Set To Release Fifth Album The Jury Is Out on September 22
The music on The Jury Is Out, Muhler's breakthrough fifth album, establishes this Bay Area pianist and composer's formidable gifts. It comes as the decisive step in a meticulously conceived career strategy that leaves little to luck but doesn't avoid embracing risk. And as for the rules, let Muhler speak for himself.
"I've never followed the correct path toward being a 'jazz pianist,'" he insists. "There are so many rules about what you can and can't play and how the proper interpretation should be done for this style or that style. It's almost stricter than classical piano."
Outspoken and opinionated, intellectually restless, quick both to laugh and challenge in conversation, Muhler brings these contradictory energies into the five seven original works that comprise The Jury Is Out. These compositions are difficult yet accessible; they embrace traditional structures while encouraging the members of his quartet to push themselves toward their highest capabilities of improvisation; and they complement the leader's distinctive keyboard style, which combines the profound understatement of Monk, the melodic eloquence of Jarrett, and elements that belong to Muhler alone.
There's contradiction even in the presentation of these performances. Though recorded live at the Hillside Club in Berkeley, Calif., the audience is almost completely absent from the final mix. "It was a great evening," Muhler says. "They gave us a standing ovation. But I left applause only at the end of the first two tracks because I don't really like to hear applause on records; it always makes me push the button to get to the next one. To me, it's always been about the music."
Perhaps the greatest of the many contradictions in Muhler's career is that he is about to emerge as an important creative force just as he celebrates his 60th birthday. While more typical players grab for the brass ring before the ink dries on their Berklee degrees, Muhler took a roundabout route that included a 20-year run as a stay-at-home father for his two daughters.
He never neglected music during that time. Having built a strong foundation through a combination of formal piano instruction, R&B and rock gigs beginning at age 12, a long association with guitarist and revolutionary innovator Dave Creamer, and co-leadership of the progressive jazz quintet Mobius, Muhler wove a regimen of strict practice into his schedule of caring for Alexander Cristina and Zoë. He composed too, doing soundtracks for Of Men and Angels as well as for other films and video projects. But his performances were rare; most of them involved improvising accompaniments for dance classes that ranged from experimental companies to the Oakland Ballet.
Rather than think of these as years of lost professional opportunity, he sees them as essential in preparing for the leap he makes with The Jury Is Out. "No one can quantify what you get from life experience; you just know that without it you're screwed," Muhler says, punctuating the thought with a typical explosive burst of laughter. "When you try and get your first gig when you're 20, you might do something crazy, like lash out at a club owner somebody for being an idiot - which I've done. But when you've lived successfully, you become a lover of life and everything that it entails - children, misery, suffering, love, all of it. You get compassion with age. You get the maturity to plan your career path slowly but surely, as I've done. And that has to inform the music you play and write too."
So do the twists that can insert a sharp turn into even the most carefully charted path. Muhler has had his share of these, from chauffeuring Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival to discovering at age 18 that his grandfather was the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley, once reviled as the most evil man in the world. But Muhler has learned to welcome and benefit from the unexpected too.
Whether Crowley's personal behavior was bad is somewhat irrelevant to me," he says. "What's important is that he was amazingly prescient. He knew what was going on. And as a musician I'm actually happy that occultism is nothing without practice. I do magical tricks with music because I practice a lot. You get music to the point that it appears to be magic, even though there ain't no magic. The only magic in the universe is the magic that we create ourselves."
This helps explain the spells cast by The Jury Is Out, though as Muhler makes his mark that title will surely prove untrue. "Well, the jury is still out on me," he says. "I'm just a strange and different person. I've always felt that way. But now we're calling that into court to hear my case."
Release date: September 22, 2009