The Folk Element Is Intact (Four Mulgrew Miller Solos)

Mulgrew Miller was one of the great jam session pianists. His strong touch, fearsome articulation, and endless flow of clear ideas could challenge any horn player. In this rambunctious performance, Mulgrew is totally unfazed by the lacerating drumming of Ralph Peterson.

YouTube video.

Rhythm-a-Ning 1

Rhythm-A-Ning 2

Rhythm-A-Ning 3



In the above solo you can hear some McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea influence. Playing on “All God’s Children Got Rhythm” on TV for Joe Lovano, Mulgrew straightens out almost enough to be a bebop pianist.

YouTube video.

Little Willie Leaps

Little Willie Leaps 2



When transcribing these uptempo solos, I was astonished at Mulgrew’s rhythmic accuracy. At half-speed they sound normal, not at all square or evened-out due to velocity. So swinging!

Harmonically Mulgrew was comfortable in anything up to and including Woody Shaw. I believe he saw it all as a continuum: Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea. He wasn’t alone in this perspective, of course, but a certain Cedar Walton-ish elegance set him apart from his peers. The last time Mulgrew Miller sounded flustered was never.

For me, the samples above show Mulgrew at his best: live, raw, and unperturbed by stressful situations. But there are no less than 273 sessions in the Lord discography; most of those are pick-up studio dates which show Mulgrew’s expertise at making everyone else feel comfortable.

Introducing Kenny Garrett was an important gateway drug for a generation of musicians. Especially “Have You Met Miss Jones.” Many youngsters heard this track and said, “I want to do this! I want to play jazz!”

I took down the famous trumpet solo by Woody Shaw, too. It’s interesting to compare the similarities (the constantly varied and disjunct phrases, the concluding blues shouts) and the differences (Shaw’s beat is less secure, though his language is more personal).

It is important to listen carefully to Mulgrew’s impeccable comping behind Shaw. This is absolutely how it is supposed to be done. Nat Reeves and Tony Reedus sound great too.

Have You Met Miss Jones 1

Have You Met Miss Jones 2

Have You Met Miss Jones 3

I first heard Mulgrew live with the Tony Williams quintet (Wallace Roney, Billy Pierce, Robert Hurst) at the Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul circa 1989. It was a great gig, although I couldn’t really hear the trumpet or saxophone solos because the drummer was hitting so hard. But when Mulgrew played, Tony relaxed the intensity just enough for the lyrical and bluesy piano phrases to come though.

Mulgrew sang as he played. Just like Bud or Herbie, he blew into the piano.

Tony chose Mulgrew and Ira Coleman to do the casual standards date Young At Heart, which seems distantly related to all those Japanese albums Tony made with Hank Jones and Ron Carter. It’s not right that this was Tony’s last record before he died at 51—just as it’s not right that Mulgrew died recently at 57.

Young at Heart is a not a truly classic record but the effortless stroll of “You and The Night and the Music” is a great listen Tony and Mulgrew are on the same page, enjoying pure swing. Listen carefully to the drummer’s many low-key but fabulous responses to the pianist’s improvised line.

You and the Night 1

You and the Night 2



It’s fair to say that the jazz community was rocked by Mulgrew’s death. In the wake of his passing, I saw a lot of finger-pointing at the establishment for failing to give him his due while he was alive. I admit that this doesn’t seem quite right to me: there are plenty of underrated musicians everywhere, and I never heard a Mulgrew Miller record as a leader that made me desperate for the next one.

Not to say that he wasn’t truly great. Once I watched him play “Autumn Leaves” with Ron Carter and Russell Malone somewhere in Spain. One unexpected and experimental piano phrase was so bluesy that I felt it like a hook in the solar plexus. If you can do that, you’ll always have a place at my top table.

And consider this: “Mulgrew” is an extremely rare first name. Who else has the first name “Mulgrew”? Nobody does! But say “Mulgrew” to anyone who knows anything about jazz, and they will immediately say, “Yeah!”

After reading the Ben Ratliff book Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, I used a quote from Mulgrew Miller in one of my essays connected to the Wynton Marsalis interview.  At the time I didn’t know that it was originally from an extensive article by Ted Panken, a jazz critic unusually sympathetic to musicians like Mulgrew Miller. As a memorial, Ted has posted not just that article but several complete interviews with Mulgrew online.

Here are Mulgrew’s own words, once more:

A lot of people do what a friend of mine calls “interview music.” You do something that’s obviously different, and you get the interviews and a certain amount of attention. Jazz is part progressive art and part folk art, and I’ve observed it to be heavily critiqued who attribute progressivity to music that lacks a folk element. When Charlie Parker developed his great conception, the folk element was the same as Lester Young and the blues shouters before him. Even when Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane played their conceptions, the folk element was intact. But now, people almost get applauded if they don’t include that in their expression. If I reflected a heavy involvement in Arnold Schoenberg or some other ultra-modern composers, then I would be viewed differently than I am. Guys who do what I am doing are viewed as passé.

For whatever it’s worth, transcribing these four Mulgrew Miller solos didn’t feel passé. It felt relevant and fresh.

Musicians on Mulgrew Miller:

Nicholas Payton

Sam Newsome

George Colligan (w. Facebook quote by Russell Malone)

Eric Reed

Martin Porter

Barney McCall