Pianist Millar Shows Promise At Pizza

 Millar

As the example of Artist Share amply demonstrates, crowdfunding initiatives apply as much to jazz artists as they do their peers in pop. At the end of this launch event for his debut album Unnatural Events, pianist-bandleader Tom Millar makes a point of acknowledging the Kickstarter campaign that partly enabled the recording to happen, and it feels very much like a reality check for the music industry in an age of shrinking budgets and diminishing returns. On stage, the figures are in a better state.

Millar's quartet has the premium of musicianship and technical prowess that is increasingly commonplace among millennial college graduates. Indeed the Royal Academy alumnus has very able support in double-bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado, drummer Jon Scott and guitarist Alex Munk. Each has sufficient skill to handle the demands of compositions that have a structural complexity that is anything but pedestrian. Millar's writing is part of a lineage of polished modernism whose building blocks are to be found in the holy trinity of Herbie, Chick and Bill Evans, but whose additional masonry has pleasing echoes of their scions, namely Pat Metheny and Brian Blade. At its highpoint the performance reaches a poetic, pastoral grace, notably on 'Azura Days', a piece that is defined by a lengthy, spiraling theme, played in tight unison by Millar and Munk, that resolves in short, singing phrases that glide swishly over a steady latinesque rhythm enhanced by Scott's crisp, clicking rimshots.

A similar attention to detail marks songs such as 'The Seafarer', and 'Park Hill', yet for all these undeniable plus points there are moments when the music is found wanting in terms of internal dynamics and emotional charge. Impressive as he is, guitarist Munk is given too much solo space, often taking a high-flying lead that is a touch overwhelming. Millar, by contrast, doesn't expand some of his improvisations enough to really wring the most out of the material, and a sense of restraint, if not timidity, in some of his phrasing lessens the impact of pieces where the intent is high energy. 'Power Chord Thing' is a case in point. The title is transparent but the promise of a hard edge in the groove doesn't materialise, as if the players just won't let go, toughen up and rock out as their command of the beat suggests they can. It makes you wonder what they could achieve if they were spurred on by a more experienced player or producer with a pedigree who can challenge and stimulate his charges, be it a Jason Yarde or a Django Bates, Millar's former tutor.

Interestingly, the moment when that convincingly happens is the arrival of vocalist Alice Zawadzki on a very finely wrought adaptation of Gerard Manley-Hopkins' 'Inversaid'. The poet's thought-provoking ode to the environment, penned with much vivid descriptive energy following a visit to a Scottish loch, translates into a series of undulating melodies and darting counter-lines that have the urbane beauty of Corea's interplay with Flora Purim in the first iteration of Return to Forever. Yet amid all of the sophistication there is a robust rhythmic undercurrent that is more stirring than anything else heard throughout the whole evening. Millar's quartet is a band with an obvious potential as well as talent, but as is the case with a number of artists in the early stage of their careers there is a developmental path stretching out before them.

How, and with whom they proceed to negotiate it should be interesting to observe.

– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photo by Emma Perry

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