Music in the Air
Being jazz correspondent for Platinum Mind can lead to discoveries and ‘Music In The Air’ from US musician Mark Christian Miller, featuring renowned West Coast musicians Jamieson Trotter on piano and arrangements, Mike Gurrola on bass, Kevin Winard on drums, Larry Koonse on guitar and Danny Janklow on alto sax, is an example.
Miller has built a reputation as a musician. In the album’s liner notes, author James Gavin says, “When Mark Christian Miller sings, he’s talking to you, with the warmth, clarity, and intimacy of a fine conversationalist. Underneath it all is a gentle jazz pulse that makes his singing float on air. He has an effortless rapport with musicians, for he knows how to listen.”
Hailing from Storm Lake, Iowa, but now resident in Los Angeles, Miller is familiar to many on the West Coast jazz circuit. He surrounds himself with gifted musicians, and on this, his third album, pianist and arranger Jamieson Trotter, brings fresh takes to every song, using both the musical lines and the spaces to great effect.
Miller completed the music program at Los Angeles City College and was noticed by Teri Merril-Aarons, LA Jazz Society Founder, who started booking him in top venues, pairing him with gifted accompanists, one of whom was pianist Gildo Mahones (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Lorez Alexandria, Lou Rawls.) After meeting the legendary pianist Page Cavanagh at a jam session, Miller began booking, recording, and performing with Cavanaugh, sharing the billing in a series of performances with Anita O’Day.
Miller has been a music booker and promoter and programmed the popular summer music series at Descanso Gardens for twelve years. He was Associate Producer of four LA Vida Music Festivals at the Ford Amphitheater in Hollywood and has booked hundreds of evenings of music in luxury hotels and upscale restaurants and nightclubs. With Corniche Entertainment, he has worked with the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, The Dubai International Jazz Festival, Blues Alley in Washington, DC, Jazz Alley in Seattle, the City of West Hollywood and the prestigious LA Made series at the Grand Central Library in Los Angeles where he worked with Hubert Laws.
In this recording, you get the sense of a wealth of experience and understanding of jazz music coming to the fore in some splendid interpretations of numbers familiar to many, yet here delivered with an individual mindset, which is entirely engaging.
Sam Jones’ Del Sasser’ opens the album, and immediately you are taken back to the time of big performance jazz numbers. Miller’s vocals are true, tuneful, and clear, while the sax solo from Danny Janklow is well-worked and delivered with aplomb. Miller also introduces the listener to his gift of scat singing. Boy, can he scat. The bass rises from nearly every pause, revealing something of its sinuous line working its way throughout the number—a great opener.
Petkere/Young’s ‘Lullaby Of The Leaves’ is swingy, and Trotter’s arrangement suggests panache and style, which the musicians deliver. Miller’s voice purrs through the number, velvety and smooth. The musicians demonstrate their finesse as the drums and guitar give superb solos, adding to a gentle, enjoyable listen. Additional lyrics are by Miller and Trotter and work well here in the vocalese section.
Gryce/Hendrick’s ‘Music In the Air’ begins with the ensemble working together before the sax heralds the entry of Miller’s vocals, which again deliver an elegant take on the number. The track is peppered with solos from sax and piano, and the respect shown to the bebop style of the composer here is infused with reference and respect, Miller’s scat interlude offering a musical delight that both captivates the listener and works well in this richly arranged number.
Rainger’s atmospheric ‘I Wished On The Moon’ features compelling bass lines from Mike Gurrola, over which the guitar trembles its opening lines, adding to the mysterious atmosphere of this number. Miller includes a recitation from the 1956 poem by Pablo Neruda, “Ode to a Beautiful Nude.” His vocals range across octaves and enhance the number. From almost whispered lines to melodic lyrics, the number provides Miller and the musicians with many interpretive opportunities, which they fully develop. Miller sails into upper chest voice for his scat section on the number – and does so with the same accuracy as his lower chest voice. The poetry included fits the number perfectly. The finish is exquisite, with Miller’s voice exploring different lines over the ensemble.
Miller’s lyrical interpretation of Warren Zevon’s ‘Mutineer’ tells the story of a rough sea voyage relating to a troubled experience with love. The narrative tells the story well, the piano lines suggesting a rumbling storm just waiting to erupt, while Miller’s vocals offer emotion, vulnerability, and a sense of the traveler warily navigating his way.
Tadd Dameron’s ‘If You Could See Me Now’ has fine vocal lines, a ruminative guitar solo from Larry Koonse and is delivered with flair and gentleness, the voice and instruments interacting at times as if the voice were the sixth instrument in the ensemble, yet rising to tell the story of the song when required with style and clarity.
Cole Porter’s ‘Too Darn Hot’ is a joyful delivery, full of mischief and naughtiness, from the vibrating strings of the bass in the opening to the desire to play and let go in the lyrics. A sleazy smoothness works its way deliciously into the number, aided and abetted by the divine vocals of Miller as he gives the possibilities in this Porter number a real workout. The drums are the backline power on this number, ringing changes in rhythm and pace, to which the ensemble and vocals respond. The piano works a glorious solo just into the track’s second half; Trotter clearly relishing the freedom Porter’s number affords him. This is just about the stand-out track on the album, though it is hard to pick any one.
Ellington’s ‘Prelude to A Kiss’ is a mood change, and Miller’s voice rises and falls delicately over the steadfast accompaniment. Once again, he demonstrates the gift of his voice, which is understated yet quite beautiful in its delivery. The sax solo is glorious.
On ‘ Music In The Air’ Miller demonstrates his ability to interpret jazz numbers with respect to the composers, with his own take inextricably intertwined. He has the uncanny knack for delivering well-honed vocal lines, along with changes in volume, accents, and emotion, which makes the vocals as interesting as the instrumentation. Helped by the intensely worked arrangements, this album is a joy to listen to, the vocals lifting, the ensemble solid, and the music heavenly.
Miller paints musical landscapes, each one complete on its own but also holding a relationship to the rest of the track choices. The lyrics are crystal clear, which means Miller has to deliver them with the appropriate emotion – and he does this and more. The coming together of the impressive vocals over crazy-good arrangements and musicians who interpret the music intuitively creates an album that captivates the listener. Miller’s vocal language is the stuff of dreams.
Buy this, put it on, let the music wrap around you, and feel the warmth as it embraces you.