This album would be poignant on nonmusical grounds alone since Pullen, who was a world-class jazz pianist and a restless world-music explorer, recorded it seven weeks before dying at 53 of lymphoma last April. But it is equally moving for its contents, the fruit of Pullen’s two-year immersion in Native American music.
A collaboration between his regular band, the African Brazilian Connection, and the seven-member Chief Cliff Singers, a potent ensemble of Native American singers and drummers, this is music of weird and singular beauty. It starts with a wild, desolate chant by the singers (members of Montana’s Kootenai and Salish tribes). When a jazzy shuffle beat and bluesy horns kick in over booming African and American-Indian drums, the music surges with a lurching but magical jolt: the sound of previously unmatched gears meshing to power a new machine. On “Common Ground,” the mournful prayer of Chief Cliff lead singer Mike Kenmille gives way to a lovely, sad piano piece in which Pullen seems to be meditating on his death. On the last track, “Still Here,” Kenmille again calls out, his voice jaggedly rising and falling, and the final silence hammers in the sad fact of Pullen’s premature death. (Blue Note)