Mulgrew Miller, 'Live at Yoshi's, Vol. 1' (2004)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)

Mulgrew Miller died five years ago, at a mere 57. Losing him was a shock, in no small part because he cut the figure of a load-bearing pillar in the modern mainstream. “His balanced but assertive style was a model of fluency, lucidity and bounce,” as I noted in a NY Times obituary, “and it influenced more than a generation of younger pianists.”

My first exposure to Miller was via the Tony Williams Quintet of the late 1980s and early ‘90s — a terrific post-bop band that featured a front line of Wallace Roney on trumpet and Bill Pierce on saxophones. It took me a little while to find my way to Miller’s own discography, notably the 1987 album Wingspan, which was so strong a statement that he later formed a working band by the same name.


Live at Yoshi’s Vol. 1 belongs to a series of live albums by Miller’s early-to-mid 2000s trio, with Derrick Hodge on bass and Karriem Riggins on drums. (There’s a Vol. 2, of course; there are also two volumes of Live at the Kennedy Center, from a couple years prior, with Rodney Green in place of Riggins.) All of these albums suggest a Platonic ideal for the modern piano trio, in an exalted lineage that runs through precursors including McCoy Tyner andBill Evans, not to mention Horace Silver and Bobby Timmons and Ahmad Jamal.

As a side note, Miller was monumentally important to Robert Glasper, who now stands are the most prominent of his sworn disciples. It’s hardly a coincidence that Glasper’s closest musical affiliation has been with Hodge — nor that he recently reinforced his bond with Riggins. The Robert Glasper Trio, especially on its first couple of albums, reflected the influence of Miller more than any other single source. (Glasper’s 2007 album In My Element even includes an original title “One For ‘Grew.”)

But it would be irresponsible to reduce Miller’s contribution to the degree to which he inspired his admirers. His musicianship was a frank but wondrous thing, from the quality of his touch to the color of his harmonic voicings. Here is his version of “The Organ Grinder” — a composition by trumpeter Woody Shaw, with whom he toured and recorded for a good stretch in the ‘80s. Soulful and swinging, with a profound sense of forward pull, it’s a fine embodiment of Miller’s greatness — and a bittersweet reminder of what we lost. 

Buy Live at Yoshi’s, Vol. 1 at Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.