After too long of a hiatus, drummer Jim Miller’s Dream Box Media, Philadelphia’s only independent jazz label, is releasing recordings by the city’s homegrown talent again. This time, though, Miller is the leader
of the project, as well as the composer of all of the CD’s, Miller Time’s,
music (except for Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s "Cool"). The names of the talent on Miller Time
will be familiar to those who have followed Dream Box Media’s past releases. His friends--Mark Knox, Denis DiBlasio, Jim Ridl, Jef Lee Johnson, Steve Varner, Tyrone Brown and especially vocalist/lyricist Suzanne Cloud--are back to combine social commentary, straight-ahead jazz, overdubbing, unexpected intervallic choices, electronic effects, propulsive rhythms, ironic snippets of spoken broadcast segments, and extraordinary, unpredictable improvisation in their own sweet way.
The CD starts with one of those broadcasts, revealing itself as a put-on at the last moment, when the "announcer" says: "Do you have any idea what it is.... what you’re actually hearing? Some kind of progressive jazz?" Now that introduction could be taken in a number of ways, particularly if it were taken as an address to the listener. Giving Miller Time
the benefit of the doubt, the fifties horror-show parody sets up a description of what’s to follow. But more than "progressive jazz" follows. For instance, skipping ahead to track #11, "nineleven" uses Jef Lee Johnson’s electric sitar to suggest a beginning deceptive calm before all hell breaks loose. For "nineleven" recalls the individual horrors of that event as studio voices read New York Times
transcripts of actual cries and pleas from 9/11 victims. Thus, they transcend the description of "progressive jazz" as Miller’s back beat and documented sounds of horror and theatrical exhortations and DiBlasio’s free improvisation commemorate the victims. Most startling is the ironic re-creation of one authority’s voice, proving that they were as confused as anyone else when she warned the World Trade Center workers to "stay where you are. The tower is secure."
But beyond "nineleven," Miller Time
contains numerous other highlights, particularly the track of a live performance of "Suzy’s Upright" at Rowan University, where DiBlasio leads jazz studies. A lightly swinging waltz, "Suzy’s Upright" merely and supremely entertains as DiBlasio takes the suggestions of the melody and gracefully unfolds them into a fully developed improvisational whole. Pianist Jim Ridl is as imaginative as ever, particularly in bringing to life the underlying possibilities of the relatively simple tune, "Eudemonia," which DiBlasio performs on soprano sax. Extending the tune beyond its repetitive phrases comprising the melody, Ridl works in chord substitutions and rolling accents before DiBlasio returns for a minimalistic solo creating sketches rather than embellishments.
Suzanne Cloud’s presence is felt on tunes like "Cool," which bears little resemblance to the West Side Story
version as she and Knox stretch the melody almost beyond recognition while Miller provides the percolating energy under the streaming lyrics. More conventional--but not really--is Cloud’s lament about the American dream lost, "American Fado." E.G., "Once we had something real./It’s gone now.... lost./Remember when we/Fought for freedom?/Tell me/What do we fight for now?/America./Our dreams were stolen away/By patriot thieves./Slaves power and greed:/The new gods./ Tell me what do/We live for now?/America." (Or that could be: "Tell me what do we live for now, America?" which would change the meaning.) Nevertheless, that’s the Suzanne Cloud we’ve known in the past with her caustic social and political observation, take it or leave it, thereby joining the ranks of past jazz social commentators like Charles Mingus or Max Roach/Abbey Lincoln. Even in the absence of the electronic effects and displaced accents of "Cool," "American Fado" consists of uncommon modulations and unexpected harmonic resolutions. And so, the element of surprise prevails throughout Miller Time,
as we would hope.
But all of Miller Time
is not politically driven or effects-laden. Tunes like "Sonoluminescence," combining crashing light and glowing sound, as it title implies, exists purely for the joy of the music as DiBlasio, Ridl and bassist Tyrone Brown take the potential of the song and run with it.
After several years of absence from the voices of Miller Time,
it’s good to have them back as sassy, musically inspiring, uncompromising, observant and technically impressive as ever before.