In 1990, James Williams and three fellow pianists (Harold Mabern, Mulgrew Miller, and Geoff Keezer) paid tribute to Phineas Newborn on a CD on which they recorded two trio numbers apiece, plus a version of "It Don't Mean a Thing," where the four players took turns on one piano. At the 1991 Montreal Jazz Festival, the same pianists performed together, this time on four pianos. With the addition of Donald Brown as their fifth pianist (although they continued taking turns on four pianos, with one player sitting out), bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Tony Reedus, the Contemporary Piano Ensemble was born. They recorded a set for DIW/Columbia in 1993 and the following year played concerts in 20 cities. Although necessarily a part-time venture, the group also appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival and toured in 1996 for a couple of weeks, showing that it is possible to create swinging, coherent, and surprisingly uncrowded music with four pianos.
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