Most of Don Pullen's latter-day listeners became aware of him from his performances at jazz festivals. Considering the immense size of his musical resource, it is surprising that Pullen didn't achieve the stature of an Oscar Peterson or a George Shearing, for he was as much of a master as they. He was a player of immense passion, able to look forward in free music and backward to stride playing in the same few moments.
Pullen's always expansive solos were full of dynamic contrasts, moving like quicksilver from thundering violence (his hands were frequently blistered from his playing) into soothing and delicate melody. His ultra-fast playing and heavily clustered notes were paradoxically accurate, despite their heavy-fisted delivery. Pullen was also a gifted organist. His free playing was authenticated by the fact that he knew all about the earlier jazz piano styles, and was thus able to demand audience attention for his very liberal experiments.
Pullen began his career by playing gospel music in church and then by earning his living with rhythm and blues musicians, in his case during the Sixties with Syl Austin, the tenor sax player. He was impressed first as a teenager by the piano playing of Art Tatum and then by the saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman. While his multi-note playing drew from Tatum, his work seemed to contain many of the elements of the music of the maverick pianist Cecil Taylor. But Pullen never spoke of any impact or influence from Taylor. "I don't like piano players much," he said. He was taught by his cousin Clyde Wright, who had been accompanist to Dinah Washington.
While still working for Austin in the R&B field Pullen had played with the avant-garde tenor player Albert Ayler and had found his mentor in the alto saxophonist Giussepi Logan. Logan, who had also come along the R&B path, played free jazz with the tenor players Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders and had become a focal point of influence for young players.
Amongst them was the drummer Milford Graves, who Pullen first met when he joined Logan's quartet in 1964. He made his first recording with the group the following year. With Graves, Pullen developed a unique way of duetting with drummers which was to be a style characteristic for the rest of his career. Graves freed the drums from the traditional time-keeping role and was able to create musical conversations with the piano. Both men depended on unusual effects, with Pullen pitting intense flurries of notes against Graves's intricate patterns. They recorded as a duo in 1966.
Despite Pullen's palpably outstanding qualities, he was unable to gain a proper footing in jazz at the time, and for the next decade worked obscurely as accompanist to the singers Arthur Prysock and then Nina Simone. By 1972 he had joined the bassist Charlie Mingus's coterie and displayed his talents on three of Mingus's best albums of the time. "That band was wild. Hamiett Bluett would point his sax right at Mingus and blow him away, and then we'd all start to blow. Finally Mingus said 'Y'all aren't going to leave me out of this. It's my band!' "
During his time with Mingus, Pullen also became the pianist with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (1974) and began his first of a string of solo piano albums in 1977 when Atlantic issued his solo set from the Montreux Jazz Festival.
While with Mingus, Pullen had worked with the tenor saxist George Adams and their friendship and musical partnership became the most important element in their musical lives. When Mingus died in 1979 a group of musicians who had played with him formed a band called Mingus Dynasty to take Mingus's music as a starting point for invention. Pullen toured both with the band and as a soloist and that same year he and Adams pulled away from the main group to form a quartet with Mingus's main musical associate, Dannie Richmond, and the bassist Cameron Brown. As soon as it was formed, the group recorded three albums within the space of 48 hours. "It was a fiery band," Pullen said. "Fire was its middle name because we had Dannie there."
The band stayed together for 10 years of blistering music, with Richmond being replaced on his death in 1988 by the drummer Lewis Nash. It toured world-wide, much called on for festival performances. Although many numbers ran on for 15 minutes and more, there was a discipline about the music, and the two leaders never seemed able to unload all the ideas which were fighting to come out. They used standards and many original themes, too.
"It's fascinating to sit down and play without any written music," Pullen said. "But it also has limitations. One of them is that it all begins to sound alike. I found constantly playing free did lead to a bit of a dead end. Good writing gives you a direction."
The band signed a contract with Blue Note in 1986, and both Pullen and Adams made albums for the label on their own. The quartet disbanded in 1989 and Adams died in 1992.
Pullen continued to record for Blue Note and work with his trio, his work becoming more conventional but no less eloquent.
Donald Gabriel Pullen, pianist, organist: born Roanoke, Virginia 25 December 1941; died New York City 22 April 1995.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies