Doug Schulkind's
Sound Mind

What I See When I Hear Don Pullen

When I listen to the music of pianist Don Pullen, two flash-bulb images accompany the VU meters flickering inside my head. The first is that of a sweet-faced toddler, her eyes opened wide in a state of wonder, her mouth open, too, halfway to a smile. This little girl graces the cover of Healing Force, Pullen's first album from 1976. She's not identified but I've always imagined her to be Don's baby daughter. The other image in my cerebral scrapbook is more live-action short film than snapshot. It's around 1980 and Don is at the piano playing with the repertory band Mingus Dynasty. Charles Mingus had died the year before and some of his ex-sidemen formed the group to keep their boss's music alive. A few minutes into the piano solo on "Haitian Fight Song," something amazing happens. Pullen begins throwing down a series of ferocious righthand clusters -- one of his trademarks -- when, shockingly, he dislocates a finger. In obvious pain he attempts to shake the throbbing digit back into place, all the while continuing the tonal barrage with his left hand. Without hesitation, Pullen completes his musical statement, then steps off stage to address the injury. This odd choreography comes off so matter of factly, I get the distinct impression he's done this dance before.

Don Pullen passed away three years ago last month and it saddens me to this day that his name remains relatively unknown. Don was a true triple threat. He could play it straight ahead, take it way out, or explore that peculiar space in between, which is where you'd usually find him. With Don, form and structure were typically under assault yet there was beauty to behold in every single note he played.

I pull out my copy of Healing Force and set the needle down on "Tracey's Blues." Sure enough, those images come flooding back. The tune starts slowly, a minor chord sets a scene of deep melancholy. I picture that little girl, held safe in the musical embrace of her loving father, and my mind wanders to thoughts of my own father and his inhibitions around expressing himself emotionally. Is it the music that's making me blue or is it the free association? The mood breaks a bit as Pullen inserts a passage of humorous atonality. I think back to his astonishing performance that night and see him sitting there, hands flailing wildly -- one just above his right thigh, the other putting a serious hurt on a Steinway baby grand. The vision of this man so singularly bent on self-expression has captivated me all these years. The tune closes out sweetly with a hint of 12-bar blues. I let the record keep spinning and the needle finds its way to the center label.

Doug Schulkind
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