Joel Miller Makes an Auspicious NYC Debut
A couple of nights ago tenor saxophonist Joel Miller made an auspicious New York debut at Shapeshifter Lab, an intimate, richly tuneful performance of original material with inspired, thoughtful contributions from pianist Gary Versace, bassist Matt Clohesy, drummer Greg Ritchie and guest Ingrid Jensen being her usual down-to-earth, nonchalantly brilliant self on trumpet. What’s the likelihood of a jazz gig with two guys originally hailing from Prince Edward Island (Miller and Ritchie) up onstage? Not as rare as it might seem: the Maritimes have been a fertile incubator for talent in recent years, and there’s an impressively eclectic jazz festival in Halifax at the end of June. That Miller will be there is yet another good reason to go.
Miller’s association with Jensen goes back a ways – he’s married to her saxophonist sister Christine. He and his sister-in law have a familiar repartee and share a fondess for choosing their spots. Jensen waited until her final verse on the first set’s closing number, Teeter Totter, before sharpshooting her way through a deliciously long, chromatically-fueled, blistering salvo of sixteenth notes. Voltage-wise, it was the highlight of the show, although Jensen’s richly ambered, judiciously chosen sostenuto lines in the ballad Warm Lake – a sardonic fishing reference – were just as impactful, moving in a completely opposite direction. Likewise, Miller played with a terse decisiveness throughout the set, letting spaces linger for all they were worth between deftly clustering cadenzas and confidently rippling postbop passages. On the closing number, he held back until just before Jensen’s closing pyrotechnics to color his clenched-teethed phrasing with microtones, then suddenly going minimal and atmospheric to ramp up the suspense.
Miller has a gift for catchy tunesmithing, and the band embraced it, often with abandon. Versace’s glimmering modalities on the bridge added a scary dimension to the otherwise wryly shapeshifting cha-cha romp Step Into My Office. Clohesy made his way deliberately and emphatically through a couple of spaciously funky solos. Ritchie switched between brushes and sticks, adding subtly dark hues from the rims and mist from the cymbals, notably on the sometimes-waltzing, sometimes-swinging, brightly pulsing Honeycomb. There were other times he’d begin with a clave groove and then leave it implied for the rest of the song, or until one Miller’s frequent metric changes. Twin horn harmonies were strong and sometimes unexpectly balmy, other times adding an element of apprehension via Miller’s close harmonies. Laced with occasional humor, his craftsmanlike approach to composition mirrors how he plays: this show made the haul out to the Gowanus richly worthwhile.
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