|Don Pullen, Toronto, 1991|
I heard about Don from my friend Tim Powis, a colleague at Nerve magazine and my tutor as I tried to learn about jazz. He told me that Pullen was playing a solo gig at the Cafe des Copains, a basement piano bar in the old downtown, and that I should really go; he was a big fan of Don's band with saxophonist George Adams. I asked him what Pullen sounded like.
"Well, sort of like Cecil Taylor, but a lot more melodic," Tim told me. "He actually plays songs."
|Don Pullen, Toronto, 1987|
I showed up with my Spotmatic and shot a half roll of Don playing from a dark corner next to his piano, but my low-light shooting skills were pretty rudimentary and there's nothing worth scanning. During his break, though, I approached Don and asked if I could take a few portrait shots. There was some awkward business with where he'd put his hands, so this shot ended up being the best of the lot; you can see his shirt sticking to his skin; it was a summer night, after all.
After getting my photo, I made my way to where Tim was standing and he pointed out an attractive blonde sitting at a table in the corner. Pullen made his way over and sat down with her.
"That's Jane Bunnett - she plays sax and flute, I think," Tim told me. "I grew up with her in Forest Hill."
I'd learn later that this was the first time Jane talked to Don, and that she'd given him a tape and asked if he'd be interested in playing with her. Remembering it years later, Jane said that Don was friendly but noncommittal, and that it took months of phone calls before she was able to talk him into playing with her on the gig that became In Dew Time, her first record.
|Don Pullen, East 85th, Toronto, April 1989|
I met Don again almost two years later, when he had begun playing regularly with Jane. She'd booked a gig at East 85th, a jazz club in Toronto's old downtown, which ended badly when the landlord padlocked the club halfway through their booking, leaving the band outside on the sidewalk in the rain.
It was, even before that, a rather tense gig. Don wasn't a big fan of photographers shooting him while he played, especially if they set their flash off in his eyes; two years earlier, I'd seen him hold up his hand and shout "STOP THAT!" when someone's flash started popping during his set at Cafe des Copains.
It would take me another year or so to convince Don that I would never shoot with a flash while he was playing - I didn't like the look of flash in concert photos in any case. But years of dealing with photographers, professional and amateur, who couldn't shoot in the dim light of jazz clubs and concert halls had made Don wary.
There was a photographer in Toronto who regularly ignored pleas from Don and other musicians, and would turn up at shows with his flash blazing and a bag of records for musicians to sign. (I'm told he's still at it, amazingly.) At a showcase theatre gig in the early '90s with Jane, Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden, Don spotted him stalking around the stage during the soundcheck. He pulled me aside and pointed him out to me.
"If I see him set off that flash in my eyes again," he told me, "I'm going to jump off the stage and stomp a mudhole in his ass."
I was relieved that I wasn't that photographer at that moment, and grateful that, at long last, Don knew that I wasn't.
|Don Pullen, Toronto, April 1989|
Don was an intense man. I think I caught a bit of that when I convinced him to sit for a portrait session with me, in my Parkdale loft just around the corner from Jane and Larry's house, at some point during the East 85th gigs. I was, at this point, intent on trying to get decent portraits of every interesting jazz musician who passed through the city, nurturing as I was a wholly improbable ambition to become the next William Claxton or Francis Wolff.
|Don Pullen, Toronto, April 1989|
I photographed Don with the new grey seamless I'd just bought, using the cool, even north light that came in through the windows of my loft. Perhaps I'm projecting, but I can't look at these photos without seeing Don appraising me rather coolly - an inexperienced kid fumbling his way to something at least technically competent.
If you look closely at Don's knuckles you can see the calluses from years of playing with his unique piano style - scooping up big clusters of keys with the back of his hand and tossing them down the piano. He was the perfect mix of the traditional and avant garde musician, with a "churchiness" to his playing that really came out when he played the Hammond B-3 organ with David Murray.
Later that summer I'd shoot Jane and Don together for the CD booklet of New York Duets, and a year later Don was back in town for some concerts promoting the record at the Top of the Senator. I wanted to challenge myself to shoot live music the hard way, so I left my Nikon at home and brought my Rolleiflex, a tripod, and a rented Widelux panoramic camera. I was desperate to get something different from the run of the mill concert shots, but I also thought that Don would appreciate me shooting him with the Rollei's nearly silent shutter.
|Don Pullen, Top of the Senator, Toronto, 1990|
I ended up with this single, very successful frame, which made all the effort worthwhile. A part of me has always imagined it as the cover for some comprehensive Mosaic Records box set of Don's recordings, but I'm not sure that anyone has ever seen it. Technically I was becoming a better photographer, but that didn't seem like enough.
I photographed Don again when he came through Toronto with his trio featuring Santi Dibriano and Cindy Blackman. I shot them separately and together with my new strobe gear, but decided to use the shoot to experiment in the studio with the sort of "flash and burn" photography that I'd been seeing in live shots of grunge acts. I set up my strobes around Don and his band, but aimed an old 750 watt fresnel light into the white backdrop, turned off the modeling light in the strobe and set the camera to a relatively slow shutter speed.
|Don Pullen, Toronto, April 1991|
The results, with their mix of colour temperatures and hot ghost shadows, were close to what I imagined, but I couldn't think of anyone to show them to, and they remained unprinted and unseen until today. Even if I'd been a bit bolder, I don't know where I would have sold these shots back then and, frankly, it was Photoshop that allowed me to really pull out all of the potential I imagined in them, almost 25 years ago.
The last time I saw Don was in New York; I ran into him at a show in Brooklyn and he gave me a drive back into Manhattan in what I remember as a particularly large '70s era sedan - a Lincoln or a Cadillac. We chatted like friends, and I remember being grateful for his years of generosity and forbearance with me. Not long after that I learned that he was sick.
Don Pullen died of lymphoma on April 22, 1995.