Now 51, Mulgrew Miller's been through all the best jazz finishing schools: Stints in Duke (led by son Mercer) Ellington's Big Band for august swing, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers for hard bop, the backing trio of vocalist Betty Carter for improvising on the fly, and, due to college at Memphis State, close-up exposure to that city's blues-jazz piano tradition via Phineas Newborn Jr. and James Williams. All that and more is packed into Volume Two, which follows the cover-laden first set of that 2002 Kennedy Center date (contained on the widely praised Volume One) with four Miller originals among the five tracks.
The pianist's thunderous intonation often gets him compared to McCoy Tyner, and especially on the first three cuts there are passages when each of his fingers could be ball-peen hammers on the keys. But rather than resonate a la Tyner, Miller prefers the rapturous melodic swirl of Oscar Peterson, and the intrepid, suite-like structure of nearly every song (the shortest is 9:26) gleefully includes both thunder and swirl. The lone standard, “Old Folks,” is also the only ballad, the forte of bassist Derrick Hodge, whose woody solo is delightfully straightforward. The first third of the 16-minute closer, “Eleventh Hour,” is solo boogie-woogie blues from Miller, followed by breakneck hard bop from the trio deserving of a standard ovation — at the Kennedy Center or in your den or local coffee shop.