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Mulgrew Miller and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen

The Duo

by Robin Kidson

 

 

Mulgrew Miller and NHOP

 

 

In 1999, Danish bassist, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen joined forces with American pianist Mulgrew Miller to record a tribute to Duke Ellington on the 100th anniversary of his birth. The musicians were initially brought together by the Danish electronics firm, Bang & Olufsen. The CD which the duo recorded was then given away free to potential Bang & Olufsen customers at the time. It was not made available to the general public. Now, 21 years later, Danish record label, Storyville, has released The Duo, an Mulgrew Milleralbum containing those original 1999 recordings.

The duo members are sadly no longer with us - Ørsted Pedersen died in 2005 and Miller in 2013. Both had busy and illustrious careers. Mulgrew Miller was born in 1955 and began his career playing with the Mercer Ellington band in the late 1970s. He also played with Woody Shaw, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Tony Williams amongst many others, as well as leading his own group, Wingspan.

 

 

Mulgrew Miller

 

His technique was widely admired by other pianists and his work as a teacher ensured his influence passed on to further generations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here he is playing I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good live in Vienna in 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen

 

 

 

Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen had one of the most complicated names in jazz so, in time, he became universally known by his initials, NHØP. He was born in Denmark in 1946 and was something of a child prodigy on the bass. He began playing at Copenhagen’s famous Jazzhus Montmartre in his teens. As a member of the house band, he played with some of the biggest names in jazz when they toured Denmark. He quickly acquired a fearsome reputation for his incredible digital dexterity – when he was only 17, he had to turn down an offer to join Count Basie as he was legally too young to work in the US.

 

Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is NHØP ripping through his solo with Sonny Rollins in Denmark in 1965. He was only 19 years old at the time:

 

 

 

 

In 1972, NHØP became a regular member of the Oscar Peterson Trio. Oscar Peterson had an appeal which went far beyond the jazz world and often appeared on mainstream television across the world so NHØP enjoyed considerable international exposure. Here he is playing You Look Good To Me live with Peterson in Tokyo in 1983. Joe Pass is on guitar and Martin Drew on drums:

 

 

 

 

 

 

NHØP left the Peterson trio in 1987. Even when he was with Peterson, he was much in demand and played with some of the other big jazz stars of the day including Chet Baker, Lee Konitz, Ben Webster, Anthony Braxton and Dexter Gordon. He continued to do so post-Peterson and also led his own ensembles. His discography is huge as is his international reputation. So when, in 1999, a Danish hi-fi company was looking for a musician to show off their products, who better to turn to than NHØP, a Dane who also happened to be the acknowledged master of his instrument. NHØP chose Mulgrew Miller to be his partner in a celebration of Duke Ellington’s music.

The pairing of piano and bass was a homage to the Duke’s own collaboration with bassist Jimmy Blanton in recordings made in 1939-40. Blanton joined the Ellington band in 1939 and quickly became one of its essential components. He died young in 1942 but is now seen as a pioneer in the development of modern bass playing.

 

Listen to the Duke and Blanton playing Ellington’s Pitter Panther Patter in 1940:

 

 

 

NHØP and Mulgrew Miller recorded their take on the piano/bass pairing in Copenhagen in January 1999. They then went on a long promotional tour. Something must have clicked in the relationship because they continued to play together until NHØP’s untimely death in 2005. Although the 1999 recordings were not generally released at the time, the duo did record a live performance at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2000. This was released by Storyville in 2016 on an album called The Duo – Live!

So now we have The Duo containing the original 1999 recordings. As one might expect from a CD originally meant to show off Bang & Olufsen hi-fi equipment, the sound quality is superb. The bass, in particular, comes through loud and clear.

The album has 12 tracks, mainly familiar Duke Ellington compositions but stripped of their big band arrangements to illuminating effect. The essential tunes emerge fresh as the day they were first conceived and heard. This serves to remind the listener just what great tunes they are and also what a genius Duke Ellington was as a composer.

The empathy between NHØP and Miller shines through on every track. They share the limelight evenly so first one takes the lead in playing the melody or improvising a solo whilst the other accompanies, then they swap. The way they click so perfectly together is seen on a track like Just Squeeze Me. This is an upbeat number guaranteed to get feet tapping. The playing is relaxed and confident with both musicians clearly enjoying themselves and generously supporting each other. The whole piece takes off and hits a most compelling groove.

 

Listen to Just Squeeze Me:

 

 

 

The bass in jazz is so often a background instrument that when NHØP gets to play the melody, the effect can be startling. On Sophisticated Lady, for example, the familiar tune becomes something quite extraordinary in NHØP’s hands. Sophisticated Lady was also one of the tracks on The Duo – Live! album.

 

Listen to this live version here. NHØP’s efforts are complemented by some virtuosic piano from Mulgrew Miller.

 

 

 

 

Talking of virtuosity, NHØP plays some barnstorming bass on many of the tracks. Take Caravan for example on which NHØP sets up the most thrilling, finger blistering bass riff against which Miller plays the melody and also improvises his solo.

 

Listen to the duo playing Caravan:

 

 

 

Both musicians can also do tasteful restraint as well as technical virtuosity. On tracks like Come Sunday, for example, or Solitude, they capture the mood of the pieces beautifully without too much in the way of embellishment. And, when required, each can be the perfect accompanist.

One of the tracks, Blues In The PM’s, was written by Mulgrew Miller and shows what an interesting composer he was in his own right. The piece is in a more modern style than any of the Ellington numbers but the tune is a memorable one and both musicians give it an imaginative rendering.

The final track is an NHØP composition – O.D: Blues. This is another memorable tune with both folk and rock elements; and NHØP’s fingers get another going over. One has to marvel at his technique.

First and foremost, then, The Duo is a fitting tribute to Duke Ellington, finding something new and interesting in his much-played repertoire. It is also a piece of work thrown down by two superlative musicians at the height of their powers who both died far too young. Each of them left substantial legacies of recorded work in all sorts of settings both as sidemen and leaders. In time, The Duo will take its place as amongst the best of that work.

For CD purchase information click here, for samples and and download information click here.

 

 

Mulgre Miller NHOP the Duo

 

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