NHOP & MULGREW MILLER: THE DUO – LIVE! / GOLSON: Whisper Not. ELLINGTON-MILLS: Sophisticated Lady. Solitude. BIGARD-ELLINGTON-MILLS: Mood Indigo. KERN-HAMMERSTEIN: All the Things You Are. STRAYHORN: Take the “A” Train. KERN-MERCER: I’m Old-Fashioned. PRÉVERT-KOSMA: Autumn Leaves. TIZOL: Caravan / Mulgrew Miller, pn; Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, el-bs / Storyville SVL1038444 (live: Holland, July 15, 2000) 2 CDs
This duo session, recorded at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland on on a hot July day in 2000, preserves the wonderfully laid-back rapport between two unlikely partners: gospel-blues-based Mulgrew Miller on piano and Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. The bassist sought out the pianist to make a recording in 1999 to honor Duke Ellington’s 100th anniversary, which was given away as a promotional item by high-tech stereo company Bang & Olufsen. Although Ørsted Pedersen admired Miller’s playing, the two had never met or collaborated previously, but they took to each other like ducks to water. These formerly unissued live tracks came as the result of a world tour they made together to promote the album and celebrate the Ellington centennial.
Listening to them, one almost gets the impression that they were woodshedding for their own enjoyment, so intimate and relaxed is their collaboration. A quick scan of the titles indicates that by the time of the tour they had expanded the repertoire to include pieces by Benny Golson, Jerome Kern and Jacques Prévert not associated with Ellington, and neither is Miller’s piano style much related to Ellington’s style. Yet there is much to admire here, particularly the way they let the music flow. As an acolyte of Ramsey Lewis, Miller never was too harmonically adventurous; his strengths lay in his abilities to spin a lyrical yet soulful line while still remaining creative. Miller used some space in his playing and liked to keep things on a level that would interest the keen-eared listener while still appealing to the average jazz fan. Although he took few risks, he was interesting. Sometimes, staying relatively basic in your approach works.
Ørsted Pedersen is content to follow Miller in most of these tracks, only asserting his own personality during his solos, which of course are not as long or as many as Miller’s. Thus he manages to provide fine support to the pianist, often supplanting Miller’s own left hand figures with his own. This, in turn, allows Miller the freedom to go off on some really nice excursions in which he fractures the time and fills in nicely. His improvisations have a distinctively logical flow to them; nothing seems left to chance. It’s similar to the way Artie Shaw constructed his clarinet solos: always the hint of tonal experimentation while staying within the harmonic framework. One interesting aspect of his playing is that he let the top line direct the flow of the chords, not vice-versa as most modern pianists do. First and foremost, he was a melodist. (One website tells us that this is a “hard bop”album, but that is deceiving and inaccurate.)
One of the more interesting aspects of Miller’s work was his occasional spinning out of busy lines of triplets in the midst of what sounds otherwise like bluesy playing. He actually does this a couple of times in Mood Indigo, and much to the listener’s (and audience’s) delight, Ørsted Pedersen answers him right back in the same vein. Moments like this reflect Miller’s late-period fascination with the playing of McCoy Tyner. A reviewer on the All About Jazz website felt that All the Things You Are rambled too much, but I found it to be a remarkable arrangement, with the bassist playing a repeated downward lick on the bass (I wonder how many listeners recognized the sly reference to Charles Mingus’ All The Things You Could Be if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother?) after the introduction while Miller takes the piece into realms that few have ever done. I particularly liked the fact that they chose a medium-uptempo, which helped move it along. In the midst of the piece, Miller plays some really off-the-beat chords while the bassist rolls merrily along, and later throws in a couple of Monk licks (and another bow to the Mingus piece). In the latter part of the tune I began to agree with the online critic who said it rambled a bit, but this turned out to be a bridge between the Jerome Kern tune and Strayhorn’s Take the “A” Train, beautifully played with some interesting excursions towards “leaning” keys.
Indeed, as the set continued I found myself becoming more and more engaged in listening as the performers became more and more attuned to what each other was doing. My sole complaint was that Miller never sat out for even a bar or two when Ørsted Pedersen was playing. I would have appreciated a bit more silence here and there to allow the bassist’s statements to sink in a bit better. One piece that uses a lot of space despite a relatively lively tempo is Kern’s I’m Old-Fashioned. This is a performance played on the head of a pin—two pins, actually, one by Miller and one by the bassist. When they really get going in the improv section, they almost literally bounce off each other, like two ping pong balls, the music flowing as it’s being created.
It’s rather sad to realize that neither musician lived to the age of 60. Ørsted Pedersen died of heart failure in 2005, at age 59, and Miller died of complications from a stroke in 2013, a few months before his 58th birthday. Happily, we now have this previously unissued live session with which to enjoy what they were able to accomplish together.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley