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Howard Mandel: Don Pullen Blindfold Test ("Down Beat", november 1989)

He was called an avant gardist, but that label ignored pianist Don Pullen's years with gospel singers and rhythm & blues stars. Today, Pullen's '60s duet LPs with drummer Milford Graves are collector's items, his recordings with Charles Mingus are counted among the late bassist's best work, and his long-running quartet with tenorist? George Adams is no more. But Pullen's recent Blue Note album New Beginnings is a pure delight, featuring the pianist's memorable compositions, his powerful rolls and clusters, and dynamic interplay with Gary Peacock and Tony Williams. This is Pullen's first Blindfold Test; he was told nothing about the music played.

JAMES P. JOHNSON.
"Ain'tcha Got Music" (from ain'tcha got Music, Pumpkin) Johnson, solo piano.

"Is that Fats? Beautiful technique. Stride is so difficult to play clearly: here both hands are really clean. And that's a very modern right hand; in a lot of the earlier piano players, Fats and Duke, especially, you hear a hint of things to come. If they'd taken a step farther, I'd be in the mainstream today."

JELLY ROLL MORTON.
"Black Bottom Stomp" (from jazz classics in digital stereo, BBC) Morton, piano, composer, leader of The Red Hot Peppers.

"I wouldn't hazard a guess, but I was impressed with the concept of group improvisation, which is something I haven't been hearing much lately. Each voice has a purpose, a statement, and an intention, and blends with the other players. Now we hear more individuals playing, with less regard for the "group improvisation"—which concerns listening to the other players, a sense of connectedness that's beyond just playing."

DUKE ELLINGTON/ BILLY STRAYHORN.
"Tonk" (from piano ducts: great times', fantasy) Ellington, Strayhorn, four-handed piano.

"Ooh, my goodness. It's two piano players— I don't know who. The intro was very interesting, that was the best part. The rest sounds contrived, like it's written. Reminds me of movie music of the '40s and '50s, someone on a shopping spree in Macy's. Very nice rapport, though, both execute very well. It seems to be well rehearsed. Duke and Strayhorn? It's revealing of how how closely they must have thought alike."

CHARLES MINGUS.
"Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress, Then Blue" (from mingus plays piano, Impulse) Mingus, piano.

"Is that Mingus? [laughs] He always thought he was a piano player. I'd see him move Jaki Byard and Mal Waldron off the bench, to show them, This is the way a piano should be played!' It wasn't very respectful. This is quite different melodically from the "Orange" that we played."

BILL EVANS.
"Dolphin Dance" (from the complete fantasy recordings, Fantasy) Evans, solo piano.

"The chords sound like what Bill Evans would do. I'm sure he's a good pianist, but it doesn't do anything for me. It's too light, too superficial—I like it down and dirty. The aim of this is to be pretty; of course, there's beauty in jazz. But this seems ... Antiseptic."

McCOY TYNER.
"Rio" (from revelations, Blue Note) Tyner, solo piano.

"McCoy comes to mind: that's his sound, and the power he plays with. What's identifiable is not necessarily what he plays, but his touch; that's something that comes with maturity and experience. Piano players strive to get a piano to sound the way they hear it in their heads, then they learn to do that no matter what the instrument is. I like some of what McCoy was playing with Coltrane better than what he does now. But he's such a talent, he can do anything at any time."

CECIL TAYLOR AND TONY WILLIAMS.
"Morgan's Motion" (from the Joy of flying, Columbia) Taylor, piano; Williams, drums.

"I keep waiting for the song to start. I can't tell what's going on yet. Is that Milford [Graves] on drums? The toms sound like he tunes them. I guest maybe Cecil Taylor, with Andrew Cyrille? Seems like I should know the drummer. He's sort of lagging behind Cecil. This doesn't seem to have much direction or much continuity to it. I think I'll keep quiet on Cecil. I've been compared to him, but I think it's unfair. I'm not really familiar with all his music. I know I don't sound like that."

THELONIOUS MONK.
"Nutty" (from the complete riverside recordings, Riverside) Monk, piano; John Coltrane, tenor sax; Wilbur Ware, bass; Shadow Wilson, drums.

"Of course it's Monk. Yeah, that's Coltrane. They had a beautiful thing. Monk's probably my favorite piano player. Before I heard Monk, there were others, but he's grown on me. His use of space—that is his genius— and you can't miss Monk's touch, even out of a thousand piano players playing at the same time. You have to use your hands a certain way to even approximate that sound. And when Monk isn't there—like he's laying out right now—he's still there! That's great."


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