Remembering the George Adams-Don Pullen Quartet

George Adams (L) and Don Pullen outside KJAZ in Alameda, California, June 1981 (photo: Brian McMillen)

A short list of musicians I most regret never hearing live: King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band with Louis Armstrong in 1923, the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1940 and 1960, Charlie Parker c. 1953, the Miles Davis Sextet with Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones in 1958, the John Coltrane Quartet in 1965.

And I can’t leave out the George Adams-Don Pullen Quartet.

During the decade it lasted, from 1979 to 1989, the quartet was among the best working bands of its time. Adams on tenor sax, flute, and vocals; Pullen on piano; Cameron Brown on bass; Danny Richmond on drums. No group, then or now, so compellingly bridged the gap between avant-garde abandon and gutbucket groove. Everyone who heard this combustible quartet in the flesh says the same thing: Even the group’s best records fail to capture the authority, intensity, physicality, rapture, and humor with which this foursome commanded a room.

“The energy was off the graph compared to anything I’d ever been a part of,” says Brown, the quartet’s lone surviving member. “The intensity was incredible. It was like graduate school to be in a rhythm section with Don and Dannie. It was the band of my lifetime.”

Pullen and Adams contributed most of the diverse material in the book: rolling blues, romantic ballads, modal burners, existential meditations, calypsos, sambas, neo-folk songs, gospel evocations, rambling Bo Diddley beats. Ellington, Mingus, a hymn, or a spiritual occasionally snuck into a set. Wild group improvising touched down like pop-up tornadoes. The band took audiences on a trip, and people hung on every note, even when helter-skelter threatened to level the bandstand. Adams often restored order by singing a raspy voiced blues—until it too morphed into a revival meeting.

“This band is a bitch on roller skates, baby,” swing-to-bop saxophonist George “Big Nick” Nicholas told critic Stanley Crouch one night at the Village Vanguard. “They’ll run you over if you ain’t ready.”

For a sample, turn to Earth Beams (Timeless, 1980) and one of the band’s anthems, “Saturday Night in the Cosmos.” Co-written by Pullen and Frank Dean, it’s the most swinging 5/4 tune in the universe, a soundtrack for a 23rd-century rent party. A power vamp leads to an infectious melody with a syncopated lilt carried by flute and piano. The 32-bar AABA form outlines a blues with a bridge. Each eight-bar A section hits the I, IV, and V chords, and the bridge slips alluringly into the relative minor.

Pullen keeps the left-hand vamp going in his solo. He leans into the blues, and at the top of his second chorus strikes like a cobra. He rolls his rubbery right wrist to play furious glissandos, corkscrews, and clusters up and down the keyboard. Yet he never stops swinging or playing the changes. When he goes “out,” his phrases still breathe, his accents still syncopate the beat, tonality still delineates form.

Adams floats through a bluesy eight bars—can I get an amen?!—before speaking in tongues. His tone is dark as pitch. The notes quaver, splitting like atoms that recombine into mysterious phrases, overtones, squeals, and squalls. Meanwhile, Brown and Richmond move as one, swinging loosely and aggressively, never sacrificing the pocket, even during chaos. The drummer splashes. The bassist digs in. The music transcends.

“This band is a bitch on roller skates, baby. They’ll run you over if you ain’t ready.” —George “Big Nick” Nicholas

The quartet grew out of Charles Mingus’ groups in 1973-75, which coalesced around Adams, Pullen, and Richmond and solidified into the bassist/composer’s last great band with the arrival of trumpeter Jack Walrath. Mingus’ elasticity, pan-stylism, and volatility percolate through the inside-outside aesthetic of Adams and Pullen.

It all came together in the fall of 1979 at the behest of a European promoter, who offered Adams and Pullen a tour as co-leaders. Richmond was the only choice on drums. Pullen recruited Brown because they worked together with drummer Beaver Harris, and because he thought his bandmate would be an ideal mediator between free and straight-ahead impulses.

The chemistry is already palpable on two live LPs recorded in Italy for Palcoscenico (All That Funk and More Funk) in November 1979 and the studio date, Don’t Lose Control (Soul Note), taped the same weekend. Still, the nine subsequent records for Timeless, Soul Note, and Blue Note are more focused. As a pair, Earth Beams and City Gates (Timeless, 1983) capture the band’s breadth.

For all their eclecticism, neither Adams nor Pullen are bebop musicians, which accentuates their idiosyncrasies. Fundamentally, they’re profound blues musicians. Each found a way to funnel free-jazz tropes—Cecil Taylor-ish pyrotechnic densities, Albert Ayler-ish screams—into standard forms and blues elocutions. Both came up in blues, R&B, and organ bands. For years, Pullen played in free groups downtown, grits ‘n’ gravy organ bands in Harlem, and wrote arrangements for singers like Arthur Prysock.

Don’t overlook the creativity of Richmond’s rhythmic tailoring and Brown’s supple strength, as well as his willingness to tend to the groove when everyone else headed for outer space. “I loved playing time with Danny,” Brown says. “And it swung like crazy.”

The Adams-Pullen quartet was a jazz unicorn during its run, embraced by critics and broad audiences. The band typically worked six months a year and by 1987 was placing high in both DownBeat Critics’ and Readers’ Polls.

The party ended in 1989, a year after Richmond’s death of a heart attack. The obituaries said he was 56, but his widow told Brown he was 58. The group soldiered on for a year with a young Lewis Nash on drums. Adams died at 52 from cancer in 1992, and Pullen was gone at 53 from lymphoma in 1995. To paraphrase Pullen’s elegy for Adams, ah George, Don, and Dannie, we hardly knew ya, but bless you for the music.

Further listening

Live at the Village Vanguard (Soul Note)
Muddy sound diminishes the quartet’s two LPs taped at the Vanguard in 1983, but the first features a boisterous reading of Pullen’s nutty “The Necessary Blues.”

Decisions (Timeless)
Somewhat overlooked, this 1984 album boasts a gaggle of winning songs, strong playing, and a soulful Adams-Pullen duet on the hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”

Breakthrough (Blue Note)
Two Blue Note recordings in 1986-87—this and Song Everlasting—pushed the quartet to its popular zenith. I prefer the anarchy and lyricism of the anaugural Breakthrough.

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