The name of late jazz pianist Mulgrew Miller may not trip off the tongue of the casual jazz fan, but make no mistake, among the genre’s aficionados, he was and is considered a musician’s musician. Versatile and singular, he pushed jazz to the limit harmonically, but always with a swinging sensibility.
Miller could accompany anybody, whether it was a vocalist or a horn player, he fit in every kind of setting. He was the guy you wanted on your album. But what perhaps even fewer people are aware of is that Miller was more than just a remarkable piano player, he was also a prolific and talented composer and arranger.
Mulgrew-ology, the second Detroit Music Factory recording by Detroit-based jazz pianist, composer and arranger Scott Gwinnell, explores this lesser-spotlighted side of Miller.
Gwinnell intersperses Miller’s compositional ideas throughout a body of arrangements that include songs penned by Miller as well as other artists’ compositions for which he was famous for playing in his certain way—because even when Miller played someone else’s tune, it was a markedly Mulgrew Miller version.
“There are certain albums where the work is about you and you want to shine through your own work,” says Gwinnell. “But this record is more about Mulgrew than about me.”
Just as the inflections, the words, the idiosyncrasies that make up a person’s manner of speaking sum up into one’s personality, Miller’s compositions and playing have a definitive voice. Gwinnell mined for those nuances, the subtle licks and chord progressions, choices like the melodic sequence that Miller plays over a diminished harmony, the stuff that tells you you’re listening to Mulgrew Miller.
According to jazz musician and producer Tony Ruda, who wrote the album’s liner notes:
“In [Miller’s] recordings, you hear a pianist steeped in the hard bop tradition whose style could just as soon catch you off guard with the most wonderfully lyrical phrase. His style was never flashy, because a true professional doesn’t need to be – why go for the cheap trick on the keys when you can turn a beautiful melodic line that will leave a captive audience breathless?”
Although Mulgrew-ology is a deep-dive into the essence of Miller’s compositional skills, Gwinnell takes what Miller did in his compositions and uses that imprint in different ways throughout his arrangements. The 17-piece orchestral arrangements help provide Gwinnell a blank canvas with which to bring the album to life, and listeners who are not new to Miller will appreciate the uncharacteristic choice.
“[Mulgrew-ology’s] title track is exemplary of [Gwinnell’s] strong compositional style, giving us a tune that swings hard and sets the tone for the rest of the album,” writes Ruda. “Jazz veterans James Hughes on saxophone and Paul Finkbeiner on trumpet both treat us to some terrific soloing in turn, as the conversation between the rhythm and brass sections draws us into Gwinnell’s high-spirited arrangement.”
To jazz fans for whom Mulgrew-ology is an introduction to Mulgrew Miller, here’s the thing: when you hear Miller-esque tunes, they sound familiar, they make sense. It’s not a standard, not a Great American Songbook tune, but it goes beyond that. According to Gwinnell, it’s still rooted in “sensible listening.” The music is so catchy, so beautiful, it doesn’t matter that the name Mulgrew Miller is unfamiliar. What matters is how enjoyable you’re likely to find Mulgrew-ology.
Ruda on Miller and Gwinnell:
“…any commentary about Mulgrew’s quiet command of his instrument or the understated quality of his playing would not do him justice. For that, we simply have to turn to the music – only through hearing his compositions do we truly get close to Mulgrew Miller the man. Thankfully, with Scott Gwinnell’s album Mulgrew-ology, we are treated to sparkling arrangements of his work that add a new dimension to our understanding of what jazz meant to Mulgrew Miller, and perhaps more importantly, what Mulgrew Miller meant to jazz. It’s an absolutely beautiful homage.”