Cosmic Jazz Feature 5. Don Pullen

donpullenWe’ve had a Don Pullen track on our Youtube links before. This one featured the Afro-Brazilian Connection live at the Montreux Festival in 1993 playing a version of Indio Gitano which appeared on the Blue Note album Random Thoughts in 1990.

The band was put together shortly before Pullen died two years later from lymphoma. The Senegalese percussionist Mor Thiam is father of rapper Akon. Saxophonist Carlos Ward and drummer Guilherme Franco have played with many great jazz musicians over the years from Don Cherry to Keith Jarrett.

Access that clip and just watch Pullen’s piano style – especially his right hand technique. Nobody else in jazz plays like this! Pullen will start a melodic run over very heavy chords, using his right hand to roll over the keys, creating a unique sound. His playing is always very precise – yet it has this freedom in style. For an avant garde pianist, this makes his playing very approachable to new listeners. I saw Pullen play in London on his last tour and the effect was mesmerising.

For more information, check out a full and accurate biography of Don Pullen here. Pullen was born in 1941 and grew up in Virginia. Like many jazz musicians of his era, he learned the piano at an early age, playing with the choir in his local church. His cousin was a professional jazz pianist. Pullen trained as a doctor but abandoned his studies to make a career in music. His first recordings in 1964 and 1965 were with the little known Giuseppi Logan but they show his unique technique already well formed. Update: Logan’s album has just been re-released and video footage of a homeless Logan playing in Tompkin Square Park in New York has recently surfaced on Youtube – check it out!

It was in this first group that Pullen encountered free drummer Milford Graves and subsequently, he and Graves formed a duo. Pullen began to play the Hammond organ to extend his opportunities for work, transferring elements of his individual piano style to the very different sound of the Hammond. During the remainder of the 1960s and early 1970s, he played with his own organ trio in clubs and bars, worked as self-taught arranger for record companies, and accompanied various singers including Arthur Prysock and Nina Simone.

Pullen often polarized critics and suffered from two undeserved allegations. The first – despite his grounding in the church and blues – was that he was purely a free player and thus unemployable in any other context, the second that he had been heavily influenced by Cecil Taylor or was a clone of Cecil Taylor, to whose playing Pullen’s own bore a superficial resemblance. Pullen always denied that he had any link with Cecil Taylor, stating that his own style had been developed in isolation before he ever heard of the other pianist. But this isn’t the issue. I’ve seen both players live and their approach to the instrument is only superficially linked. Taylor is an incomparable technician with a style that extends well beyond jazz and into the contemporary avant garde but while Pullen’s playing has a superficial similarity (big chords, aggressive runs and apparent atonality) his music is always grounded in the lyrical and his lines may often be spiky, but they’re always deeply melodic. Taylor would never release a piece of music called Ode to Life which is more Beethoven than Bartok.

In 1973 Pullen was introduced to bass player and celebrated bandleader Charlie Mingus. Being part of the Mingus group and appearing at many concerts and on three Mingus studio recordings in 1973 and 1974 gave great exposure to Pullen’s playing and helped to persuade audiences and critics that Pullen was not really a player in the free tradition.

Pullen had always played piano with bass and drums behind him, feeling more comfortable this way, but in early 1975 he was persuaded to play a solo concert in Toronto. There was now a growing awareness of Pullen’s abilities and with ex-Mingus bandmembers George Adams and Dannie Richmond he appeared on some Italian label recordings before being signed in to Atlantic in 1977. With Cameron Brown on bass, this quartet made a dozen recordings until the death of Dannie Richmond in early 1988. After signing with Blue Note, they consolidated their growing reputation in the US and Europe, with their music – usually original compositions by Pullen, Adams and Richmond – ranging from blues, through ballads, to post-bop and avant-garde. Later that year, Pullen went into the studio with Gary Peacock and Tony Williams to make his first trio album New Beginnings – the start of his final period of recording – and followed this with Random Thoughts, this time with James Genus on bass and Lewis Nash on drums.

In late 1990 Pullen added a new element to his playing and his music with the formation of his African Brazilian Connection which mixed African and latin rhythms with jazz. During the last few years of his life, Pullen toured with his trio, with his African Brazilian Connection, as a solo artist, and with groups led by others, making much fine music, but sadly not enough records.

In 1994 Pullen was diagnosed with the lymphoma which eventually ended his life the following year. Today, very little of Pullen’s music is currently available on CD so grab it when you can. You may be lucky enough to track down some vinyl too. As always, here on Cosmic Jazz we’ll always do our bit. Over the next three months we’ll feature Pullen in various combinations – from solo piano to quartet.


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