OCT. 8, 2014 --- After Pete Mills finishes teaching a class Wednesday morning on Duke Ellington the tenor- saxophonist chats about his coming show at The Jazz Room, marking a rare appearance in his home country.
"I have spent much of musical career in the U.S., teaching at various universities, and also performing," Mills says. "I am just grateful for the opportunity to play music, particularly back home."
The Saturday show at The Jazz Room follows wide-spread acclaim for his fourth and latest CD, Sweet Shadow. (www.petemills.com). It was recorded live in the now-closed Cellar in Vancouver. That club was operated by the tenor-saxophonist Cory Weeds, who also played The Jazz Room twice in the past
Mills says he recorded Sweet Shadow on Cory's label, in part, because he wants to bring his music back to Canada more often.
"I was very excited about how the project turned out," Mill says. "The music turned out better than I deserve."
Mills made Sweet Shadow with Matt Wilson on drums, New York guitarist and composer Pete McCann, New York bassist Martin Wind and Columbus-based pianist Erik Augis. Mills is not bringing this group to The Jazz Room for the Saturday gig though. He will be playing with first-call musicians familiar to club regulars, David Braid on piano, Ted Warren on drums, John Maharaj on bass.
"I have played with John Maharaj, actually in Michael Occhipiniti's band, recently here in the United States," Mills says. "I have followed Ted's career and I have followed David Braid's career, and admired him from afar for many years. I am so excited to play this music with them because they are fantastic."
Mills says he learns new things about his own music when he plays it with different musicians.
"New stuff happens, and it's always fun. I think these guys are open, open to whatever happens in the moment, and that's the way I am trying to live my musical life these days," Mills says.
When the guitarist Pete McCann heard that Mills was coming to The Jazz Room, McCann praised the venue.
"He spoke highly and fondly of it as one of the greatest places to play," Mills says. "I have caught wind of the The Jazz Room, and I have heard Ted Warren play many times, and I approached him recently with this project, and asked him if he would be interested in playing with me and interested in booking me."
The Guelph-based drummer Ted Warren is The Jazz Room's artistic director.
After growing up in Toronto, Mills attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. Coincidentally, Mills roomed with the local tenor saxophonist Dave Wiffen while studying in Rochester. Then Mills did graduate work at North Texas State.
These days, Mills lives in Columbus, Ohio and teaches jazz at Denison University, a small, private school. Mills plays in mid-western jazz clubs, and as a soloist and member of a big band called the Columbus Jazz Orchestra. He also anchors a quartet that hosts a long-running jam night at the Park Street Tavern in Columbus.
Mills plays The Jazz Room on Saturday, and then it's over to Toronto to play The Rex on Sunday. He will visit his mother on Thanksgiving Monday, and then head back to Columbus for his weekly jam. For 10 years his Columbus quartet hosted the weekly Tuesday-night jam at the Park Street Tavern.
"They are important," Mill says of jam sessions. "They are a great opportunity to develop the sound of the band, and as important to share and learn from everyone else too."
Growing up in the North York section of Toronto, Mills studied saxophone with Peter Schofield and Pat LeBarbera, one of Mill's heroes.
Mills father was a huge jazz fan, and took young Pete to George's Spaghetti House to hear the great tenor saxophone player Scott Hamilton.
"I remember it vividly because my dad took me there for dinner," Mills says. "We heard Scott play, and the next day was a Saturday morning and I got out my saxophone and I think I played in bedroom for three or four hours trying to figure out what was up."
Mills dad was a member of the Toronto Chapter of The Ellington Society. Ellington's music was played in the house a lot, along with Louis Armstrong.
"One of the things with this record, Sweet Shadow, in all my records now I record something by Strayhorn. In addition to Ellington, Strayhorn was my dad's favourite composer, Billy Strayhorn," Mill says.
Among Mills' most beloved possessions are three autograph books his dad owned.
"I have Louis Armstrong's autograph, James P. Johnson's, Fletcher Henderson Band from the Palais Royale dated in the 1940s. Yeah, it's nuts," Mills says.
His dad attended one of the most famous jazz concerts in history --- the 1953 Massey Hall show with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Bud Powell and Charles Mingus. The recording of that show -- "The Quintet" -- is one of the best selling jazz records of all time.
"He was there, he went back stage, he told Bird how much he liked his tie, and Bird gave it to him," Mills says. "Nobody remembers where the tie is, but I have Charlie's autograph from that evening. It's in pencil. It's in the autograph book that also contains Louis Armstrong's autograph, James P. Johnson's. And it says: 'I remain Charles Parker.'"
The Bird's autograph was photographed and included in the liner notes of Sweet Shadow, in part, as a tribute to Mill's dad.
"I'm proud of that," Mills says.