June 13, 2024


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The dazzling technique of the jazz pianist Mulgrew Miller: Video

13.08. – Happy Birthday !!! The dazzling technique of the jazz pianist Mulgrew Miller sometimes sounded as if it was about to burst the stays of the tightly harmonised, straight-swinging bebop style on which his work was founded.

Yet Miller, who has died of a stroke aged 57, never steamrollered the musicians around him. A selfless collaborator, he was regularly sought out by big-name performers such as Duke Ellington’s bandleader son Mercer, the drummer Art Blakey, the saxophonist Branford Marsalis and the vocalist Betty Carter. He was also a composer and leader of quiet distinction – whether alone, in his favourite trio lineups or exploring, as he did in the Wingspan ensemble he launched in 1987, the warm tone-colours of an unusual band combining vibraphone and reeds.

In their ebullient lyricism and graceful good humour, Miller’s performances sounded like character sketches of this gentle giant himself. In a Cheltenham jazz festival performance in the late 1990s, he performed with the double-bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, in a demanding duo celebration of the music of Duke Ellington that they would later record and tour widely. Miller was astounding, reflecting Ellington the pianist’s rhythmic drive and also mimicking his multi-layered orchestral writing by the sheer fertility of ideas and speed of execution. He would turn straight swing pieces into suddenly stomping train-rhythm boogies, mischievously hide familiar melodies and then triumphantly unveil them, and transform the improvisation on one song into the theme of a new one so elegantly that it would seem they must have been written to be together.

In its melodic fluency and percussive chordwork, that performance recalled Oscar Peterson, Miller’s first piano inspiration. But it also looked forward with glimpses of the harmonically freer methods of McCoy Tyner. Miller’s knowledge and technical skill made him a much more complete contemporary jazz musician than the casual typecasting of him as an inveterate hard-bopper ever allowed.

Born in Greenwood, Mississippi, he revealed an early aptitude for the piano. He began lessons aged eight, played the church organ and joined soul and R&B groups in his teens. The sound of Peterson in full cry was a “life-changing event”. Miller studied music at Memphis State University and absorbed the gospel-funk piano style of Ramsey Lewis and the soulful sound of the local pianist Phineas Newborn Jr. After graduation, he joined Mercer Ellington’s big band, a popular legacy ensemble devoted to Duke Ellington’s work. In the 1980s he worked with Carter (a demanding apprenticeship, requiring lightning-fast reactions to the whims of a brilliant vocal improviser); with the unconventional hard-bop trumpeter Woody Shaw; and with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, in an era when that new-talent hothouse often included the saxophonists Donald Harrison and Jean Toussaint, and the trumpeter Terence Blanchard.

Keys to the City (1985) was his debut album as a leader. He performed and recorded extensively in the late 1980s and throughout the 90s with the innovative drummer and composer Tony Williams, the guitarist John Scofield and the saxophonists Joe Lovano and Kenny Garrett (performing with sweeping relish on the former’s 1995 album Quartets: Live at the Village Vanguard, and in 2006 on the latter’s Beyond the Wall).

An inspirational teacher, Miller was the director of jazz studies at William Paterson University of New Jersey from 2006 and artist in residence at Lafayette College in 2008-09, also making a succession of acclaimed live albums for the Maxjazz label in that period. He added his own kind of melodious earthiness to the bassist Dave Holland’s album Pass It On (2008) and was performing until recently (despite a mild stroke in 2010) in the former Miles Davis bassist Ron Carter’s Golden Striker group, appearing on the trio’s 2012 European live recording San Sebastian.

Jazz pianists as different as Robert Glasper, Geoff Keezer and Kate Williams have acknowledged Miller’s influence. Sharing, enabling and collaborating came as naturally to him as effortless piano virtuosity. His may have been a soft light compared to that of the jazz superstars, but its glow will be missed wherever the music is played.

He is survived by his wife, Tanya; his children Darnell and Leilani; a grandson; three brothers and three sisters.

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