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Mulgrew Miller:
Deep Listener

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A seasoned master of the piano and a leading voice in modern jazz, Mulgrew Miller continues to advance the tradition of swinging improvised music. From stints with Art Blakey, Woody Shaw, Betty Carter and Tony Williams to recording sessions with Dave Holland and Kenny Garrett to his dozen releases as a leader, Miller consistently delights listeners by creating beautiful music that dances.

Mulgrew Miller was born in 1955. Gospel, blues and R&B were early influences as he grew up in the small town of Greenwood, Mississippi. At the age of eight he started taking classical piano lessons from a local teacher, but it wasn’t until fourteen, when he saw Oscar Peterson perform on a late night talk show, that he decided to pursue jazz. Miller went on to study music at Memphis State University, during which time he was hired as the pianist in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He was then hired by legendary jazz vocalist Betty Carter, and moved to New York City, where he spent time in groups led by Woody Shaw and Tony Williams, and in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

Still highly in demand as a sideman, Miller has also released a number of albums as a leader, the most recent being a couple of two-disc piano trio releases, Live at Yoshi’s and Live at the Kennedy Center. An active educator as well as performer, Miller balances his performing career with his teaching duties at William Patterson University, where he holds the position of Director of Jazz Studies.

I had the privilege of speaking with Mulgrew Miller in anticipation of his March duo concert with Kenny Barron as part of the Izzy Asper Jazz Performances series.

Tell me about playing in a piano duo context.

It’s a challenging situation because you rely on the other pianist so much. I have to say that of all the pianists I’ve played duo with over the years, playing with Kenny has been the most fulfilling.

How long have the two of you been performing together?

It started about 10 years ago at a club in New York called Bradley’s. It’s usually a piano and bass duo saloon, but for its twenty-fifth anniversary they booked a month’s worth of piano pairings. Kenny and I happened to be one of them.

You’ve played with so many amazing bandleaders throughout your career. Are there any associations that have been particularly influential or enjoyable?

They have all been enjoyable and influential so it’s hard to cite one above any others. Something I’ve learned is that there is no one way to do anything. They were all individuals who didn’t believe in sounding like anyone else.

I read that you never transcribe solos. What is your approach to learning music?

To learn music you need to learn how to listen. I never learned solos and wrote them down, but I do take things from the music I listen to and apply them to my own playing. If you really know how to listen you can teach yourself.

Can you practice listening?

Listening is a kind of awareness. You can get better at hearing certain things, but you don’t practice being aware—you just are. You need to be aware of when you’re aware, and when you’re not aware.

What are you listening to currently?

I listen to everything—I never focus on only one thing. Right now I’m listening to some Earl “Fatha” Hines, some Art Tatum, some Duke Ellington, some Herbie Hancock…

How do you approach composition?

My compositions often grow out of some area that I’m thinking about or working on, like a particular way of phrasing, a chord/scale relationship, or some other technique.

You work a lot with your trio. What do you look for when selecting musicians?

The first thing that I look for is a respect for the tradition of swinging jazz music, and a desire to play that music. We need to have an agreement about how the time is to be played. I look for a bass player with a strong pulse, careful note choice and attention to detail. The first questions I ask about a drummer are: Does he have a good beat? Does he understand the rolling of the ride cymbal? My current trio features Ivan Taylor on bass and Rodney Green on drums.

Why do you play music? What is your advice to students who want to play music as a profession?

I play music because music is my passion. If one’s honest, one plays what one is. I have a desire to tell a story and impart beauty to the listener. Besides the obvious things like discipline and commitment, students need to learn how to communicate with the listener. In the end, all musicians are singers. Musical expression in its essence is singing and dancing, and the more artfully one sings, the more deeply one can communicate.

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