A mutual admiration society has long existed between jazz pianists Mulgrew Miller and Mark Levine.
The Bay Area-based Levine claims the Mississippi-born Miller among his profoundest influences. He has recorded a number of Miller tunes over the years and transcribed the chorus and piano solo from the title cut of Miller's “Wingspan” album for his book on improvisation, “Jazz Theory.” Levine has praised Miller to the media.
Jazzreview: You selected a Mulgrew Miller composition as the title cut for your release “One Notch Up.”
Levine: I have an affinity for Mulgrew’s tunes, but especially if you’ll pardon the expression, to ‘Latinify’ them. Some great jazz tunes simply cannot be played with Afro-Cuban rhythms because they don’t fall into clave. Mulgrew’s tunes, much like Thelonius Monk’s tunes, which are also very popular among Latin jazz artists, seem to lend themselves to be played in clave rhythms with a minimum of changing notes or rhythmic signatures. I’ve recorded about seven or eight of his tunes for that reason.
Miller returned the compliment: “Mark Levine is a wellspring of knowledge on modern jazz piano playing. His books are invaluable tools in aiding the aspiring pianist. Furthermore, his brilliant playing is proof that he knows what he's talking about.”
So it is entirely fitting that Levine is the featured performer Sunday at Jazzschool’s tribute to Miller. With an ensemble featuring Chuck MacKinnon (trumpet), Al Bent (trombone), John Wiitala (bass) and Ron Marabuto (drums), the afternoon concert will celebrate Miller’s legacy as both performer and composer. The pianist died this past May at age 57.
Miller’s death was a profound loss to the jazz community. A gifted musician with an open and inviting style, the pianist brought both dynamism and warmth to every performance.
I was fortunate to catch him with his trio at the Monterey Jazz Festival and the experience remains indelible in my mind. I sat behind Miller in the Coffee House venue and watched him soak through his jacket while leading his expert trio through a peerless hour of piano jazz.
Miller left behind an extensive discography. As a sideman, his work with Art Blakey in the mid-‘80s yielded a number of albums, including “New York Scene” (1984), “Blue Night” (1985) and “Dr. Jeckyle” (1985). Miller also lent his talents to ensembles led by Kenny Garrett, Benny Golson, Dianne Reeves, Wallace Roney, Woody Shaw, Bobby Watson, Tony Williams and others.
Miller released his first disc as a leader, “Keys to the City” (1985) on the Landmark label. For me, however, his finest performances were released by MaxJazz – “The Sequel” (2002), “Live at the Kennedy Center, Vols. 1 and 2” (2002), “Live at Yoshi’s, Vols. 1 and 2” (2003). The live discs showcase the work of his trio, which included Derrick Hodge (bass) and Rodney Green (drums).
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