Thursday, February 21, 2013

Review: Swim - Joel Miller

Personnel: Joel Miller: tenor sax; Geoff Keezer: piano; Fraser Holllins: bass; Greg Ritchie: drums

On his jazz blog on the Ottawa Citizen website, Peter Hum judged Joel Miller’s Swim to be one of the top jazz recordings of 2012.  Swim is also in the running for a Juno award (Canada’s Grammy awards counterpart) for best contemporary jazz album of 2012.  I was grateful to Hum for bringing to my attention Ben Wendel’s Frame, one of my favorite recordings of 2012, so I thought I should give Swim a listen.

Swim begins strong with “Teeter Totter,” with a mid-tempo, gentle, swirling melody.  Miller has a warm, capacious sound on tenor (reminiscent of Geoff Vidal’s sound), which he uses to play aggressively lyrical, somewhat impressionistic phrases.  Keezer contributes a solo with lots of elegant, precise lines, almost classical-sounding.  Miller closes the cut with some more improvisation.  This is appealing, light-on-its-feet jazz with an urban feel.

“Honeycomb” is a straightforward, upper mid-tempo tune.  Miller plays a strong, swaggering solo, and Keezer’s solo is confident and in-your-face.  The two of them then play an intricate, lengthy line in unison.  Ritchie plays a drum solo intercut with phrases from the piano and saxophone, then Miller reads the melody to close the cut.

“Afternoon Off” has a relaxed, mid-tempo melody.  Miller shows off his command of the saxophone from the bottom to the top in a laid-back, lyrical solo.  Keezer plays a beautifully-controlled, Chick Corea-ish solo with some impressive technical flourishes; he just eats up the pleasant changes and relaxed tempo.

“Time of the Baracudas” is a pretty tune in a brisk 6/4 time.  Hollins plays a skillful, melodic bass solo, after which Miller and Keezer play another lengthy, intricate line in unison, which sounds like a transcribed improvised solo (but they forego any actual improvisation).  Then Ritchie plays a crisp solo interspersed with phrases from the ensemble.

“Drop Off” has a folk-ish melody that could have been written by Pat Metheny.  Miller shows a good command of the altissimo register in his skillful solo, which is probably prettier than what Michael Brecker or Chris Potter would have played, though perhaps not as virtuosic or ambitious.  Keezer plays fleet lines in his solo, which catches the spirit of the tune beautifully.  Miller and Keezer trade fours a few times to close out the tune.

“MarkAdamDrum” has a clever, disjointed melody.  Miller plays a slightly funky solo in a Bob Mintzer style.  Keezer’s solo is bouncy and bluesy and too brief.  Ritchie displays some nice drum work in between ensemble passages.

“Step into My Office” is like an up-tempo version of Charlie Parker’s “My Little Suede Shoes,” having a quicksilver melody line with sax and piano in unison.  Unfortunately, the brief sax and pianos solos don’t accomplish very much.  Ritchie gets in a nice little drum solo.

“This and That” is a mid-tempo, bluesy swinger with a strong melody and a Monk-ish bridge.  Miller and Keezer play solid solos, which have a chance to breathe compared to those of the previous tune.    

“Nos Etoiles (Intro)” has a pretty, folk-ish melody, which, in “Nos Etoiles,” is taken at a slightly higher tempo and given an almost rock beat, making it sound like a pop tune, but a good pop tune.  Keezer goes into a sparkly solo with McCoy Tyner-esque lines, and Miller spins out one pretty line after another.  Keezer and Miller then play another fast line in unison.  This tune feels very natural to the group.  (For some reason, I want to say this tune sounds “Canadian,” but I’m not sure why.  It does bear some resemblance to some Canadian folk/pop music I’ve heard before.)

The recording ends with “Jobim,” a brief cut with an out-of-tempo minor key melody with ascending and descending triplet figures, which gives the recording a quiet send-off.

Swim is a recording of very ear-pleasing post-bop jazz played by more-than-competent musicians, but it also has an air of playing it safe and by-the-numbers.  I wish there were more tunes like “Nos Etoiles,” on which the group seems to have a stronger identity than on the rest of the recording.  Miller has plenty of technical ability on the saxophone, a good sound, and is virtually a machine for producing pretty improvised phrases, but a lot of the music here just never takes flight.  I look forward to Miller’s next recording, though, with the hope that he might add some spice to his highly-accomplished, charming music and more clearly mark it with its own identity.

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