Joel Miller’s SWIM: a CD review by Stanley Fefferman

My first impression of SWIM (Origin-82613),  saxophonist/composer Joel Miller’s sixth CD as leader, is taken from the tunes as they unfolded. “Teeter Tooter,” I noted with pleasure, is made of melodic and rhythmic forms uttered by the sax, well arranged and sweet–never harsh. Geoffrey Keezer’s sonorous piano pushes the momentum with his well-built solo. Greg Ritchie on drums keeps well-back but fits lovely cymbal splashes into the general decor.

So much for first impressions. After three listenings, I noticed Miller’s melodic motifs are simple, often vivid pairs of 2-note things, as in “Afternoon Off,” and “Drop Off.” One tune Miller didn’t write, “Time of the Barracudas,”(Miles Davis/Gil Evans) is built the same way, and goes to show Miller’s roots, which, to my ear also references Monk. So my story of Miller’s tunes is: simple at the start, tending towards blue ballads that get worked up by short solos to impressive complexity, but never departing from cool. All good.

The strongest performance element on SWIM is Keezer’s piano: his comping behind Miller is always elegant, and his solos everywhere, but especially on “Honeycomb” and “Step into My Office” are a cut above, full of surprises. Miller’s contribution, at all levels, is steady–consistently quality in the writing, arrangement and performance departments. As the album pours out of my speakers, I begin to notice a certain sameness, a lack of surprise. The tunes on SWIM are all good, but would work better for me as singles.

Getting back to good things, the set-list nicely alternates energetic and thoughtful moods, staccato and legato blowing. Solos for drum and Fraser Hollins’ bass are generously distributed and not overly long so the numbers don’t stray from good shape. The band is tight and more fluid the more you listen.

I wouldn’t be surprised if someday one of Miller’s tunes gets to be a big hit single, and, well, wouldn’t that be nice.

Miller’s earlier albums are: Find A Way (1996), Playgrounds (1998), Sky Beneath My Feet (1999), … and then everything started to look different (2001), Mandala (2004), Tantramar (2008). All are worth a listen, especially the last two on the list.

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