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With his dark shades and black/white garb on stage, master bassist Robert Miller seems like a cool cat out of a 1950s Hollywood casting of a jazz musician. But he’s much more than that. The 60-ish player is leader of Robert Miller’s Project Grand Slam, a band formed nearly 10 years ago to perform a fusion of rock and jazz that’s both familiar and fresh.
“I am as much a product of rock as I am of jazz,” Miller acknowledged in a recent conversation at the Palm Two in midtown Manhattan. “I love them both equally.”
Over a salad lunch, the New York born and bred Miller outlined his valiant effort not only to keep a sound initially made popular in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, but advance it using a young generation of musicians not necessarily schooled on the same influences as he was. He draws on a pool of musicians, what he calls, “my international cartel.”
To that, the plucky player with an energy beyond his years added, “All around the world there are trained musicians who have gone to schools like Berklee in Boston. I just send out an email that I need guys — a great saxophonist say — for a certain date and they give recommendations. It always works out in time.”
Introduced to his enduring ensemble of a sometimes revolving door of members (“I have three or four variations”), the band plays an ongoing monthly residency at a Greenwich Village jazz den called The Groove NYC. There he works out new tracks, or unique arrangements for covers of rock classics done with a unique twist.
One such cover performed during their July date was the second single off The Queen’s Carnival, their latest album: a cover of The Kinks’ great rock hit “You Really Got Me,” with guest vocalist Lucy Woodward, is getting attention; Kinks' co founder Dave Davies even lent his support and, “We're still waiting on a reaction from Ray [Davies, the older brother].” [video clip: https://youtu.be/aQ7R83qO2lw]
Miller’s PGS continues to play other NYC venues. In May 2016 the band opened for four-time Grammy Award nominee Boney James at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in New Jersey. In June, the band was the featured performer at the Kirby Center For The Performing Arts in Pennsylvania.
Miller further noted, “Those songs I had played before a rock audience. We played a gig in November at the Gramercy Theater — we opened for Scott Weiland formerly of Stone Temple Pilots a week before he passed. We were one of three other acts — all hard rock bands like Weiland’s. We played before a completely rock audience and it went great. I knew we could play before any audience.”
While bandleader Miller is a high-minded jazz aficionado possessed of chops equal to any living jazz great -- having been trained by the likes of Jimmy Garrison -- his influences range beyond the usual that the jazz genre reflects today. That’s because, like it did with so many young people of his generation, the ‘60s British Invasion had a pivotal impact on his musical education.
And, it provided much of the spark that pushed Miller into playing bass guitar rather than a horn or keyboards. Project Grand Slam has, to quote one critic referring to their latest single, “The Rescue” — “a timeless, youthful passion.”
He laughs, “I became a bass player when I was 16, playing in a rock band formed with friends. We all had acoustic guitars that we were learning to play that we made into electric guitars by taping a microphone from a small reel-to-reel tape recorder onto the guitar.
“We bought Beatles sheet music and I noticed that there was a line on the bottom for the bass clef. I already played the trumpet so I knew the treble clef while my buddies were struggling to learn it. So I volunteered to learn the bass. And my entire musical career evolved from that!”
In those days, from high school during the ’60s on, Miller played in or fronted bands mostly under his name. Four bassists — Paul McCartney, Cream’s Jack Bruce, BS&T’s Jim Fielder, and Vanilla Fudge’s Tim Bogert — were crucial inspirations. In the ‘70s he became a fixture in the Boston music scene as a founding member of the jazz fusion band Sagov, playing with acclaimed musicians such as Sonny Stitt, Jaki Byard, and Anton Fig.
In the 1990s, The Robert Miller Group was formed. The band’s first CD, Child’s Play (1994), featured several of self-penned compositions and included guest musicians Fig, Randy Brecker, Jon Lucien, Al Foster, Tim Reis and Tony “Thunder” Smith. The band played the Telluride Jazz Festival, the San Bernadino Jazz Festival, the NYC Downtown Jazz Festival and many well known clubs including The Blue Note and Birdland.
Along the way, he learned the music business, both the legal and label managing aspects, as well as musically, which lent him the confidence to soldier on releasing four other albums on his own terms before this latest one. The band also had a featured role in the hit NBC-TV series Lipstick Jungle starring Brooke Shields, with five of the bandʼs tunes on the soundtrack.
As Miller noted, “The core group of musicians that I work with are still the ones who did this album — and all but one will be there on August 16th when the band officially celebrates the release of The Queenʼs Carnival (Sony/RED).” The new album — which is officially out on the 19th — features nine original tunes written by Miller including the premiere single “The Rescue.” Mostly instrumental, it is textured and diverse, applying influences from Latin to Celtic and everything in between, while staying true to the PGS sound.
The record is a bit more rock while the live show demonstrated more jazz inflections. Explained Miller, “The sax player you saw was the most jazz-oriented one I have had in the group. The other guy — my main guy — plays with effects and pedals. I don’t want people to know he’s playing the sax. I love sounds that make it so indistinguishable — it works great with the band.”
He added, “On the record I have three songs I call my Arena songs; the first track, “Beyond Forever,” is really a tribute to my favorite group, Return To Forever and [its leader] Chick Corea’s a major influence. I love all these guys [identified with fusion such as Miles Davis] but I do not set out reproduce what they do. I combine influences.
“The other two songs — “Gorilla" and “Lucky 7” — I actually wrote imagining them being played in Madison Square Garden where you don't usually find jazz musicians there.”
As outlined in Wikipedia, “Jazz fusion — also known as jazz-rock — is a musical genre that developed in the late 1960s when musicians combined aspects of jazz harmony and improvisation with styles such as funk, rock, rhythm and blues and Latin jazz. During this time many jazz musicians began experimenting with electric instruments and amplified sound for the first time, as well as electronic effects and synthesizers. Many of the developments during the late 1960s and early 1970s have since become established elements of jazz fusion musical practice.”
And that pretty well sums up what one gets either listening to the recorded band or seeing them live in one of their permutations. The only question is, “How much of an audience is there for jazz fusion?” There’s alway been a serious jazz audience, but that’s been for classic straightahead jazz.
Says Miller, “I know that it has an audience but it’s not my niche. I didn’t want to go down that path. For a number years, I’ve been considered a contemporary jazz artist but that’s very open designation. So many things go into that [label]. I hate smooth jazz; to me, it’s elevator music.
“And it doesn’t reflect the other aspect of my career — the rock n roll which I played for 20 years like the British Invasion stuff. I took classic rock and tried to reimagine what I grew up with. I looked for a way and went down the middle between rock and jazz. Some have called fusion; there’s no other name I have for it. It has the power and beat of rock but the improvisational complexity of jazz. I’ve looked for the mid ground and in my search for it I’ve come up with Project Grand Slam.”
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