With his dark shades and black/white garb on stage, master bassist Robert Miller seems like a cool cat out of a 1950s Hollywood casting of a jazz musician. But he’s much more than that. The 60-ish player is leader of Robert Miller’s Project Grand Slam, a band formed nearly 10 years ago to perform a fusion of rock and jazz that’s both familiar and fresh.
“I am as much a product of rock as I am of jazz,” Miller acknowledged in a recent conversation in midtown Manhattan. “I love them both equally.”
Over a salad lunch, the New York born and bred Miller outlined his valiant effort not only to keep a sound initially made popular in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, but advance it using a young generation of musicians not necessarily schooled in the same influences as he was. He draws on a pool of talented, mostly foreign born musicians, what he calls, “my international cartel.”
To that, the plucky player with an energy beyond his years added, “All my guys are trained musicians who have gone to schools like Berklee in Boston. If I need someone — a great saxophonist say — for a certain date I contact them and they give me recommendations. It always works out fine.”
The band currently plays an ongoing monthly residency at a Greenwich Village music den called The Groove NYC. There he works out new tracks, or unique arrangements for covers of rock classics done with a unique twist.
One such cover performed during their July date was the second single off The Queen’s Carnival, theirlatest album: a cover of The Kinks’ great rock hit “You Really Got Me,” with guest vocalist Lucy Woodward. It’s getting attention; Kinks‘ co founder Dave Davies even gave his endorsement.
Miller’s PGS continues to play many other venues as well. In May 2016 the band opened for four-time Grammy Award nominee Boney James at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in New Jersey. In July, the band was the featured performer at the Kirby Center For The Performing Arts in Pennsylvania. In August the band performed at the Tin Angel in Philadelphia and was the after-show for YES at Garcia’s at The Capitol Theater in NY.
Miller further noted, “We’ve played before a rock audience. We played a gig in November at the Gramercy Theater in NYC — we opened for Scott Weiland formerly of Stone Temple Pilots a week before he passed. We were one of three other acts — all hard rock bands like Weiland’s. We played before a completely rock audience and it went great. I knew then that we could play before any audience.”
While bandleader Miller is a high-minded jazz aficionado possessed of chops equal to any living jazz great — having been trained by the likes of Jimmy Garrison — his influences range beyond the usual that the jazz genre reflects today. That’s because, like it did with so many young people of his generation, the ‘60s British Invasion had a pivotal impact on his musical education.
And, it provided much of the spark that pushed Miller into playing bass guitar rather than a horn or keyboards. Project Grand Slam has, to quote one critic referring to their latest single, “The Rescue” — “a timeless, youthful passion.”
He laughs, “I became a bass player when I was 13, playing in a rock band formed with friends. We all had acoustic guitars that we were learning to play that we made into electric guitars by taping a microphone from a small reel-to-reel tape recorder onto the guitar.
“We bought Beatles sheet music and we noticed that there was a line on the bottom for the bass clef. I already played the trumpet so I knew the treble clef while my buddies were struggling to learn it. So I volunteered to learn the bass clef. And my entire musical career evolved from that!”
In those days, from high school during the ’60s until the early ’70s, Miller played in or fronted rock and roll bands. Four bassists — Paul McCartney, Cream’s Jack Bruce, BS&T’s Jim Fielder, andVanilla Fudge’s Tim Bogert — were crucial inspirations at that time. In the ‘70s he became a fixture in the Boston music scene as a founding member of a jazz fusion band, playing with acclaimed musicians such as Sonny Stitt, Jaki Byard, and Anton Fig.
In the 1990s, The Robert Miller Group was formed. The band’s first CD, Child’s Play (1994), featured several self-penned compositions and included guest musicians Fig, Randy Brecker, Jon Lucien, Al Foster, Tim Reis and Tony “Thunder” Smith. The band played the Telluride Jazz Festival, the San Bernadino Jazz Festival, the NYC Downtown Jazz Festival and many well known clubs including The Blue Note and Birdland.
Along the way, he learned the music business, both the legal and label managing aspects, as well as musically, which lent him the confidence to soldier on releasing four other albums on his own terms before this latest one. PGS also had a featured role in the hit NBC-TV series Lipstick Jungle starring Brooke Shields, with five of Millerʼs tunes on the soundtrack.
As Miller noted, “The core group of musicians that I work with are he ones who did the new album — and all but one will be there on August 16th when the band officially celebrates the release of The Queenʼs Carnival“, distributed by Sony/RED. The new album — which is officially out on the 19th — features nine original tunes written by Miller including the premiere single “The Rescue.” Mostly instrumental, it is textured and diverse, applying influences from Latin to Celtic and everything in between, while staying true to the PGS sound.
The record is more rock oriented than his previous works. “My main sax player plays with effects and pedals. I love the sounds that he gets — they work great with the band.”
He added, “On the record I have three songs that I call my arena songs because when I wrote them I visualized that they could be perfect for a big arena: “Gorilla”, “Lucky Seven” and “Beyond Forever”. The latter is really a tribute to one of my favorite groups, Return To Forever and [its leader] Chick Corea, a major influence. I love all these guys [identified with fusion such as Miles Davis] but I do not set out to reproduce what they do. I combine influences.
As outlined in Wikipedia, “Jazz fusion — also known as jazz-rock — is a musical genre that developed in the late 1960s when musicians combined aspects of jazz harmony and improvisation with styles such as funk, rock, rhythm and blues and Latin jazz. During this time many jazz musicians began experimenting with electric instruments and amplified sound for the first time, as well as electronic effects and synthesizers. Many of the developments during the late 1960s and early 1970s have since become established elements of jazz fusion musical practice.”
And that pretty well sums up what one gets either listening to the recorded band or seeing them live in one of their permutations. The only question is, “How much of an audience is there for jazz fusion?” There’s alway been a serious jazz audience, but that’s been for classic straight ahead jazz.
Says Miller, “I know that straight ahead jazz has an audience but it’s not my niche. I didn’t want to go down that path. For a number years, I’ve been considered a contemporary jazz artist but that’s a very open designation. So many things go into that [label]. Nor is smooth jazz my thing.”
“And these forms don’t reflect the other aspect of my career — the rock n roll which I played for 20 years like the British Invasion stuff. I’ve taken classic rock and tried to reimagine what I grew up with. I looked for a way and went down the middle between rock and jazz. Some have called it fusion; there’s no other name I have for it. It has the power and beat of rock but the improvisational complexity of jazz. I’ve looked for the middle ground and in my search for it I’ve come up with Project Grand Slam.”