Joel Miller makes an excellent case for continuing education. Twenty years after winning the career-boosting Gran Prix of the Montreal Jazz Festival in 1997, and releasing his debut album, Find A Way (Isthmus/Page Music) in the same year, the Montreal-based saxophonist returned to his alma mater, McGill University, to complete his studies for a Master's in Jazz Composition. The result of his return to school is Unstoppable, music from a twenty-first century chamber ensemblean orchestra-recording without strings that earns Miller a spot in the top tier of current big band jazz composer/arrangers.
Miller finds inspiration in Afro-Peruvian folk music, indie rock and large-ensemble jazz, and he brings it all into the sound on Unstoppable, beginning with the three part rhapsody, "Song Story," that shimmers to life with "Gyre." The arrangement is done with a soft touch, with swirling reeds, giving way to part two, "A Party," featuring a loping rhythm and Miller's screaming tenor sax enmeshed the ensemble's driving momentum.
Miller has crafted three multi-tune works, beginning with the previously-mentioned "Song Story," followed by the centerpiece, the six part "What You Can't Stop," the closing four part "Deerhead Hoof Suite," inspired by the San Francisco rock band Dearhoof, with the stand-alone, get-up-and-shake-your booty tune "Dance Of The Nude Fishes," that features the ensemble at its most muscular, with a back-and-forth tenor sax battle (Miller and Bruno LaMarche) that will set your speakers on fire.
The good-time mood of "The Party" and "Dance Of The Nude Fishes" contrasts with the extended and perhaps more "serious" thirteen minute-plus "What You Can't Stop," a work that boasts an ephemeral yet expansive grandeur, shifting into playfulness and whimsey and back again, before moving into an Afro groove. Indeed, the three suites offered up here have the makings of distinctive and disparate soundtracks. Miller, on these, seems to be telling us intricate and riveting stories-things happen, the story unfoldsbringing Walt Disney's 1940 animated film Fantasia to mind.
The twenty minute "Deerhoof Suite" closes the disc. The "Intro" has an Americana, Aaron Copland feel. "Pachamama" sounds like it would fit into a Maria Schneider album, and it features an achingly beautiful tenor sax solo from Miller. "How Do You Breathe?" has a soaring, lighter-than-air feeling; and "Finale" opens up with some sass before it marches off to this extraordinary disc's conclusion.
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).