Don Pullen: A Song Everlasting      HOME

The following text was published first in "jazz journal", London, November 1996. Author: Mike Bond.

The late Don Pullen held to a creed which many share; jazz should swing. After some years at the forefront of the free movement of the sixties, he moved to more traditional jazz forms, realising, as he said himself, many of the avant garde practitioners could not swing, and thus had no contact with the roots of jazz. 'I like it down and dirty,' he once said. His death, in April 1995, robbed this music of one of its finest and most individual pianistic voices; the hopes for his eventual recovery, held by those who knew of his illness and that he was undergoing treatment, proved in vain. At the time of his death, Pullen was a fully contemporary musician, seen at his peak in a range of innovative work recorded since the early nineties.

Why was he not more widely known among the jazz fraternity at large, especially in the UK, where mention of Pullen's name will often produce only blank looks from many dedicated jazz lovers? Geoffrey Smith, before playing Pullen's solo version of his own Ode To Life as a memorial tribute on BBC Radio 3's Jazz Record Requests, introduced him as a man who knew all about soul' and added that on each occasion he played that Pullen recording on air it elicited 'a pile of queries'. An ironic epitaph for a man who had worked in this music for 30 years and more, who in the last 15 years of his life made a succession of superb creative recordings, but was still struggling for a proper appreciation at his death. His loss will probably weigh heavier upon the jazz world as time progresses and more peo ple come to know the work he has left behind.
Despite his determination to perpetuate the swinging tradition, Pullen was often wrongly pigeonholed by those who only knew of his early work, and believed him locked in the sixties mould; his playing style, to his chagrin, was often compared to, and said to have been influenced by, Cecil Taylor, despite Don's frequent denials. The immense difference in the style and attitude to music of these two players was masked by some superficial similarities of technique, especially in the early recordings made by Pullen, before he abandoned the avant garde to its slide away from jazz into Europeanised backwater. Valerie Wilmer, in a note added to Pullen's Guardian obituary, even implied that contrary to what is normally assumed, Cecil Taylor was actually influenced by the young Pullen.
Don's own music, although always at the forefront of experimentation, was firmly in the Armstrong, Hines, Ellington, Parker, Gillespie, Monk, Mingus, true straight line of jazz development. He retained from his free playing his extended technique, most elements of which he had perfected for himself and was unable to an alyse, but used this to fashion complex and daring solos, whilst still leaning hard on rhythm and melody. He often laid down a steady left hand beat which would have been the envy of a swing pianist from an earlier era, over which he carefully placed single notes, groups of chords, or lines of fast glissandi in which every note was precisely chosen, seamlessly weaving them into his solos with an astonishing speed and accuracy that led one pianist to comment that Don must have been born not just with left and right brain segments, but with two brains. Pullen was capable of playing with heart-stopping intensity, and, especially in solo performance, of an almost overwhelming emotion.
Classically trained, but with a background of black church music, Don became aware of jazz whilst at college and at once felt the pull of this music. It was natural that a young man already equipped with a brilliant technique should seek out other musicians of his own generation who, as in every art, were ready to push at the current boundaries as they sought to develop their own styles and free themselves of what they considered to be the clichés of the past. Unfortunately many young artists lose respect for the past and are led by their own over-confidence into irrelevant clichés of their own; this was a trap Pullen was determined to avoid. It has been said that his introduction of gospel and blues elements into his free playing led to him being castigated as a reactionary by some of the avant gardists.
Alongside the period of experimentation, his experience broadened as he earned his living for many years as accompanist, both on piano and Hammond organ, to singers and R & B soloists. By the time he was invited to join Charles Mingus's working group in the early seventies, he was fully prepared. Recordings Mingus made during this period show that he had found a pianist who was at once totally individual and fully suited to Mingus's personal view of music and who, whilst learning within its context, was able to assist in moving it forward.
This Mingus group later contained George Adams on tenor, who was destined to spend many years playing with Don, co-leading their own group. A record from this period, Mingus Moves (1973), a CD re-issue having the bonus of extra tracks, is unmistakably late period Mingus. It features some Pullen compositions and also gives promise of future riches when the Pullen/Adams collaboration cames to fulfilment and maturity in their own quartet.
After the death of Mingus, a European promoter seeing potential in the Mingus connection encouraged the formation of a group consisting of Pullen, Adams, and Dannie Richmond, with Cameron Brown added on bass. This was a quartet which, instead of providing bebop rehash, played a fresh music leading on from that of Mingus, soaked with passion, anger, love, and the blues, displaying a determination never to rest on the easy option. Pullen and Adams, driven by Richmond, riding on the steadiness and warmth of Brown, produced innumerable solos of excitement and power. The members of this George Adams/Don Pullen Quartet melded so well that they played together for 10 years, often being cited as the best small group of the eighties, especially by those who had witnessed their sometimes awesome pow er in live concerts, as they fed on the appreciation of the audience. This was a power the musicians themselves thought was never quite captured in their studio recordings.
Playing some standards, but mostly compositions of Pullen and Adams, with an occasional piece by Richmond, the group moved easily between styles, never coasting, always stretching, playing everything from - simple blues, ballad songs, and joyful anthems to jagged themes interspersed with free playing. It is probable that Adams never played so well as when backed by Pullen, Richmond and Brown. Unfortunately, despite minority acclaim, Pullen's over-publicised avant g arde past, and a common first-impression of difficulty in the group's music restricted their appeal. However, those unfamiliar with the group's work should not be afraid to approach it; apparent complexities soon simplify themselves and reveal their roots, and the listener is rewarded with satisfying and swinging musical experiences; even those whose interests tend to the blues, not jazz, have rapidly converted after hearing typical work by the quartet.
There are many albums available by the quartet, all of high standard, and it is difficult to decide which to recommend; the earliest have been reissued on CD and the most recent are still available. Perhaps Life Line (1981) then Song Everlasting (1987), spanning a large part of the quartet's period together, will make good introductions. The sound of the quartet may initially surprise but the best tastes are often those which are acquired, and two or three listenings to any album will soon reveal its delights.
The group's last two studio albums Breakthrough (1986) and Song Everlasting (1987), were released on Blue Note, and saw the name of the group change to the Don Pullen/George Adams quartet, but there was no change in the quality of the music.
The four musicians believed their signing by Blue Note, a major US jazz label, meant that at last they would reach the wider audience, respect and economic success (in jazz terms) their music merited, but they were disappointed. This may have been a contributory factor in the decision to disband the quartet, although at the time Don stated that his colleagues were having difficulties with some of his compositions. The decision to break up the group had been taken before the death of Dannie Richmond in 1988, and, after using a substitute drummer to complete those gigs previously booked, this group, so tightly interlocked in its playing, split apart, any hopes of partial resurrection dashed by the death of George Adams in 1992, and today only Cameron Brown, the erstwhile steady heartbeat, remains alive.
As well as the studio records by the quartet, several live albums were made. Although these are excellent at demonstrating the group's uninhibited concert performances and risk-taking, the recording balance and quality often fail to do justice to the music; sadly the best live recorded sound was on a Berlin recording made after Richmond's death with Lewis Nash on drums.
After the quartet had broken up, Pullen's recording career as a Blue Note artist took a new turn with the release of a remarkable and frequently beautiful trio album, New Beginnings (1988). This album with Tony Williams on drums, and Gary Peacock on bass, was considered by many to be one of the finest piano trio albums ever made; it allowed Pullen to explore new territory and revisit old, whilst utilising every facet of his technique, which, at times, apart from the unorthodox fingerings needed for his super-fast runs, included crossing hands to play counter melodies with his fingers and rhythmic blocks of chords with both elbows, achieving an effect something like a duet by supremely coordinated players. Don was now often working in trio format, and the success of New Beginnings led to another trio album, Random Thoughts, the following year.
In the early nineties, Don received a commission which led to the formation of his own last recorded group, The AfricanBrazilian Connection (ABC), which matched his love of swinging music with cross-cultural multi-rhythms in an extended saxophone quartet.
Within this group, Pullen featured fewer of his own tunes and his playing gradually became less aggressive and essentially more hopeful. Despite its African beginnings, some jazz lovers feel uncomfortable with these complex rhythms, but there will be no problems with the playing of Pullen, or Carlos Ward on alto sax; for excitement and release try the CD Kele Mou B ana (199 1), or for tranquillity and compassion, the CD Ode To Life (1993), dedicated to the memory of George Adams.
Shortly before Don's death, Blue Note released Live ... Again, also from 1993, featuring the ABC group in a live performance playing pieces from both of their two previous CDs. The sleevenote for this recording anguishes over Pullen's illness, suggesting that these were to be Pullen's own musical last words, but Blue Note had in hand the CD Sacred Common Ground which they issued after his death. This was the result of Don's last commission, to produce a dance score which fused jazz with American Indian music.
Like many true artists, Don Pullen had a humility which made him believe his own intense creativity was a gift from some higher power; this fitted well with the basically spiritual nature of the traditional native American music, and he produced a score in which the melody and loose swing of jazz, and the changing and hypnotic drum beats of the Indian music combine, interweave and separate in a work of deep feeling, outside of any category. But what astonishes is the power, life, and hope of Don's own playing on the recording, which he had completed, against all odds, in the last stages of his illness, only a few weeks before his death.
The solo piano recording is often more sought and debated by other pianists than the general public, but Pullen was no exception in enjoying the challenge of playing alone and demonstrating his skills. In fact, many of his admirers were waiting for a new solo album to express his cur-rent opinions on the art when the details of his terminal illness became known; but unless something lurks in a dark comer of a recording company's vault, we shall have no more.
Pullen's commitment to swing was exemplified by his playing solo concerts with a number of small bells around one ankle, like a Morris dancer's rig, to provide extra tinkling rhythms as he stamped his foot. However, the emotion of his solo playing could, like Parker's, build up an almost unbearable tension in the audience, generating shouts of approval during his performance from people desirous of gaining some relief.
Perhaps Pullen's solo piano work, covering the full range of his playing from 'inside' to 'outside', is not the place for a first look into the wonderful body of work left behind by this outstanding musician. That being said, Evidence Of Things Unseen (1983) is a fine statement of his solo playing at that period, with limited excursions into the unknown.
Many of the qualities of Pullen's beautiful unaccompanied playing, if not the complete range, can be found in abbreviated form in his solos on Jane Bunnett's New York Duets (1989), a delightful album on which he accompanies Canadian saxist/flautist Bunnett through a set including Monk tunes and originals by both players, the added bonus being a brilliant recording of a truly excellent piano. Their version of Make Someone Happy is one of those definitive versions, like the Ellington/Coltrane Sentimental Mood, against which others are subsequently judged, and Pullen's solo on the opening Bye-ya is as much a tribute to Monk as the realisation of his own thoughts.
However, an earlier duo recording, Melodic Excursions (1982), featuring Pullen and Adams, is an uncompromising album; although it provides much excitement and fine playing, their fierce take-noprisoners attack on some numbers conveys an anger which suggests that listening to this record is best postponed until familiarity with their other work has fully prepared the listener to take up their challenges.
Over the years, Pullen recorded with many other groups, both his own and others-he made three other albums with Jane Bunnett's group-and it is probable that someone's favourite album is not mentioned above or listed below, for I have tried only to give an overview of his progress; nor I have troubled to discuss his many excellent compositions, often inspired by family, friends and other musicians: any of the albums I recommend displays his talent in this area.
Pullen was a pianist who always had something to say about the world and its peoples. His playing strength was that he was grounded in tradition but unafraid of change; too much has been made of his unorthodox technique, for this was not just a bag of showy tricks but a workaday tool to extend his range, similar to that perfected on other instruments by innovative jazz musicians over the last 70 years. After the standing ovation he was accorded at a solo concert I attended, during which he had utilised his crossed-hands technique on one number, a woman sitting nearby asked disbelievingly, 'How can he play with his elbows and stay in tune?' She had, perhaps inadvertently, got to the heart of Pullen's playing; his amazing technique was always subservient to the music he played. He has left a silence in the world it will be hard to fill.
I had hoped to enjoy new creations by Don Pullen for many more years of my own life and if this brief note encourages one person to seek out his music, even if it has to be after he has gone, it may serve as a small token of my gratitude for the pleasure Pullen's playing has brought to me, for his work has become an important part of my musical life. If I had to choose one album for a desert island I would be undecided whether to make an emotional or intellectual selection. Today, I am hesitating between Life Line and New Beginnings but I get so much joy and satisfaction from all those in my list, and the many others, that tomorrow's choices might be quite different.
I believe all the facts to be accurate but data having got lost in a reshuffle left me working sometimes from memory. I apologise for any errors and omissions. Subjective opinions are mine alone.

Some recommended Don Pullen recordings
This small selection is merely an introduction to Don's work on piano. I have not included any of his bluesdrenched organ playing.
Charles Mingus: Mingus Moves (1973)
George Adams/Don Pullen Quartet: Don't Lose Control (1979); Earth Beams (1980); Life Line (1981); Live At The Village Vanguard (1983);
Don Pullen/George Adams Quartet: Song Everlasting (1987)
Don Pullen Trio: New Beginnings (1988)
Don Pullen Solo Piano: Evidence Of Things Unseen (1983)
Jane Bunnett-Don Pullen: New York Duets (1989)
Don Pullen's Afro-Brazilian Connection: Live... Again (1993)