgrew has to a very great extent taken on that position.”
He’s also a superlative bandleader who has assembled one of jazz’s more rewarding ensembles, Wingspan, featuring vibraphonist Steve Nelson, saxophonist Steve Wilson, trumpeter Duane Eubanks, bassist Richie Goods and drummer Karriem Riggins. He might be too old for young lion accolades and too young to be a venerated veteran, but Miller is one of jazz’s most consistently rewarding pianists, and that’s more than enough.
Mulgrew Miller plays at 7:30pm Saturday, May 28, at the Jazz and Blues Company at The Eastwood Building, San Carlos and 5th, Carmel (above The Hog’s Breath Inn). $45. 624-6432.