The musical tumult of the ’60s inspired a handful of pianists to go at their keyboards with a physicality that suggested action painting or dance. McCoy Tyner and, later, Alice Coltrane fashioned grand waves of sound to accompany the saxophone explorations of John Coltrane; they were the famous ones. Cecil Taylor shattered the flow of song forms and developed his own language of surges and interruptions; he was the infamous one.
Then there was Don Pullen who was neither as well-known nor as notorious, and who passed away at age 53 in 1995 when it seemed there should have been a multitude of musical projects and overdue acclaim still before him. His unconventional pummeling of the keyboard often brought on comparisons to Taylor, in particular, but the similarities were superficial. Pullen may not have performed many standards, but, unlike Taylor, he was all about the root forms of jazz — the song form, blues and gospel — as vehicles; sometimes he made them sound pretty, and plenty of times he pushed them to extremes, but he never got away from them entirely, or sounded like he wanted to. If his right hand was splashing and splattering notes (he had this thing where, at lightning speed, he alternated playing with fingers then the back of his hand) the left might bang out a down-home groove; if both hands were in splatter-mode, rest assured he’d snap back to, say, a hip waltz in just a tad. Sometimes he sounded like Oscar Peterson interpreting a score by Jackson Pollock.
The three CDs here collect four splendid Pullen albums for Blue Note. Two are by the Don Pullen-George Adams Quartet, which came together after the 1979 death of Charles Mingus, in whose band Pullen and saxophonist Adams had collaborated with drummer Danny Richmond a few years before. (Bassist Cameron Brown, who grew up in Detroit and Grosse Pointe, anchored his more flamboyant bandmates.)
The quartet could play soulfully, in the pocket or out near the edge. But the quartet effectively died with Richmond in 1988, leaving its final two LPs (Breakthrough and Song Everlasting, both included here) as high-water marks. Pullen next followed with two trio projects (also included), a volatile outing with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Tony Williams (New Beginnings), and a more relaxed set with James Genus and Lewis Nash (Random Thoughts).
Pullen’s final recording and performance projects shot off into new realms, his aptly named African-Brazilian Connection and a surprising collaboration with the Chief Cliff Singers, a Kootenai Indian group. Those discs of jazz-world music fusion deserve a reissue package of their own. This stellar set gives us hope they’ll get it.
W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].