Between 1985 and 1995, pianist Mulgrew Miller recorded prolifically as a leader: seven albums on Landmark and two on Novus. In that period, a Miller book emerged of substantive and challenging compositions that contrast sharply with the half-realized tunes written “for the date” by many young musicians, some of them signed to major labels before they have had much experience at making records. Last March, Miller mined his repertory at Sweet Basil with a quintet that included vibraphonist Steve Nelson, who has forged an extraordinarily simpatico relationship with him, sharing the pianist’s ability to gracefully engage and resolve audacious harmonic progressions.
A week later Miller was at the Village Vanguard, subbing for the ailing Tommy Flanagan. Along with Peter Washington and Lewis Nash (two stellar players long associated with Flanagan but who have also worked with Miller in many settings), he demonstrated why he is revered as a musician’s musician, crafting performances that paid homage to Flanagan’s elegance yet clearly reflected his own concepts. He coaxed his partners to share the spotlight in sets that featured standards (“Yardbird Suite,” “Con Alma,” “My Foolish Heart,” the last treated as a solo reprise) and originals such as Nash’s “Sabaku” and Miller’s bluesy “When I Get There,” from his 1994 album With Our Own Eyes.
In a 1991 interview with this writer, Miller described his quest “to invent melody from note to note,” as opposed to developing a composition from phrase to phrase. Some of his tunes, like the aptly titled “Farewell to Dogma” and “One’s Own Room,” function as musical sketches amplified and embellished in live performance, their shape, color, and mood determined by the musicians interpreting them. The tunes are enduring and seem to defy stagnation. “One’s Own Room” pivots on an ostinato bass figure with successive ascending and descending motifs in the melody, establishing a spacious, abstract framework. Its debut on Miller’s 1987 Wingspan crackles with energy and suspense, as Nelson, bassist Charnett Moffett, flutist Kenny Garrett, drummer Tony Reedus, and percussionist Rudy Bird fairly champ at the bit. They were building the room. It has since been carpeted, furnished, decorated—each enhancement a suggestion of more to come.
An alumnus of such bands as Mercer Ellington, Woody Shaw, Art Blakey, Betty Carter, and Tony Williams, Miller refused almost all sideman gigs in 1999, part of a yearlong experiment to redirect his focus toward leading a band. Forty-four and in his musical prime, the pianist has been without a major label for five years, a ludicrous situation that Flanagan (aside from a 1998 Blue Note one-off) has suffered for decades. Yet Miller is the rainmaker in many an ensemble, both live and on record. For one example, on Tony Williams’s posthumous 1998 trio date (with Ira Coleman) Young at Heart, Miller’s “note to note” inventions reinvigorate and transform such chestnuts as “Green Dolphin Street,” “Body and Soul,” and the title cut. Similarly, on Joe Chambers’s 1999 Mirrors, particularly on the drummer’s “Ruthless,” Miller’s remarkably integrated, electrifying performance lifts the trio to its zenith. The designation “sideman” seems woefully inadequate in describing such contributions. At a recent Birdland gig, saxophonist Steve Wilson introduced him as the “the dean of pianists in our generation.” Mulgrew Miller is central to jazz and to its future.