In the latest of our series where musicians consider idols, or formative influences, Liam Noble writes about his favourite tracks by pianist Don Pullen (1941-1995). Liam writes:
Don Pullen changed my life. He turned everything upside down.
I had started playing with tenor saxophonist John Burgess whilst I was still at University, and he was really into George Adams and David Murray. John plays like Coleman Hawkins’ portrait in a hall of mirrors. And he blows hard, the energy bursting with a kind of impatience through all the modes and scales into a force of nature. As a pianist, when every note you play is immediately dying thereafter, it was hard to find something to rise to that. But then I heard Don Pullen, who took the swing and swagger of Gospel and blues and fused it with the new sixties noise from New York and Chicago.
There’s two misconceptions at the heart of some people’s reactions to Don Pullen. One is that he’s a kind of Cecil Taylor disciple…well, yes he generates, at times, a kind of musical hail of bullets by playing lots of clusters in quick succession across the range of the keyboard. Crucially though, it always swings. But where Taylor focuses on intricate rotations of intervals (another misconception…he’s not just “splashing around”), Pullen lets the clusters somehow “grow out” of the line itself, and his lines are rooted in groove.
The second misconception is that this kind of thing is easy to do. I tried it for a while, and it’s not. What’s easy is to explode in a hissing fit all over the piano like a tired toddler…but to do that, and stay inside drummer Dannie Richmond’s groove….that is something else. As I often tell students, anyone can throw themselves off a high board at the pool, it’s the landing that counts. Pullen has several idiosyncratic techniques involving the rotation of his hands and a kind of drumming motion between fingers and the base of his palm that almost mimics a conga player. And he slips between these and a driving sense of orthodox swing that reminds me a little of Oscar Peterson, with a higher level of chromatic derangement.
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Pullen also worked with Joseph Jarman, Don Moye and Milford Graves, appeared with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (good Lord!) and, in his later career, recorded with Kootenai Indians on his final album, “Sacred Common Ground”. His many interests led him far and wide. But for me, at that time of my life, it was all about one band.
The Don Pullen/George Adams Quartet combined the intensity of their experience Mingus with a kind of lightness of compositional touch: the tunes are catchy, often uncomplicated, always groovy. They make great workshop pieces: like Roland Kirk’s music, the uplifting spiritual quality is shot through with a good dose of humour and tunesmithery. Pullen stands on his own, a kind of maverick that nevertheless comes straight out of the tradition: the jazz tradition of reforming and recombining what’s already there in new ways.
- “Nommo”: Milford Graves and Don Pullen(1966).
I couldn’t find this on streaming platforms, but the whole album is on YouTube (ironically, on my feed it was prefaced by one of those spiky haired blokes teaching you “the piano” in six weeks). Here is early Pullen, revealing his early predilection for The New Thing, and it’s a meditative yet blistering ride. This is not music that works well unless you put yourself under for the whole half hour. The huge sound of resonating cymbals melts into low piano strings before Pullen’s characteristic chord movements take the music into more rhythmic areas. He looks pretty young on the cover, but already reveals an incredible speed in his arms, flitting across the keyboard with a lightness that belies his technique. Like Taylor, his is a new form of virtuosity that here seems to break with the jazz tradition.
- “Orange Was The Colour Of Her Dress, Then Silk Blue” from “Changes 2: Charles Mingus” (1974).
There’s so much magic in this track, an often recorded tune by Mingus that here slips in and out of grooves with a mixture of sure footed confidence and wilful lunacy. At times, Dannie Richmond and Mingus seem to be emerging from a fog, at others underpinning soul grooves…Jack Walrath and George Adams combine to create a huge sound, and everyone moves with incredible grace and logic between the changing landscapes. This is the band that would later become, minus trumpeter Walrath and with Cameron Brown instead of Mingus, the great Don Pullen/George Adams Quartet. There’s something about the sound of this record. You can hear the fire and the bravery of it all here in this veritable tone poem of a blues.
- “Big Alice” from “All That Funk”: George Adams/Don Pullen(1979)
There are many versions of this tune, dedicated, supposedly, to a fan that came to gigs…the one from Pullen’s own album, “Tomorrow’s Promises”, really is straight up funk, but this rare live recording (YouTube only) was one of the first performances I heard of this band. It’s deranged. The tempo creeps up and up, and by the end the twisting turning tune is all but unplayable. The energy here comes like a lava flow that keeps gathering pace until it burns your face off. Starting out as a simple Bo Diddley style riff not dissimilar to Eddie Harris’s “Freedom Jazz Dance”, Pullen gets hold of it and gradually bends and elevates it into a thing of beauty, with lines that start off straight enough before somehow twisting into chromatic waywardness and finally a barrage of chiming sonorities. You can hear how the band bounces off all this, raising the roof.
- “We’ve Been Here All The Time” from “Breakthrough”: George Adams/Don Pullen Quartet
The cumulative power of something simple. I can’t stop listening to how Dannie Richmond takes this lop-sided groove and makes it even edgier, resisting the urge to pin it down. In the bridge, Pullen’s jabs are heavy and right in the pocket. George Adams has a kind of silky ferocity, as if he doesn’t need to be accurate (but is), and Pullen takes on the responsibility for the groove every bit as much as Brown and Richmond, who make room for him by never overemphasising the time. It’s light somehow, but the energy as always is burning bright. Pullen’s fistfuls of notes sit right inside the groove, achieving the seemingly impossible.
- “The Necessary Blues(Thank You, Mr Monk)”from ”Breakthrough”: George Adams/Don Pullen Quartet
I’ve picked this track mainly for the explosive piano solo, breaking free of the rhythm section and getting into all kinds of textural areas without ever losing the rhythm. His pulse is incredibly strong at all times, unshakeable, self-sustaining and as ever, when one tries to actually do this kind of thing, pulse is the first thing to collapse. He really hears these sounds as an extension of the blues impulse, which I think is why it works. He cues the band in by playing them part of the fast-moving head with his whole hand for each note. This is post-bop for grown-ups, music that acknowledges what’s come before rather than writing it off. Adams comes in somehow soft and huge all at once, flighty and assertive.
- “Another Reason To Celebrate” from “Sing Me A Song Everlasting”: George Adams/Don Pullen Quartet
This is my favourite Pullen tune of all time, and taught me the valuable lesson that chords that stay in one place will happily support the noise and chaos of free jazz. After the infectious swagger of the tune, George Adams’ solo entry, a full on kinetic snowstorm, always makes me laugh. And yet how he plays the tune is so sweet – big but tender. Pullen pushes quavers out with sewing machine velocity, eventually letting them take over the line with his trade mark splashes until finally getting into some question and answer stuff, alternating blues phrases with punchy clusters as if the Basie band were trading lines with a herd of small children. And it’s all framed with the catchiness of the tune itself, celebration was never better expressed than it is here.
7. “Capricorn Rising” from “Capricorn Rising”: Don Pullen featuring Sam Rivers
It’s interesting to trace back Pullen’s origins in free jazz, and here it’s closer to the kind of thing Chicago’s AACM composers like Muhal Richard Abrams and Anthony Braxton were doing. Not many piano players can swing like Pullen and still sound convincing in this kind of setting, and it’s a good example of how Pullen could integrate with textural ideas. And yet, you can still hear how the swing impulse directs everything he does: there’s that percussive articulation, but also some more colours and intervallic ideas that don’t feature so much in his more groove based music.
8 “My Brothers” from “Cab Calloway Stands In For The Moon”: Kip Hanrahan
This album features a cast of incredible musicians, often never heard together, and is structured around the poetry of Ishmael Reed, Hanrahan being a kind of “Master Of Ceremonies” in curating the line ups. Here, Pullen is on Hammond organ, an instrument he originally adopted in the late 60’s to increase his work opportunities, and kept on sporadically for the rest of his life. With a band including groove experts Leo Nocentelli and Eddie Harris, his short solo manages to take a blues shuffle and, in a matter of bars, bend the lines into his chromatic universe.
9. “Once Upon A Time” from “New Beginnings”: Don Pullen with Gary Peacock and Tony Williams
It’s very interesting to see how Pullen’s waves of energy interact with Tony Williams in his most rock-sounding phase, and it’s an inspired combination. Gary Peacock is a bit low in the mix, but his solo is stunning, and Tony Williams crashes, splashes and rolls as only he can. Pullen’s tune has a strange mix of Bill Evans’s harmonic delicate waltzes and Pullen’s own elbows out thrashiness. The whole record is full of surprises, grooves and mood swings, and emphasises even more Pullen’s ferocious attack, which must have kept piano tuners on their toes the world over.
10. “Ode To Life” from “Random Thoughts” : Don Pullen
Really great piano players can always make something sound good, and this is a great example, exquisite tenderness that stops short of cheesy sentimentality. After the A section, which you will probably feel you’ve heard before, the first chord of the bridge seems to waft into the room like a huge cloud of sound. It eventually finds its way into long lines and full voiced chords, not quite the full Pullen treatment, and all the better for it. To hear him play this live must have been spellbinding, and that I never got to see him is (pianistically at least) one of my biggest regrets.