Friday, 28 November 2014

Joel Miller mixes American roots and Latin jazz in his contemporary sound

WATERLOO ON., Friday, Nov. 28 --- Joel Miller's saxophone case comes packed with inspiration from the Appalachian Mountains, the Mississippi Delta and the folk revival of the early 1960s.

“I love to hear Doc Watson, and blues and actually been doing a bit of that here," Miller says. "Been trying to get into these songs, and playing guitar and learning to sing these songs."

He finds the simplicity inspiring and compelling. (

"When I compose and when I play, I try to sort of keep this simplicity," Miller says.  "That attracts me to that music and that’s what I am trying to bring into the complexity of jazz.  Because people are always talking about  jazz and  how they don’t understand.  I am trying to draw on that visceral aspect of folk music and bring it into the music that I write.”

Having a Cuban cajon player in the band also injects some Latin Jazz into the sound.

The 45-year-old tenor saxophonist from Montreal brings his quintet to The Jazz Room, Saturday, Nov. 29 following a series of shows in the Cultural Houses all over the Island of Montreal. Miller and his band Honeycomb played in the Rideau Showcase last winter in Quebec City.  They won, and the prize was a series of shows in the 24 music venues.

"But the exciting thing about it is we have all this new material, new stuff that I have been writing and arrangements, all this stuff," Miller says in an interview with New City Notes.  "We are growing as a band."

The Saturday show at The Jazz Room has Miller on tenor sax, John Roney on piano (“A total monster piano player”),  Fraser Hollins on bass, Kullak Viger Rojas on cajon and congas, and Kiko Osorio on drums and percussion.

Miller is among Canada's leading jazz composers, performers and recording artists. He won the 2013 Juno  for best jazz CD.

“It was really cool. Getting the Juno Award was incredible," Miller says. "To have recognition after working my butt off for all these years.  To get recognition and an award like that, it was pretty amazing."

The son of a composer who taught at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Miller grew up in a musical family in Sackville. His mother was into jazz and listened to it all the time. His parents decided he would play the saxophone.

 "As soon as I played the first note, it was instant. Instant sort of, it felt right, you know, and I just started taking lessons, and got into jazz listening to the radio, to Gilles Laframboise’s show every night," Miller says.

"I listened to that religiously, and heard Monk, and Coltrane, and Coleman Hawkins, Wayne Shorter, Cannon Ball Adderley. He played everything. And then from there I got into jazz through the saxophone and I started taking lessons from a saxophone player named Donny Palmer who was based in Halifax.  He encouraged me," Miller says.

There was a bass player in Antigonish named Skip Beckwrith who was also a big influence on Mller. There were also a lot of jazz workshops at Saint FX, and he attended as many as possible.
“I went there when I was about 15-years-old, and met a lot of jazz students there, and a lot of people to this day remember me.  Like when I was there I came and played, I was like 15-years-old.  Through that I met Kevin Dean and Gordon Foot.”

Dean and Foot later went to teach at McGill in Montreal. When Miller was graduating from high school he headed for Montreal to play on the streets during the jazz festival.
"We actually made quite a lot of money coming to Montreal when I was a teenager, like 16 or 17. It gave me a real taste for the City of Montreal, and jazz music and the jazz festival," Miller says.

"That was like ’85 or ’86. It was really cool back then, it used to be on St. Denis Street. You could drink on the street and there wasn’t all this stupid sponsorship," Miller says. "Now it’s another scene entirely.  The jazz festival is not at all what it used to be.”

The trips to the Montreal Jazz Festival as a teenager and the busking made impacts on Miller that last to this day.

“It has always been, in the summer time, a great vibe and all that. And as a kid it was just like, wow, this is so cool and so much more interesting than where I grew up. So I got a feel for the city and I studied at McGill University," Miller says.

He graduated in 1996.

These days Miller is leading three different bands.  He lives in St-Henri, a historic neighbourhood made famous by Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones.  Peterson wrote a beautiful piece called Place St-Henri. In Peterson's day the neighbourhood was full of factories and working-class families.  Now it is gentrifying with expensived lofts in the old industrial buildings along the Lachine Canal.

Miller's show Saturday is his first in The Jazz Room.

"I really look forward to playing at The Jazz Room.  And it sounds like people are really taking care of business there. I am thrilled about that.”

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