There's so much to like about Swim
, the just-released disc from Montreal saxophonist/composer Joel Miller, that it's hard to know where to begin. The disc features Miller, who at 41 is well into a rich and diverse career, in that most traditional of formats, the tenor saxophonist's quartet. Over 11 tracks, all but one of which are potent, likeable Miller originals, the music's inspired, uplifting and energetic. Frequently, it's boosted with supplemental pleasures because Miller, whose composing talents first struck me on his 1996 CD Find a Way
, has gone the extra mile creatively.
If I'm not mistaken, Miller has featured a different group on each of his recordings, and this time out, he's enlisted a spot-on rhythm section to make the most of his music. The disc's biggest name is U.S. pianist Geoffrey Keezer, whose full-spectrum accompaniment and virtuosic solos seem like the work of a instant composer. What's more, Keezer, Montreal-based, Ottawa-raised bassist Fraser Hollins and Brooklyn drummer Greg Ritchie, a former Montrealer, sound exceptionally tight-knit and in sync with each other and the demands of Miller's music.
So much of Swim is at once sophisticated and unapologetically hard-core jazz, but at the same the tracks are irresistably catchy, whether rhythm or lyricism are their chief seductions. Afternoon Off, Drop Off and Nos Etoiles are great, singable themes that are epically developed. They make me think that if there's a contemporary Canadian jazz sound that's poppy and positive without sounding diluted, then Miller is one of its exponents. The speedy Step Into My Office is an over-the-top, three-minute thrill. With its memorable melody, rhythmic punches and groovy finale, MarkAdamDrum is a certified crowd-pleaser. Jobim closes the disc beautifully with two minutes of distilled rhapsodic romanticism.
In a nice departure from the rote arranging, several songs, including Honeycomb and the Gil Evans-composed Time of the Barracudas, feature exhilarating, bonus melodic material before the tunes conclude, nimbly executed by Miller and Keezer. They also make me wonder whether outheads that are simply carbon copies of inheads are good idea. More positively, though, they're treats for the listeners that extend the joyous journeys of the music.
More evidence that Miller wants to give listeners more for their money and not simply deliver what's expected: several discrete post-production tweaks add interest at the sonic level, especially for listeners using headphones or earbuds.
Throughout, Miller's playing is smart, passionate and winningly individual. He expresses himself with a warm, friendly sound, girded but not enslaved by jazz tradition, contemporary without being too cool, overly academic or trendy.
With his top-notch material, his own mature and unaffected playing, and such supportive and giving bandmates, Miller made a CD that will surely land on many a Top 10 list at the end of the year.