Joel Miller
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Joel Miller

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Joel Miller has been considered one of Canada's most forward-looking, refined young jazz musicians - but something happened to the 35-year-old tenor and soprano saxophonist in early 2002 that "made me begin to dream up music differently." The feeling eventually bloomed to a "new, magical level" when Miller brought New York guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel to Montreal for a gig at Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill, and was consolidated in sessions with drummer Thom Gossage. A year later, in November, 2003, the music was set for a return visit by Rosenwinkel and the recording of Mandala, released in September, 2004 by Effendi Records.

The result is Miller's most fully realized work in a career that's seen him collaborate with like-minded modernists Ingrid Jensen, Ben Monder, Brad Turner, Steve Amireault, studied with Dewey Redman and Kenny Wheeler, and enjoys a fruitful personal and musical relationship with the alto saxophonist Christine Jensen, among many others on the percolating Montreal scene.

Mandala is an ancient Sanskrit word that also describes a symbol - a circle enclosing a square - that philosopher Carl G. Jung likened to a "symbolic representation of the 'nuclear atom' of the human psyche - whose essence we do not know." It's this place, coming from a child-like intuition and feel for music, says Miller, that inspires the sounds on Mandala.

Triggered by the sleek sizzling opening title romp, Miller and cohorts venture into a fascinating song cycle - characterized by "short, earthy, folky melodic impulses in pentatonic major modes" - called Mandala because "they encourage healing much like the way visual Mandalas appear in dreams" or the way children draw them. Miller expresses a wide range of emotions over 14 songs, from "my impish side" to a reflection of war's folly, from wistful memories of a Paris sojourn to fantasies about moon people.

It's also his most meticulously recorded album, at Radio-Canada's state-of-the-art Studio 12, capturing the inspired vibrancy of the playing. His finely wrought compositions are matched by the richness of the sound the musicians elicit from their instruments. Not to mention subtle samples of "birds (the common snipe), wineglasses, ice sliding on ice from Grand Lake in New Brunswick, and acoustic piano with wah wah pedal."

The relationship with Rosenwinkel is a product of the amicable Montreal-New York inspirational shuttle, and the guitarist is at his most elegantly adventurous in five lengthy pieces (Mandala, Swing la bas caisse, Shopping, Moon People, Now that I Own a TV). Performing at the intimate club Upstairs with Rosenwinkel left Miller with "a good Kurt guitar sound in my head in order to write something new for him. I wanted to write something that would be a dialogue between us. This is what happens in the second part of Shopping. I used some of the same type of harmony that I discovered working on the piece 'Hidden Inside' from my very first album Find a Way. I wanted to explore the sound of having the fifth in the bass like the Beach Boys tune 'God Only Knows.'"

He wrote some of the music while staying at CitĀŽ des Arts in Paris in 2002 with Christine Jensen, who was on a composing sojourn. "I have a really happy memory of this time. I worked a lot on my horn there. The lessons that I'd had with Dewey Redman the year before brought me back to the basics of saxophone playing. What did my horn sound like anyway? I would play a high D or D# and hold it and say to myself, Why not play it like its already music? Play it like I'm singing the note and it's part of a song."

Miller, Rosenwinkel, fellow-Effendi artist Gossage (whose Other Voices band Miller has played in) and bassist Fraser Hollins (a close collaborator with Miller and Christine Jensen, and heard on the latter's Effendi discs A Shorter Distance and Collage) are joined by trumpeter Bill Mahar (who plays with the progressive big band Altsys and recorded with Miller) and clarinetist-flautist-tenorman Bruno Lamarche (a klezmer adept). They're among the cream of Montreal's percolating pan-cultural jazz and new music scene.

Jazz at its most fanciful and modern, Mandala also shows the tenor-player branching out with an intense lyricism on soprano sax on several numbers (the elegiac Fell to Pieces). Occasionally, low in the mix, he's heard singing wordless Bjork-like vocalese, and adding subtle, spare electronics.

The sense of wunderlust that begins Moon People is matched by its challenging structures for sorties, as does the story behind it: "When I was a kid I remember walking with my brother Nate on the frozen marsh one winter night back in Sackville, New Brunswick. I looked up at the moon and it had a halo around it. He was really into U.F.O.'s at the time so anything unusual spotted in the sky was suspect. It looked so strange to us that we made up this explanation that the halo was actually made up of thousands of tiny moon people celebrating. We figured that if we listene