I can’t remember when or even where I first met Mulgrew Miller but I do remember the first time I heard him live…it was Dublin, a few years before I left for New York. Mulgrew was playing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in a promotion put together by Allen Smith and his Jazz On The Terrace organization. It wasn’t my first time to hear Blakey live though. A few years earlier when Louis Stewart and Noel Kelehan’s Bands were playing in Ronnie Scott’s as part of the Sense Of Ireland Arts festival. A few tangents here – I heard Blakey in an usual double bill at the Royal Festival Hall and also, Louis Stewart’s appearance in Ronnie’s featured Ronan Guilfoyle on bass when he had only recently made his debut with Louis. As I sat in the audience at the Royal festival listening to the Messengers I had no idea I would play with many of that band decades later. I played quite a few times with Dennis Irwin (bass) including the New York Town Hall, Valery Ponomarev (trumpet) in his bands and my own big band, Billy Pierce (saxophones) on Fintan O’Neill’s CD debut and a pianist who not only played on my Weill recital Room debut at Carnegie Hall but delayed our exit as he treated my late father to a private, stage side recital of African American Spirituals – then introduced him to all the pianists in Bradley’s late one night including the featured artist Mulgrew Miller.
That night when I heard Mulgrew I was floored by the intensity of the groove, the virtuosity and basically the balls-to-the-wall, take-no-prisoners jazz played in a way that scared the shit out of me. Mulgrew took a solo on Moanin’, one of Blakey’s most famous tunes and I couldn’t believe my ears. Years later I find myself conducting string arrangements at a rehearsal for Jeremy Pelt’s debut for the MaxJazz label “Close To My Heart” and Mulgrew is the pianist. I had written a minimalistic piano part, leaving the interpretation up to the pianist, knowing it wasn’t just ANY pianist – it was Mulgrew Miller! I had made extra copies of the scores in case any of the performers wanted a reference copy to go with their road map type charts. Lewis Nash kept a copy beside him and also helped secure my confidence when I expressed my concern at getting the tempos straight when there were so many ballads. When I chatted with Ronan recently he quoted the same description Stephen Keogh had on his recent trip of the late Jon Wadham, lamenting that many people had three tempi slow, medium and fast. Time spent conducting or working with/writing for great vocalists or soloists will open up a remarkable and exciting world that resides between those apparent three tempi – the equivalent of small, medium and large. When I offered Mulgrew a copy of the scores he very warmly and politely declined saying “I’d rather listen so I don’t step on those beautiful harmonies”. What a kind thing to say to someone on his first arranging recording session and first occasion to conduct for a session. On one particular track Mulgrew played this beautiful fill that sounded so right for the moment that you’d think I had written it. When I mentioned this fact to an ailing James Williams, in what was most likely the last time I ever spoke to James he commanded me to “Put it in, put it in!” and as he said it I thought how I would have difficulty imagining that section without that fill, and so, in anticipation of our King’s Place performance on April 18th, 2014 I have marked it in the score.
That simple line makes me think of how much time Mulgrew spent with James in James last days. They had played in the same Church in Memphis together, both played with Blakey and one night as myself and Fintan O’Neill listened to James William’s last set in Zinno’s Mulgrew sat in with James on a four hand duet swapping ends of the seat as they took solos – James, who never made any attempt to hide his admiration for his friend introduced him to the late audience say “we call him the State Of The Art’.
So, when you listen to that last ‘A’ section of It’s A Beautiful Evening – bar 3 you hear slowly cascading octaves on the piano, think, as I do, of the four wonderful men I think of when I hear that! Four? Well, there’s the aforementioned Mulgrew and James, then I think of the James’ nephew Tony Reedus and another pianist who’s passing broke mine and many hearts by his sudden passing, George Mesterhazy. George,often spoke with me of how devastated he was by the loss of Tony, his bandmate in Paula West’s band. Ladies and Gentlemen, alone with you I celebrate their memories!