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Don Pullen: Richard’s Tune

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Don Pullen, for all his “out” reputation, was a deeply melodic pianist who never forsook the diverse influences he absorbed during his early years (church, R&B, straight-ahead club/lounge gigs), along with his immersion in the ’60s-era free movement and his famous early ’70s tenure with Charles Mingus. This disc, originally released on Sackville in 1975 as Solo Piano Album, was Pullen’s first under his own name; on it, he effectively spanned the gamut of his aesthetic predilections to display his fertile imagination, daunting technique and trickster-like sense of humor.

The title track is a tribute to the AACM’s Muhal Richard Abrams, one of Pullen’s mentors and musical role models. It’s a deft and evocative homage that could also serve as a personal manifesto: Pullen breaks into spiky skitters, runs and splashes, but always returns to the straightforward resonance of the theme, inserting a few references to Randy Weston’s “Hi-Fly” along the way and summoning unabashed romanticism alongside his tough-minded avoidance of bathos. “Song Played Backwards” pushes things further: It’s a full-bore onslaught of creative audacity, unfettered harmonic imagination and technical wizardry.

Pullen pointedly avoids easy answers-musical or otherwise-on “Suite (Sweet) Malcolm (Pt. 1: Memories and Gunshots),” melding sorrow, anger and spiritual release to invoke the visionary optimism that underlay Malcolm X’s (too-often-stereotyped) militancy. The highlight for many, though, will probably be “Big Alice” (showcased in two versions, one previously unissued), Pullen’s best known creation from his Mingus days. Propelled by a New Orleans street-parade beat, it’s a juke-fueled celebration on which Pullen recalls his early embrace of the R&B/gospel continuum in all its funky, soul-stirring glory.

Originally Published