For master bassist Robert Miller what matters most is the music. Oh he’s intrigued with how to make the business of music work and can speak lucidly about it. He has wrangled with how to find the best and widest audience for his group, Project Grand Slam, and its unique blend of Classic Rock and Latin reframed into the mold of jazz rock fusion. And it’s a severe understatement to say that he’s a multi-hyphenate or defier of genre classifications.
With that in mind he is faced with the professional and creative conundrum of being caught in the middle; is PGS rock or jazz?; should the music be genre specific or totally distinctive? And in turn, when the music becomes too difficult to label it may be harder to find the right audience. The bottom line, though, is that his music is special and not just like everything else out there.
Thankfully, in a very wide world filled with online discoveries and digital communication there is definitely an audience for PGS. I think a big audience. They’re out there, in the U.S. but also in Brazil, Mexico, the Czech Republic, South Africa, etc. And that’s what makes seeing the band live such an enriching experience as it sometimes shifts and changes in its live form — that international experience is right there in the band.
Miller has assembled what he jokingly calls his International Cartel – a group of young, extremely talented musicians mainly from overseas. Places like Puerto Rico, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, Canada, and Dominican Republic. Together, they take Miller’s compositions and his brilliant Classic Rock covers, and transform the music and transfix the listener.
Witness the recent permutation of the band when it performed material from PGS’s latest album, “The PGS Experience”, at its recent CD release party at NYC’s Rockwood Music Hall. The ensemble that night was comprised of Ziarra Washington (vocals), Mario Castro (sax), Baden Goyo (keys), Tony Greco and Flavio Silva (guitars), Ruben Coca (drums) and Carlos Maldonado (percussion) in addition to Miller on bass, and they absolutely knocked it out of the park. Just listen to their version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” off the disc with Ziarra kicking out the lead vocals and you’ll immediately “get” PGS. When that’s replicated on stage it’s worthy of global embrace.
So such an aural experience warrants pulling back the curtain a bit and asking band leader Miller to explore how he does it.
Q: What’s the process behind your music?
RM: For me it all starts with the rhythm and the groove. I fiddle around until I come up with something I like. And it must have a memorable melody because people respond to and remember great melodies. Next I add the colors – the sounds that fill in the cracks and make the musical painting come alive. Then I decide what solos I want to have in each case based upon the instrument and the song. I rarely have more than two solos per tune. I choose an instrument because I want that specific sound, I want that timbre. For example, on our version of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” we have a sax solo followed by a guitar solo. I felt that I had to have a guitar solo in there. The Kinks were the forerunners of grunge. They were the hardest of hard rock back then. I mellowed out their song a bit in my arrangement but I also wanted to get back to what it was that made that song great, so that’s why I put the guitar solo in there. And it works – even Dave Davies of The Kinks said so!
On our version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” I gave the keyboard a solo. Why? Because given Hendrix everybody expects it to be a guitar solo, and I didn’t want to have the guitarist be compared to a god like Hendrix. I wanted a different sound, a different feel. Again, I think it worked.
Q: You write mainly instrumentals. Do you compose vocal songs too?
RM: I’ve written only one vocal song to date called “New York City Groove.” It was a big challenge for me because I’m much more comfortable writing instrumentals. But vocals are a big part of the PGS experience so I felt that I needed to write one.
The melody of “Groove” I actually wrote 20 years ago and had forgotten about. I found a cassette tape in my drawer from an old rehearsal with a version of the melody. What can you play a cassette on these days? Well, as it turns out that my wife saved a boom box from when our kids were young. I put the cassette tape in, listened, and said to myself, “Hey, that’s not bad.”
So I finished the music in about 10 minutes. Then I decided that I wanted to make it a vocal. My difficulty is that I'm a music guy not a lyrics guy. The music may have taken me 10 minutes but the lyrics took me a week! When you write lyrics you have to have a thought in mind as to what you want to say.
Q: Everybody else who writes lyrics seems to…
RM: I know! I listen to the words in songs but I rarely think much about them. I focus more on the sounds. You know that great Dylan song “Subterranean Homesick Blues”? The one that goes “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine…” I loved the sound of that word poem. John Lennon also used to string together words as sounds. Just listen to “I Am The Walrus”.
Q: You told me there were two songs that you didn’t rehearse before your recent performance at American Beauty in NYC. What were they?
RM: One was “Lucky Seven” from our last album, “The Queen’s Carnival”. The tune is in 7/4 time. It starts with a bass figure and then the sax comes in with the melody. My sax player Mario is an amazing musician but that night he totally spaced on the tune and it took him about a minute to get it right. Meanwhile he was playing all around the melody. But what came out was really interesting. It had kind of a Middle Eastern feel to it. It was like a new song. I loved it!
He was trying to work his way into the melody. And we’re playing live, so I can’t exactly stop him and say, “This is how it goes.” My point is I let him figure it out and work it out and it came out very cool. Of course, nobody in the audience would have ever known what I just told you. That’s one of the best things about doing original material!
Q: Do you encourage your vocalist Ziarra to improvise?
RM: Absolutely. I don't think we play any tune exactly the same way twice. She’s doing something different each time. The inflection, the rideout. We’re all doing something different. That’s what makes this music fun to play.
Q: You do a cover of a Cream song. How did that come about?
RM: I loved Cream. They were maybe my favorite band from the ‘60s. And I definitely picked up a lot on the bass from listening to Jack Bruce. We do a PGS-style cover of “I’m So Glad”. I felt that I needed to do a Cream song and people have asked me why that one. Well I didn’t want to choose something obvious like “Sunshine of Your Love.” I always loved how Cream played “I’m So Glad” in concert. I thought that I could take the essence of the song and do something different and interesting with it. Our version of the song is now one of the most popular tunes we do in concert.
Q: Ginger Baker came out of a jazz background before Cream.
RM: Yes and so did Charlie Watts of the Stones… For the last 60 years or so all Charlie has said he wanted to do was play jazz. I guess he plays rock and roll because it makes a him a ton of money!
Q: What was the other unrehearsed song you played at American Beauty?
RM: The other one we didn’t rehearse in advance was called “Beyond Forever”, also from our “The Queen’s Carnival” CD. The interesting thing about that song that night from my point of view was that Ruben, our drummer, came up with a slightly different feel for the song than on the recording. It made the song different, but again I loved it!
Q: Did you tell Ruben to play it that way?
RM: No I don’t tell anyone how or what to play. They’re all great musicians. I value and encourage their creativity. The main difference between what we do and pop music is that in pop the songs are played the same note-for-note each time they are performed, while with our music because it’s improvisational in all respects the songs are always different each time we play. And the different lineups of musicians that I use also changes the songs. Each musician brings his or her own feel and sensibility to the tunes so they take on a different character depending upon he lineup.
Q: Ever thought of doing a workshop to teach how one of your songs comes together?
RM: I’d love to do something like that! In fact, at the right venue I would bring in a brand new song and evolve it right then and there with the band in front of the audience like we do at a rehearsal.
Q: Ever thought of doing more out-there instrumentation?
RM: I’ve thought of doing plenty of things! I’d love to be experimental like that. I consider myself a rock musician that has brought jazz into what I play. I don’t have the same schooling or attitude that the pure jazz guys have.
Q: What does a pure jazz bassist do that you don’t?
RM: It’s more the attitude, not what they do that’s different. You’ll also notice that my music doesn’t include bass-only solos, or drum-only solos for that matter. Not my bag, and it changes the drive of the song, So I solo within the context of the song. People have said this - and I agree - I play “lead bass”. If you listen carefully to PGS it’s the bass that defines and drives each song. I’m not just laying a foundation. I’m filling gaps and doing my improvisation within the context of our jams. The great bass players that I admire, guys like Jack Bruce, Jim Fielder, Tim Bogert – also drove the music. I also don’t do all the gimmicky stuff like slapping and popping. And I don’t use pedals and effects. I have a certain distinctive sound that I try to maintain. I want people to recognize my playing and my sound. The great Jaco Pastorius had a distinctive sound.
Q: I can’t imagine writing a novel as an improvisation. Jazz or other music you can do improvisation and it works.
RM: This is what I do. Let’s use Cream again as an example. Cream had a framework for every song. A melody, a beat, chord structure, then they went off into improv land. Everything I do has a framework. I set the framework, the song has a feel, a vibe, a rhythm and a melody. I typically start with having the melody played twice in order to establish it. Then we do solos and we return to the melody a final time. It’s a classic way of structuring but I think people like to have a framework around music. My wife, who’s not a musician, yells at me whenever we play something that’s too long.
Q: What does she consider too long?
RM: Ten minutes is beyond her comfort level. She says nobody wants to listen to anything that long!
Q: Are your kids musicians?
RM: They’re not musicians but they love music and they’re big fans of PGS.
Q: Tell me about the writing experience.
RM: It’s mystical for me. Sometimes I write things and completely surprise myself. On the new CD I wrote a song called “Fishin”. It’s a Caribbean Island/Jimmy Buffet vibe kind of song. Where did that come from? I haven’t the faintest idea. I started playing a riff, I fooled around with it a bit, and all of a sudden something came out that had an Island vibe. Boom! I ask myself, “Do I like it, do I not like it?” If it passes the smell test I bring it to rehearsal and I play it for the band and we work it out. And this one worked out great. Same thing with “The Queen’s Carnival,” which was the title tune for the last album. A Latin song, a fiesta. I didn’t start out to write that but it just happened.
Q: That was the one with the Latin feel?
RM: Yes that was the Latin thing. I grew up in Queens NY. My father and I listened to Spanish music on the radio all the time. But I didn’t set out to write a Latin song, it just happened. And my guys – being mainly Latin – they made it work. Again, from my perspective those are the great unexpected things I love. It just happens and I have no idea where it comes from.
Q: Do you ever imagine yourself not playing anymore?
Q: They’ll bury you with your bass?
RM: Yup – just me and my Pedulla!!