Jim Miller is a consummate drummer, well-appreciated by fans and musicians alike. A versatile, creative individual, he is also a founder of Dreambox Media, a record label whose output, often featuring Philly musicians, has been prolific and outstanding. On that label, he has put out an occasional CD series of his own called (Jim) Miller Time, and this release provides a retrospective of his playing with varied groups from 1983 to 2005.
The recording's title is copped from both the beer commercial and cosmologist Stephen Hawkings' best seller, A Brief History of Time. Like the proverbial "Time Machine," each successive track takes us one step back from the most recent performances to the vintage ones with music that is is enjoyable and exciting. Although the recording quality varies because in many cases the tracks are snatched from live concerts, the music is audible enough to get a sense of the cutting edge where, driven by Miller's powerful drumming, the various groups push the envelope and make definitive statements. And sociopolitical overtones are occasionally inserted, as in the dirge-like version of "Lift Every Voice" and the social criticism monologues superimposed on "Above the Beltway."
Several of the tracks are from concerts at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. The first, "Oleo," dates from a 2005 live recording. We hear pianist Jim Ridl, saxophonist Ron Kerber, and guitarist Jef Lee Johnson in a fast-paced all-out version of this Sonny Rollins classic. Miller's own "High Point" features solos by Umar Raheem on soprano sax, Denis DiBlasio on baritone, and E.J. Yellen on tenor where the drumming is particularly inspired throughout this track. The performance of Monk's classic "Boo Boo's Birthday" was copped from a terrific CD by the fabulous group Monkadelphia which ran riot in the Philadelphia area a few years ago.
DiBlasio's "Rhino" contrasts the deep sonority of the baritone sax with Dean Witten's marimba work. DiBlasio combines the rich Pepper Adams sound with his own unique facility. But one of the most moving tracks is heard when the late Evelyn Simms sings "By Myself." Though she never achieved fame, Simms was one of the truly great jazz singers. In this cut, she gradually brings out the implicit hysteria of the lonely woman in a way that most singers miss. She wrings the gut out of this song while swinging all the way. Finally, "Fair Tonight" and "Water Dreams" reach back to the early '80s, when electronics and synthesizers dominated jazz.
Topping off the varied musical treats on this CD, the cover art by Miller himself is a delight, and the liner notes contain sophisticated musical analyses. For long-time Philly jazz fans, this release will be a trip down memory lane, and for all others, the music will prove well worth a listen.
Track Listing: Oleo; High Point; Lift Every Voice; Boo Boo's Birthday; Rhino; Below the Beltway; By Myself; Fair Tonight; Water.
Personnel: Jef Lee Johnson: guitar (1, 6), bass (6, 9); Ron Kerber: soprano sax (1); Jim Ridl: piano (1, 5); Steve Varner: bass (1); Tyrone Brown: bass (2, 3); Denis DiBlasio: baritone sax (2, 5); Umar A. Raheem: soprano sax (2); Randy Sutin: marimba (2), vibes (3); E.J. Yellen: tenor and soprano saxes (2, 8, 9); Eddie Green: piano (3); Chris Farr: tenor sax; Micah Jones: bass; Tom Lawton: piano; Tony Miceli: vibes (4); Darryl Hall: bass; George Rabbai: trumpet; Dean Witten: marimba (5); Suzanne Cloud: vocal; Ben Schachter: soprano sax (6); Evelyn Simms: vocal; Bob Cohen: piano; Kevin McConnell: bass (7); Mark Knox: keyboards (8, 9); Gerald Veasley: bass (8).