Music for Music: Dave Miller: Choosing Joy
Images by Mikel Patrick Avery
By Dan Ursini ©2021
The COVID-19 era is about many things, but joyful sunlit release is definitely not one of them. Yet that is precisely what comes through in the music of guitarist/composer Dave Miller’s self-titled current album on the Tompkins Square label. I asked Miller about this, and he replied, “Though the album was released in the heart of the pandemic, all of this music was written and recorded pre-COVID, so it wasn’t a conscious reaction to our present isolated reality. Nevertheless, the songs are politically charged, some more directly than others. It’s the individual’s choice as to how to respond to these existential issues, and maybe a way of summing up this record is that it is me choosing joy.”
According to Miller, the album was recorded in fortunate circumstances: “This session was the maiden voyage for my recording studio, Whiskey Point Recording. I had 100-150 songs to sift through since the last record I made (Old Door Phantoms) was released in 2016. I invited [bass player] Matt Ulery and [drummer] Devin Drobka over for three straight days of tracking with me and had Dan Pierson engineer the proceedings. We hadn’t rehearsed beforehand, nor was any of the music written out. We’d take an hour or two learning each song and coming up with an arrangement. Dan and I spent a good amount of time overdubbing keys and more guitars, and later had Juan Pastor record percussion on many of the songs. Turns out we had a record on our hands.”
Expansive energy animates this album’s eight songs, all instrumentals. There is pure fun in the muscular rhythms, droll sound effects, and headlong urgency of “Rollerblade or Die.” Miller remarks, “This song feels like it could go off the rails at any time, which is what makes it fun and engaging. To me, Juan Pastor’s percussion really stands out here.” Pastor is indeed excellent on this track. The whole rhythm section plays a key role in the success of an album where the groove is vital—but the music is much different from the jazz that Miller is known for.
Dave Miller first and foremost is a guitarist, a musician of exceptional technique and talent. Concision and impact count for a great deal in his playing, particularly in the seven-minute “Bison Boom.” This song is energized by a series of tightly focused guitar solos; each brings a dramatically different chapter of the narrative forward. The music maintains a resolute pulse that gradually grows in sonic scope.
Miller explains, “I feel like this song has a direct link to my time spent in Tulsa with musicians Chris Combs and Paul Benjamin. Paul’s music directly descends from the ‘red dirt’ sound of J.J. Cale, Leon Russell, Jim Keltner, etc. To my ears, a lot of that music is about establishing a vibe and then not letting it move. This takes a lot of skill and restraint—and it feels great when you hit the zone.”
All the songs are very welcoming. Miller remarks, “Listeners have told me on many occasions that my music sounds ‘familiar’ but not derivative. To me, that’s a really nice compliment.” The compositions work on a lot of levels; but things get wilder the deeper you go. Miller explains, “I like songs that have multiple layers to them, where the listener can feel fulfilled on a surface level but can also choose to dive deeper.” And in a song like “Your New Truth,” Miller seems determined to achieve the heaviest impact through the quietest means. The music begins with lush guitar runs over a softly tumbling background, then settles into a quiet soul ballad groove that acquires a quiet searing intensity, highlighted by a perfect organ part by Dan Pierson.
“Fellow Man” is imbued with moral illumination. Miller says that the song is a tribute to twenty-year old Heather Heyer, killed in 2017 during a vehicle-ramming attack of a peaceful protest in Charlottesville, Virginia. There are two versions on YouTube. One is from the album:
The other is a solo arrangement, done specially for Fretboard Journal:
The song evokes the gentle good will of the protest, the swerving violence of the attack, and the enveloping power of compassion.
What strikes me most about this album is how it evokes a deep sense of elation as you listen. It does so through the melodic vitality and structural inventiveness of the music; and the fluidity and strength of the playing; and its capacity to joyfully reach the heart.
Dan Ursini and his wife Valerie live in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years he has done many kinds of writing. Ursini served as the first resident playwright for the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago (1978-1983); he worked for ten years as a Contributing Editor for Puerto Del Sol magazine; he wrote performance art pieces presented at Chicago venues as Club Lower Links and Club Dreamerz. Ursini wrote radio theatre presented on NPR in the early 1990s. Throughout all this, he has worked full-time at the Law Library at DePaul University where for a decade he also wrote articles for Dialogue, the DePaul law school’s alumni publication . In addition, he was active for some years as a bass guitarist in various Chicago blues/gospel/funk/lounge configurations. Currently Ursini is working on his latest novel. A play he wrote with Robert Rothman, A Mensch Among Men, a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish Chicago-area gangsters, recently had two staged readings in Chicago. Dan can be reached at: email@example.com
Images of Dave Miller by Mikel Patrick Avery