Home Masthead Don Pullen: Ode To The Life Lived

Don Pullen: Ode To The Life Lived

The hands of a master, 1989 (Photograph by Rick McGinnis)

For years I was obsessed with finding out more about this man, this musician whom even Mingus admired. I caught a few gigs long ago in the Village, but mostly listened to the music The Solo Piano Album (Sackville, 1975), Charles Mingus’ Changes One and Changes Two (Atlantic, 1975)… and the other Mingus records. Then there was Breakthrough (Blue Note, 1986), Song Everlasting (Blue Note, 1987)… Finally, as my collection began to grow I had Ode to Life (Blue Note, 1993), Live Again (Blue Note, 1995) and the triumphant, On Sacred Common Ground (Blue Note, 1995). Oh, how I wept when I read those liner notes and realized that there would be no other record from Don Pullen!

A few months ago, I was preparing for this Ode to Don and reviewing the tapes I had made with Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer and my blood began to bubble and boil…

Suddenly everything took on a new intensity. I could not get Pullen’s music out of my head. I knew I had to do something. I was wrestling with Don Pullen day in and day out. I had to find the center. Thirty years of listening to the music and experiencing epiphany after epiphany I was convinced that there was something new and different. Pullen is that kind of torchlight… He is where mind and heart are conjoined and he dances with his hands and he sings to the soul.

don-pullen-milford-graves-nommoI find Rainer Seekamp, a fan who has created a wonderful and exhaustive website in honor of Don Pullen. I write Rainer and magically he replies. Yes, he will send me an album I do not have, Nommo (SRP, 1966). He tells me that I must contact Bradley Sroka and Mike Bond. I write them both and Bradley replies. He is a graduate student at Rutgers University and has done a thesis on Don Pullen¹ — specifically his early work. He sends me a copy of his thesis, which I devour. Through the analyses and Bradley Sroka’s incisive analyses I begin to understand Pullen in a slightly different context. It is as if Pullen himself is willing us on, in some strange way… bringing a group together for yet another gig. So I keep reading Bradley Sroka’s notes and he helps me remember a word I had all but forgotten. The word is “mestizaje” Mestizaje – Origins.

In a brief, haiku-like turn of phrase that describes a philosophical interconnectedness it is defined thus: mestizaje implies cultural hybridity, but one where two or more entities have the same weight to the extent that they form one aesthetic… or, referring to a biological and/or cultural fusion that has “a history… tells a history… and embodies a history…”

In Bradley Sroka’s thesis, this mestizaje is the perfect metaphor for bebop, where as a “musical acculturation,” the bebop aesthetic implies a genealogy of performance stretching back to New Orleans, Tin Pan Alley and Swing…Bebop appropriates all of these disparate musical ideas and idioms and subsumes them, becoming one homogenous musical entity. At a macro level, speaking of society, it is easier to explain than to do so with Don Pullen. But Bradley Sroka makes a leap of faith—as we all must do if we love this music—and finds the heavenly connection between the anthropological uses of the word mestizaje and way pure ideas, historical fact and individual genius come together in Don Pullen’s music. It is an inspired thought, but then Pullen is an inspiring sort of person… It is hard to understand why the world forgets him and many like him…

Bradley Sroka makes a wonderful analysis of Don Pullen’s solo on the 1986 recording of “Song From The Old Country.” This is very mature Pullen, not that he was a kid in early incarnations of this music, but the music itself has matured like rare wine and he is in his element with a band that is home… For years’ folks—fans and casual listeners alike—could not understand Pullen’s music. “How can he play with his elbows and still stay in tune?” one fan was heard as exclaiming at a concert that Mike Bond picked up and the gasp is now legend.

Raul da Gama is a poet and essayist. He has published three collections of poetry, He studied at Trinity College of Music, London specialising in theory and piano, and he has a Masters in The Classics. He is an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep technical and historical understanding of music and literature.


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