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Milligan-Eagles Project CD Release with Adam Nussbaum

John Kelman By

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Milligan-Eagles Project with Adam Nussbaum
Theatre of the National Library
Ottawa, Canada
March 3, 2005

With the ink still fresh on their new CD, Milligan-Eagles Project featuring Billy Kilson, double-bassist Mike Milligan and guitarist Wayne Eagles brought their music to a sizable crowd at Ottawa's National Library on Thursday, March 3, 2005. While the CD features drummer Billy Kilson, ex-member of double-bassist Dave Holland's Quintet and Big Band, touring commitments with trumpeter Chris Botti made it impossible for him to be on hand for this CD release show. Fortunately, Milligan and Eagles were able to recruit Adam Nussbaum, a drummer who has played with a wide range of artists over the past thirty years, including guitarists John Scofield and John Abercrombie. In fact, Nussbaum's experience with Scofield's aggressive power trio of the early 80s and Abercrombie's organ trio of the early-to-mid-'90s made him the perfect player to round out this trio which, while clearly leaning towards fusion, does so with the more thoughtful approach of groups like Abercrombie's Gateway project with Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

With negligible rehearsal time, the trio was surprisingly tight while, at the same time, demonstrating the kind of loose improvisational approach that makes the CD such a treat. Opening up with Milligan's riff-heavy "Skunk Theory," the group set the pace for the whole evening, featuring Eagles' scorching solos combined with Milligan's ability to maintain a strong forward motion while, at the same time, being responsive to his surroundings. While the CD was recorded live in the studio with little, if any, in the way of overdubs or editing, clearly being in front of a receptive audience pushed them to explore even further. Eagles peppered carefully considered melodies with rapid-fire and smoothly-executed legato lines a la Allan Holdsworth, with the occasional speed picking thrown in for good measure.

As much a textural player as linear one, Eagles is disposed towards peppering his solos with chord shots and odd sound effects that flesh out the sound of the trio. And, while his playing was more prone to extroverted displays of skill and speed than on the CD, he also demonstrated a light touch and more tender side on Milligan's ballad, "Like Water," which also featured a particularly melodic opening solo by Nussbaum, as did the group's rendition of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints."

Nussbaum, in fact, combined power, dexterity, groove and melody throughout the show. Soloing over an ostinato during the trio's take of Holland's "How's Never," Nussbaum demonstrated just how broad his reach is. While Kilson clearly comes from more of a funk background—and Nussbaum is certainly capable of stepping up to a groove, as he did on the closing "Exit Wounds"—his roots in the tradition are also more evident, making "Like Water" swing more than it does on record. His ability to divide and subdivide time is nothing short of remarkable and, while he had negligible time to prepare for the show, his ability to navigate the compositions—in and out of regular meter—shows just how adaptable he is to any situation.

Milligan is an intriguing bassist, one who combines steady time with a penchant for more free devices during his solos, where unusual chordal passages alternated with abstruse yet melodic lines. He meshed nicely with Nussbaum on a 5/4 interpretation of Miles Davis' "All Blues," with a solo that was both lyrical and adventurous.

And, while the group plainly worked within set structures, they also took some credible risks, in particular during the free improvisation that preceded "All Blues." One doesn't often hear local players tackle completely free playing, but Milligan and Eagles were clearly up to it, with Nussbaum playing a greater role as colourist. And Eagles' open-ended introduction to "Plankton Comes Alive" demonstrated that, while his interest may be in looser improvisation, he has a real penchant for more aggressive and effected Hendrix-like rock tones.

To get a close-to-capacity crowd out on a Thursday night for an evening of adventurous improvisation in Ottawa is a rare thing. Certainly there were a number of musicians in the crowd who were attracted to the opportunity of catching Nussbaum in a relaxed and informal setting (and, let's be honest, it's not as if he makes it to Ottawa on any kind of regular basis), but the crowd was equally demonstrative towards Eagles and Milligan, with rounds of applause and hoots of appreciation common throughout the 70-minute set.

With Eagles living in Ottawa and Milligan in Toronto, it's uncertain whether or not this project will become more than a studio project with the occasional live performance, but on this evening a group of appreciative fans were treated to engaging compositions and strong performances from all involved, and a particular treat in Nussbaum, a player who affirmed his reputation for sheer musicality, regardless of the context.

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