When we were trying to decide on the personnel for the bass, drums, and another horn, we went through a long list of people. However, when we were deciding on whom to get on piano, once Mulgrew’s name was mentioned, that was it--no other pianists ever came up.
I was so nervous about my record date that I didn’t sleep or eat the night before. Those who know me know that these are two areas that I don’t usually skimp on. I had Steve Nelson on vibes (instead of another horn) Billy Drummond on drums, James Genus on bass, and of course, Mulgrew Miller on piano. That session was a particularly difficult one for me, emotionally--not only was I was a nervous wreck, but nobody seemed interested in my performance. That’s how I felt anyway. It seemed like all of the band members, the producer and the engineer were too busy in awe of Mulgrew.
Every time we listened back to a take in the studio, all I heard was “Yeah, Mulgrew.” Mulgrew Miller, Damn!” “Mulgrew, you sound great.” “Grew!” After a while, I was starting to wonder whose date it was. I wouldn't have been surprised if I had been asked to sit out on a couple of tunes. And I did realize that all of the real time praise that he was receiving was well deserved. After all, he was ripping it up on every tune—thoroughly.
Eventually I did my put insecurities aside and rose to the occasion—the best that I could. Trust me, it’s not a good feeling just trying to hold your own on your own record date. But it was what it was. When you decide to play with the big boys, getting slapped around a little bit comes with the territory.
After the dust had settled, I’m happy to say that I came away having made a nice record--and it made the New York Times 2005 Top Ten Albums List. So not a bad ending for what started off as not a pleasant day.
Unfortunately, I never got a chance to play with Mulgrew again after that date. We shared the same billing many times, but that’s as close as it got.
Here’s one of my favorite solos of his from Sam I Am. This is my arrangement of “Indiana.” On this take, you’ll definitely hear what I meant when I said that he was "ripping it up." Oh yeah, and Steve Nelson is bringing it pretty hard too.
Thanks, Mulgrew, for your beautiful music and your beautiful spirit. RIP.