Montreal-based saxophonist / composer Joel Miller
brings an impressive resume to bear on Unstoppable,
a large-ensemble recording aptly described in an accompanying press release as "a 21st-Century chamber symphony." In a career spanning more than two decades, Miller has earned a number of high honors including a Grand Prix Award at the Montreal Jazz Festival for his debut album Find a Way
(Ithmus, 1996), an East Coast Music Award for Dream Cassette
(FamGroup, 2016) with vocalist Sienna Dahlen, and a Juno Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album (Swim,
Origin Records 2012), which was named Jazz Album of the Year by La Presse
and the Ottawa Citizen.
Based on those exemplary credentials, and Miller's enviable reputation as a jazz composer and arranger, what can reasonably be said about this eclectic album, which is essentially unlike any of those that preceded it?
Perhaps the best way to begin is to accept and honor the designation "chamber symphony," for that is what this is. For the most part, Unstoppable
comprises lovely, well-written and thought-provoking music that would hardly be out of place in any reputable concert hall. As for its link to jazz, that rests in large part on one's definition of the term. If the core precept of jazz is, as most aficionados would argue, improvisation, Unstoppable
would assuredly lose that argument. Yes, there are a few brief moments of what seem to be unrehearsed ad libs but they are so engulfed by the score's symphonic primacy as to be more gratuitous than necessary.
Having said that, it should be noted that Unstoppable
has much to recommend it, from Miller's elegant compositions and arrangements to crystal-clear sound and a letter-perfect performance by the ensemble. The jazz content, however, remains minimal. Yes, there is rhythm, but almost all music has that in some form or other, and even rhythmically, Unstoppable
is for the most part rather far removed from the edgy cadences generally associated with jazz. To carry out his plan, Miller employs what is essentially a fourteen-piece group that embodies two trumpets, the same number of flutes and clarinets, one bass clarinet, a tenor saxophonist who doubles on clarinet, one horn and a five-piece rhythm section (piano, guitar, bass, drums, percussion). He also enlists (on the first three numbers) a guest conductor, the well-respected saxophonist Christine Jensen
, who oversees the prefatory "song story" ("Gyre," "A Party," "Change of Scenery"). No, she is not able to transpose Miller's themes into anything resembling jazz. The remainder of the program consists of a six-part medley, "What You Can't Stop"; the four-part Deerhead Hoof Suite,
and one stand-alone song, "Dance of the Nude Fishes." Nice music but, again, more "chamber symphony" than jazz.
For purposes of grading, should one overlook the fact that Unstoppable
is broadcast as a jazz album but contains precious little jazz? Or perhaps award a high grade with an asterisk to lay bare its true nature? Or instead, write an impartial review that spells out as clearly as possible in layman's terms what the album is and is not. Yes, that should cover it.
Song Story: Gyre; A Party; Change Of Scenery. What you Can't Stop, Pts. 1-6. Dance Of The Nude Fishes; Deerhoof Suite: Intro; Pachamama; How Do You Breathe?; Finale.
Joel Miller: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, conductor; Billy Kerr: flute; Nadia Sparrow: flute; Mark Simmons: clarinet; Luc Jackman: clarinet; Jennifer Bell: bass clarinet; Bruno Lamarche: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Jocelyn Veilleux: horn; Lex French: trumpet; Bill Mahar: trumpet; David Ryshpan: piano; Erin Donovan: percussion; Steve Reagele: guitar; Fraser Hollins: bass; Kevin Warren: drums; Sacha Daoud: percussion (2, 6-9); Kullak Viger Rojas: percussion (2, 7, 8); Christine Jensen: guest conductor (1-3, 10).