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Pete Mills: The Anatomy Of A Jazz Release

Mark Corroto By

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Maybe because Pete Mills is old school. He still has his father Ernie's LP library and an autograph book with Charlie Parker's signature in it. I'm guessing that somewhere deep down inside his being, he needs to file Sweet Shadow alphabetically between the music of Mulgrew Miller and Charles Mingus in that same music library. But there is also that question of a tree that falls unwitnessed in the woods. To record Pete's axe in 2013, we can positively state that he has made a sound.

Writing music for this new disc, he drew inspiration from two musicians he has regularly gigged and recorded with, guitarist Pete McCann and drummer Matt Wilson. Both players are musical chameleons, able to change sound and shape according to any situation and both players were featured on Pete's previous discs, Art And Architecture and Fresh Spin. With McCann and Wilson, the possibilities for musical expression are endless. McCann is a member of saxophonist Grace Kelly's band, has recorded as a sideman on over 60 discs, including Anton Webern's music with John O'Gallagher, Dan Willis and The Velvet Gentlemen's Satie Project, and he also stars in the 1970's jazz/rock tribute band The Mahavishnu Project. His shy insurance salesman looks belie his wicked chops. He can switch from sounding like Jim Hall to that of Sonny Sharrock in an instant. Like McCann, drummer Matt Wilson eschews musical labels and genre as limiters. During a performance, he may don a wig and do his best impression of a stadium rock drummer or alternately expound upon Baby Dodds drumming style. He is the class clown who also knows the materials inside-and-out.

With McCann and Wilson, Mills knew he could write complex music and have this band negotiate it without weeks of practice and touring, or ink simple melodies that would blossom in studio with little worries. As his writing progressed, he worked out the music with Erik Augis, his local collaborator and the pianist in Mills' bands for the past ten years. Augis' sound calls to mind mid-sixties Herbie Hancock, one waist deep in tradition, but itching to explode into its own style.

Checking in with Pete over the summer his oft-repeated banter went something like this, "I'm ready—I love these new tunes." Then "I'm not ready—I have to rewrite most of this stuff." "Okay, I'm ready—no, I'm not." When he wasn't playing other people's music in the Columbus Jazz Orchestra or in some touring Broadway musical (this, after all, pays the mortgage), he was woodshedding. That, and scheduling the eventual studio session, coordinating musicians, and engineers, booking flights, finding a videographer, and shopping the concepts to potential record companies.

One year from its genesis, the musicians assembled in New Jersey at Trading 8's studio to record. Matt Wilson suggested bassist Martin Wind from his Arts & Crafts band. An accomplished classical bassist, Wind's bowed bass is the nostrum for Wilson's self-styled hyperactivity disorders. Each came bearing scores of Pete's music, new to McCann, Wilson, and Wind, but, of course now familiar to Augis and Mills from the past summer. As with any successful jazz session, the written music is but a framework which the quintet would build their house.

Over two days the band worked and often reworked the materials. The ease in which the old friends McCann, Wilson, and Mills mixed with the new players Augis and Wind is evident from the recording. The music went in directions not anticipated by the saxophonist. But then, he relied on the players to influence and add flavors to the final product. With studio time left over, Pete and Matt recorded two simple, yet deliciously marvelous duos. I was allowed to hear the rough cuts post-production, and was intrigued to find that most of the final product was cut in one or two takes.

What happens next is expensive. Mixing and mastering a recording is a mysterious and undetectable art that reproduces the music actually played in studio, onto the discs. When done correctly, the listener's experience is three-dimensional and sound is projected as if the quintet is performing in the listener's space. Listening to Sweet Shadow, you can hear the wood of the bass and the warmth of breath flowing through Mills' horn.The mixing process is a negotiation, do you want the drums up front, or is the saxophone the centerpiece? While the 'brand' here is Pete Mills, the music comes forth as a group sound.


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