Dominic Miller: From Sting to ECM

Luca Muchetti By

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Dominic Miller's debut album for ECM, Silent Light, has all the qualities to become a sensation. After a career spanning nearly five decades during which he has lent his versatile artistry to the likes of Phil Collins, Tina Turner, Steve Winwood, Peter Gabriel, and Sting since 1993, Miller has released a very intimate and elegant quasi-solo album for Manfred Eicher's label. This record, the eleventh as a leader or co- leader, is a honest self-portrait in music, reflecting Miller's international upbringing and extensive travelling, through refined textures, colors and atmospheres.

All About Jazz: This album sounds like a rich diary of your musical journey: from your early days in Argentina up to your current life in France. Yet the instrumental set-up of the album is minimalistic: it's an almost- solo album. Can you explain this apparent contrast?

Dominic Miller: I always identified with Segovia when he said that a guitar is like a mini orchestra. Of course it would be easy to be more specific stylistically by employing instruments and sounds from all my influences but the whole point of this album was to try and create these moods using a small six stringed polyphonic instrument, a guitar. In addition, I wanted to fit in with the label's sound and production aesthetic so I kept it simple and ambiguous. Anyway, that's my excuse.

AAJ: Percussionist Miles Bould is the only other musician you wanted for these recording sessions. Do you think there's a link between this choice and the strong influence of latin music in the album?

DM: Miles was the right percussionist for this album for various reasons. I find his playing selfless and somehow transparent. It doesn't draw attention to itself and only enhances the music. Also, there were some tunes for which I felt that I needed something like a human pulse so I could dance around the beat with more freedom. I can't help hearing, playing and arranging music in a syncopated way which probably comes from my Argentine roots.

AAJ: Silent Light has also a strong live approach: no overdubs, no electric or electronic parts or patterns, unplugged instruments only, strings and wood. The sound itself is very smooth and pure... raw material. This choice puts the album in a sort of folk dimension. Do you think that this atmosphere has something to do with your identity as musician?

DM: I do agree. I guess I am kind of an old folky hippy growing up listening to a lot of Neil Young, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Bert Jansch and many others. Then I was exposed to modern jazz and rock which was more electric and eclectic. But I always identified with the acoustic sound which speaks to me more. I like the community aspect of being able to reproduce music around a kitchen table or under a tree which isn't really practical or authentic with electric sound.

AAJ: In Silent Light there is a form of storytelling without words. Comparing this kind of work with what you usually do in studio with Sting, is your creative process different? How much is your music influenced by words, or by their absence?

DM: I believe strongly that instrumental music has a kind of narrative. I am very influenced by lyrics too, having worked with some incredible songwriters. I like to arrange my music in the same way... form, strong melody and arrangement. There's usually a theme or concept I try to narrate which can often be found in the title.

AAJ: There's a movie by Carlos Reygadas with the same title as that of your album. In this movie silence, together with light, plays a central role. Can you tell us something about the function of silence in your music?

DM: I believe what you don't say is as important as what you do say, and sometimes more. Silence and space are crucial in music, art, literature, food and just about anything. Miles Davis was one of the pioneers exploring space in modern music. I also believe that by creating space you make it possible to have a kind of interactive dialogue with the listener which, in turn, makes it a more inclusive experience.

AAJ: Is there a colour, an atmosphere, or a story that a guitar can't tell or describe?

DM: I haven't found one thus far. I can even make scary sounds on my guitar, with which I used to terrorise my sister when growing up.

AAJ: Is there another musical instrument you'd like to master?

DM: I wish I could play the piano. I marvel at how great pianists think and harmonise.

AAJ: Pat Metheny and Egberto Gismonti are two of your favorite artists on ECM: what's the lesson you learned from them?

DM: When I listen to them I feel they are communicating with me. I'm also inspired by their sense of harmony and by their skills as instrumentalists. But it's their total lack of ego which has made it possible for me to do what I do, enabling me to have a go. Same way as the Beatles made it possible for other musicians to write songs. The best musicians usually combine brilliance with generosity which Metheny and Gismonti do. It's almost like they are asking, "what do you think?"

AAJ: This is your debut for ECM Records, what does it mean for you?

DM: It's a huge privilege and responsibility because I am fully aware of the stellar roster I am a part of. I want to make music and interact with the listener the same way all ECM records have done with me. I must say I am very excited about this collaboration.

AAJ: How did the collaboration with Manfred Eicher come about and what was it like working with him?

DM: Manfred reached out to me by way of a few people we know in common. I must have been on his radar. I went to meet him and we immediately hit it off. We listened to music and exchanged ideas, giving each other an idea about mutual taste and direction. Then when we got in the studio it was incredibly easy working together mostly because we were clear and trusting. We just knew it would work. Very surreal in a way because it's as if we had known each other for a long time.

AAJ: How was recording in the famed Rainbow Studio and working with sound engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug?

DM: Jan is probably the best engineer I've ever worked with. There was a beautiful moment when I arrived at the studio. I pulled up a chair and positioned it randomly somewhere in the room to warm up. A few minutes later Jan casually put some microphones in front of me. Maybe I'd expected some kind of ritualistic process for the setting up, but it was just like that. It surprised me because with all his knowledge of his studio's acoustics I had imagined he'd have a special aspect for guitarists. This quickly put me at ease and a mutual trust was established. I wasn't facing the control room and I know nothing about Fengshui but I do believe that according to magnetic north, whatever degree I was positioned must have been a good one.

AAJ: "Fields of Gold" is the only non original tune on the album. Why did you choose this song from the large repertoire of compositions by Sting?

DM: I have been playing "Fields of Gold" in my solo set for a few years mainly because I like it and because it sits well in my repertoire. Also I felt it was important to include a Sting song because my career has kind of been defined by that association so it's a way of acknowledging and thanking him.

AAJ: Do you remember your first encounter with jazz, and the first jazz record you purchased?

DM: As a child growing up in Argentina it was more Stan Getz and Bossa Nova which is kind of jazz. Then Miles Davis which I didn't understand or know what it was but I always identified with it. As I was growing up and becoming a musician I veered more towards modern jazz bands like Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever and others. The first Jazz album I bought was Romantic Warrior by Return to Forever.

AAJ: As your bio states "Born in Argentina to an American father and Irish mother, guitarist Dominic Miller was raised in the U.S. from age 10 and then educated there and in England. Now he lives in France." Your career has taken you all over the world. How much influence have you received from the various international music traditions and styles you've encountered?

DM: Huge. With Argentina the folklore and rhythm, with USA the blues, jazz and songwriters, with UK the epic rock bands and with France the unique approach to songwriting which comes from classical music. I think the key is to acknowledge your influences and even quote them in your music without trying to make it like you came up with it. All I do is arrange my influences on the floor and put them together creating different moods, patterns and shapes out of them. The sources are there for all to see. What I do with them is my fun and my experience. I guess I could call it my music but it all comes from somewhere.

AAJ: Do you think that jazz has historically been a "proactive" or a "reactive" genre of music?

DM: Hmm... both I would say. Personally I don't believe there was ever a stronger time in jazz as with Miles and Coltrane. That's when the bar was set. I think many genres of music look up to that time and certainly emulate its concepts. Weather Report was another that has been copied over and over. It's very rare that I hear something really original these days. I think more and more people are investigating Eastern European classical music for new ideas. Like an oil well that hasn't been fully exploited or drilled from. The concept of jazz, which is speaking the language of music, certainly lives on and isn't going anywhere.

AAJ: According to Frank Zappa "Jazz is not dead; it just smells funny." How does jazz smell to you today?

DM: It smells funky! There are many great players and bands out there. There are fewer new flavours though or the vocabulary hasn't really grown. A lot of players are over-quoting the older guys from the 50's and 60's which is fine but I think we're all ready for someone to come along and shake things up a bit Hendrix style.

AAJ: Will music save the world?

DM: This is the best question! Yes it can. With the world the way it is I don't think there's ever been a better time to really say something. To really protest using harmony as a language. It's there for the taking and there's a huge void. I'm hoping there's a young Hendrix or Miles getting ready to shake things up. I believe there is and I'm all ears.

Photo credit: Steven Haberland

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