On a late January evening in 2006, I found myself transfixed by the huge backdrop windows at Jazz at Lincoln Center that revealed the whiteout conditions blanketing Columbus Circle. It was a spectacular sight, even though my foremost concern was how on earth I was going to get back to my hotel, much less to LaGuardia the next morning for a flight that was mostly certainly to be cancelled. By midnight, some 17 inches of snow fell – hardly a record New York drop, but enough to close all of the Starbucks in Times Square. That seemed to constitute an emergency.
Inside, jazz proceeded as usual. Still, Mulgrew Miller seemed stunned by the setting. The blizzard played out in real time through the huge windows behind him while a near packed house at the JALC club Dizzy’s awaited his performance in front of the stage. “Man,” Miller said with a sigh and shake of his head. “Only in New York.”
That wonderful remembrance came to life again yesterday after reading about Miller’s death at age 57 following a stroke.
Miller was built like a linebacker, standing well over six feet tall and possessing a muscular, modal sound that, at times, could rival the great McCoy Tyner. But Miller seemed an altogether gentle soul, an attribute that played out within the trio settings he favored on a series of fine MaxJazz albums over the past decade (the second volume of Live at the Kennedy Center, released in 2007, remains my favorite). His playing was remarkably fluid and soulful. But Miller also took risks – often, in ways that seldom called attention to his playing. In some instances, he reflected the lyrical and compositional command of a legend like Bill Evans, although the similarity fell more within the temperament and expression he discovered on the piano – the playfulness, especially – rather than the actual tone. The same held true when he approximated Tyner. He could summon a beefiness in his playing, but it was never threatening, nor was it intended to challenge Tyner’s prizefighting solos. But he sure showed strength and dexterity when he chose to.
Miller wasn’t a star. In fact, he spent much of the last decade as an educator – specifically, as director of jazz studies at William Patterson University in New Jersey. But he occasionally made it to Kentucky. One of his final visits was on Mother’s Day at the now defunct Jazz Factory in 2007.
His swansong recording surfaced this spring with Ron Carter’s drummerless Golden Striker Trio. When bassist Carter mingles with Miller’s more contemplative playing, the sense of warmth is immediate. It worked like a fireplace seven winters ago in New York. But the seasons never mattered. Whenever Mulgrew Miller played the piano, it was summertime.