When pianist Mulgrew Miller led his trio at the Jazz Showcase a couple of years ago, he sounded effective but a bit too reserved to give full voice to his art.
On Thursday night, Miller brought the same band to the same room but turned in a notably more committed performance. Not louder, softer, faster or slower – just more intensely engaged with the repertoire at hand.
This was apparent from the first notes he played, Miller bringing a delicate touch and silvery tone to the standard "If I Should Lose You." After a poetic opening solo, Miller shaped the main theme the way a great singer would, riding its contours for maximum expressive effect. You practically could hear the words as he crafted these phrases, the subtle dissonances he tucked into his chords befitting the melancholy message of the song itself.
If you didn't know better, you might have thought the next tune had been penned by Thelonious Monk, so deeply did it reflect the spirit of "Blue Monk." Like that classic work, Miller's "When I Get There" conveyed a certain rhythmic swagger, as well as a palpable blues spirit. But where Monk typically dug deeply into the keys, producing sharply percussive effects, Miller put a high sheen on his pianism and softened his approach to rhythmic accents.
Through most of this evening, Miller must have been thinking about singers, for he stated melodies more directly and fully than jazz musicians usually do. There was something refreshing about hearing some of the greatest ballads ever penned delivered on piano with such forthrightness, but also with a tonal subtlety that many other pianists would be hard-pressed to match.
In Cole Porter's "So in Love," Miller darkened his tone for the opening portions of the melody, working low in the keyboard but making sure the melody sang out. Yet after one run-through of the theme, he built a new superstructure above the original chord changes, his right-hand lines embellished with Chopinesque grace notes and other filigree. When he returned to Porter's original melody, its simplicity sounded striking by contrast.
And in the best ballad reading of the set, "My Foolish Heart," Miller again reveled in the beauty of the original melody line, though altering it rhythmically by lingering on some notes, rushing ahead with others. The rhapsodic nature of this performance uniquely suited the impetuous character of the song.
One portion of Miller's performance, however, proved less convincing: his account of "Monk's Dream." Here Miller's easygoing delivery and smooth-and-silk touch sacrificed some of the bite and snarl of Monk's music. This became particularly apparent when drummer Rodney Green played solos, the vigor of his attacks and the explosiveness of his delivery more appropriate to the material.
Green and bassist Ivan Taylor, longtime Miller collaborators, both contributed significantly, Taylor's declamatory lines counterbalanced by Green's staccato phrases and evocative brush work.
When Miller and friends took Dizzy Gillespie's "Woody 'n You" at a ferocious clip to close the first set, there was no question that this trio had upped its game from last time.
Mulgrew Miller Trio
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com