Robert Miller and his Project Grand Slam ensemble have hit a new plateau with their sixth studio album Trippin’, out June 29.
Eleven new tracks written by Miller admirably show off the band’s prowess; including their now de rigueur cover of Brit-classic “I Can’t Explain” by The Who.
Having opened for the likes of YES, Blue Traveler, Boney James and Edgar Winter, Miller and PGS have traveled across the United States. This summer, the group will perform in Europe for the first time.
TheImproper sat with the peripatetic Miller, and talked about the new album as well as the thought process that led to the creation of his group.
IM: Tell us about the new album Trippin’.
Miller: I really do think that Trippin’ is my best work to date. I wanted to add more vocals to our repertoire and I wanted to produce an album that was more rock oriented. While I loved the great jazz fusion bands like Weather Report and Return To Forever, I also loved rock-jazz bands like Blood, Sweat & Tears, which blended great jazz into rock masterpieces.
Robert Miller and PGS album ‘Trippin’. Click on the photo to buy the album from Amazon. (Photo: PGS)
So Trippin’ reflects my rock roots more so than our previous albums. And as someone who always admired the diversity of The Beatles on each of their albums – which could run the gamut from blues to Indian to ballads – I try to bring a similar diversity to all of the PGS albums. So the songs on Trippin’ are eclectic and heterogeneous, which I think is so much more interesting than hearing basically the same song over and over on an album.
IM: Your Brit-redo on this album is one of my favorites, “I Can’t Explain” by The Who. How’d you arrive at that one?
Miller: I was raised on the music of the great British Invasion bands. That music is part of my DNA. In 1994, on the first Robert Miller Group album, I did a kind of psychedelic cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire”. When the time came to record PGS’s Made In New York album in 2015, I got an itch to re-record “Fire” with Project Grand Slam, but this time a totally updated version. The PGS version featured Kat Robichaud from The Voice on vocals, and came out amazing. And the critics and reviewers loved it too. It’s become our closer in concert.
When we were preparing to record The Queen’s Carnival in 2016 I decided to continue the Brit-rock thing by “re-imagining” The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” I was fortunate to have a wonderful singer, Lucy Woodward, sing that one – and even Dave Davies of The Kinks liked our version! Last year, on The PGS Experience, I took a song by Cream, one of my favorite groups of all time, called “I’m So Glad” and did the PGS-thing to it – again to great fanfare.
So the idea of re-imagining a great Brit-rock song on each album became a kind of musical signature of mine, and what better group to honor next then The Who? I saw them in concert a number of times, loved them forever, and I thought that I could do something special with “I Can’t Explain.” So I changed the time signature to 7/8, added Ziarra Washington’s great vocal, a little sax figure that I wrote, and voila!!
IM: I’ve already seen the video; and, you’re doing Townshend-like windmill moves too, right?
Miller: I just got the urge to do the windmills as we were filming the video in the recording studio. I don’t know how Pete Townshend does that windmill thing without destroying his fingers. Don’t tell anyone, but I wound up doing a reverse windmill from what Pete does to save my fingers!
IM: I heard that the The Who’s original track and The Kinks original “You Really Got Me” (that you re-did on The Queens Carnival) were produced by the same fellow. Any story behind that?
Miller: Shel Talmy was the producer of both of those great songs. I didn’t realize the connection until afterwards. But he was a very cool producer back in the day.
IM: Tell us about the individual bands members? We know there’s more Ziarra Washington on this album.
Miller: My band mates are all extraordinary musicians. They’re all young, talented and from other countries. I affectionately refer to them as my International Cartel! Mario Castro from Puerto Rico plays sax and uses all kinds of pedals and effects – just incredible. Baden Goyo is from Venezuela, plays keyboards and is wonderful. My percussionist Guillermo Barron Rios is from Mexico and plays with Jose Feliciano when he’s not playing with us. My guitarist extraordinaire is Tristan Clark from Vancouver Island, Canada. His slide guitar work on “Country Drive” from the new album is just super. My drummer is Joel E. Mateo from Puerto Rico, just an astoundingly good and creative drummer. And last but certainly not least is our singer, Ziarra from the good old U-S-A, who has a golden voice and is a mesmerizing force on stage.
IM: You’ve opened up for YES, Blues Traveler and Edgar Winter among others; tell us about those moments?
Miller: Opening for legendary artists is a thrill. They play in the best venues before extremely supportive crowds. We kind of approach their crowd on a stealth basis. We’ve only got 30 to 40 minutes to perform and try and win over a crowd that’s not there to see us and may not even know that there is an opening act. What’s been amazing is the response that we’ve gotten from every audience, which has been an ovation. So we start out as a complete unknown to them, and by the end of our set they’re standing and applauding. What a great feeling!
IM: When you opened for jazz-darling Mindi Abair at BB King’s, she ended up on a track on the last album (The PGS Experience); tell us how that happened.
Miller: Mindi is a force of nature and she and her band The Boneshakers are just terrific. We opened for her in Feb. 2017 at BB King’s. Afterwards, I asked her if she would play on a couple of tunes for our then upcoming album and she consented. She plays sax on “Metro Shuffle” and “Fishin” on The PGS Experience album. Just great.
IM: I understand you’ll be playing in Europe for the first time this summer. Tell us about that?
Miller: This summer we’re playing at a number of festivals including our first two in Europe. We start off on June 3 performing at the “Jazz In The Park” festival in Birmingham, Ala. We played at last year and had a fantastic time. Then on July 21, we perform in Michigan at “The Rhythm & Rhymes Festival.” August is our big month. We play at the “Silda Jazz Festival” in Norway on August 8/9, then at the Nisville Jazz Festival in Serbia on Aug. 11. Two weeks later, (Aug. 24) we’re performing at a concert at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in NJ, followed by the “Shoreline Jazz Festival” in Michigan on Aug 26. Capping off our summer will be an outdoor concert as part of the “Jazz & Blues festival” in Connecticut, Sept 13.
IM: Your bass playing has been a stand out, tell us a bit about your bass work.
Miller: Because I write and arrange all the songs we play, the bass plays a prominent role in the band’s sound. I take great pride in my bass playing and try to maintain a crisp, distinctive sound when we play live. I solo discretely, mainly because I get bored hearing extended bass or drum solos. My playing gets compared frequently to Jack Bruce of Cream, which I consider a huge compliment because Jack was one of the best.
IM: What do you listen to in your downtime?
Miller: I spend so much time on PGS that I don’t have much chance to listen to other people’s music. I don’t dig much contemporary music. It just doesn’t do it for me. So I guess I live mainly in the past musically!