Mulgrew Miller has hardly been lying low since 1995. He has played on dozens of albums and toured steadily to general acclaim, but this is his first CD as a leader in seven years. With it, he reestablishes himself-as if that was necessary-as one of a handful of major pianists in his age group (he was born in 1955). The title, The Sequel, refers to Wingspan, Miller's superb 1987 quintet album originally on Landmark, now available on 32 Jazz. Vibraharpist Steve Nelson is the only returning member of the original group, however: Steve Wilson is the alto and soprano saxophonist, Richie Goods the bassist, Karriem Riggins the drummer. On four tracks, trumpeter Duane Eubanks makes the band a sextet. Miller's dedication to the strength of simplicity transmits itself to the other members of Wingspan.
In an era when a musician can become an insider by playing outside, Miller is content to be hip by being accessible, melodic and no more complicated than is necessary to serve the performance. That applies to his writing as well as his playing. "Elation" is another in a series of blues Miller has written in the Charlie Parker tradition. "Holding Hands" is a fine addition to the repertoire of jazz waltzes. In the minor-key piece called "Know Wonder," Nelson and Miller simultaneously improvise intertwining lines and yet somehow manage to stay out of one another's way. It is a sparkling moment in a performance with only one routine aspect, a Eubanks solo that starts promisingly and becomes a series of borrowed phrases. Still, the trumpeter continues to show promise. Wilson's soprano sax carries the melody in Henry Mancini's "Dreamsville," a duo track on which he and Miller have superb solos. The other standard, "It Never Entered My Mind," demonstrates Miller's remarkably even and fluid touch, harmonic resourcefulness and ballad imagination. The vibes-alto unison line of "Samba d' Blue" is reminiscent of some of Bobby Hutcherson's music of the mid-1960s. It's a happy closer.