Archive for January, 2012

M1-20 Steve Miller

M1-20 Alice

Steve Miller, a bit like me, started his career playing in R’n’B and rock bands (in this link on a pre-Zeppelin Robert Plant demo – he was an in-demand studio musician and played on Free’s classic “The Hunter”), and gradually moved into a more contemplative way of playing as the years rolled by. His comment above about “Alice” describes to a T the way I have been performing for several years now. So as an ex-rocker, if he were with us today, I am sure he would not mind me kicking off with a few words about a rocker who bears the same name.

The US Steve Miller actually went in rather the opposite direction to us two Brits, in a vague sort of way. I say that because his first two albums as the Steve Miller Band – Children of the Future and Sailor, while featuring some raunchy blues-rock tracks, were also quite psychedelic and contained some impressive long tracks one could even think of as  precursors of ambient music or soundscapes. Very interesting stuff. Anyway, as the years rolled by Stateside, his music moved more into rock and funk and blues, passing through some classic hits such as “The Joker,” “Abracadabra,” and for me his best track of all “Fly Like an Eagle.” Now approaching 70 years old, Steve is very much into blues (apart from a brief flirtation with Paul McCartney on his 1997 “Flaming Pie” album).

OK let’s get back to the Steve Miller I came here to talk about. After his baptism as a pro musician playing blues and rock, he quickly showed a preference for jazz, especially of the modern, experimental kind prevalent in England and especially among Canterbury-related bands in the 70’s. He worked a great deal with Miniatures artiste Lol Coxhill, in their band Delivery (1966-75-ish, on and off) – a marvellously eclectic prog band which also featured among its members such greats as Carol Grimes, Judie Dyble, Steve’s brother Phil, and Roy Babbington.

Eventually half the band left to form Hatfield and the North (taken from a road sign I and countless musos used to see frequently en route to all points north of London on the A1 Great North Road in those days – doubtless the new band had struggled to find a name, and on the way to some sweaty dive saw the sign and said, “bugger it, that’ll do”). Steve then was asked to join legendary Canterbury band Caravan, as their organist Dave Sinclair (who now, like me, lives in Japan – Kyoto rather than Tokyo – I played a little on his new album) had left. Steve, being more piano- than organ-oriented only made one album with Caravan. He then hitched up with old Delivery bandmate Lol Coxhill to form a duo which recorded two splendidly improvisatory and humourous albums, one of which contains the fabulously-titled track “The ant about to be crushed ponders not the where withal of boot leather.”

I am listening to this album now – or should I say “tasting it” (as in wine-tasting) via 30 second snippets on Amazon. I enjoy it for its quietly radical, sometimes bucolic, polite-but-occasionally-with-a-finger-shoved-up-one-nostril approach to music, all too rarely heard these days. The duo was democratically billed as Coxhill/Miller Miller/Coxhill, but I think Lol “wins” as he gets both the first and last names.

Carpentry called coaxingly to Steve after this period, and I can imagine him enjoying the solitude, sawdust and slow meticulous work, after the smut and sweat of the music biz. And I bet he did some very good work, too. Luckily, he did not disappear off the map completely, and through Lol I was able to contact him to invite him to make his miniature. We met only once and he did seem rather quiet and shy, perhaps feeling uncomfortable to be in the middle of London instead of in the peaceful surroundings of Hertfordshire, and when the tape of his track popped through my letterbox, I was not surprised to hear its deliciously serene harmonies. It still moves me very much today – despite (or rather because) of the fact that you can hear it was recorded in a house rather than a studio, which makes it all the more personal and endearing.

Steve left us much too young, in 1998, at the age of 55. After he was diagnosed with cancer his friends – many from Delivery – got together to hold a benefit concert for him at the Vortex Jazz Club in London on June 28. It was Steve’s last concert, and many said that it was one of his best, most moving performances ever. Luckily, thanks to guitarist Mark Hewins, Steve’s compadre in several of his later bands, a brief video exists where Steve does indeed play a truly entrancing solo. The lighting was very low, and as the camera pans towards Steve, he is scarcely visible, just a few points of light in the surrounding darkness. It is as if he is a spirit just popping into this dimension for a while to bring beautiful, inspiring sounds to us. He really was, wasn’t he. Six months later, he had returned to the source.

Phil Miller, his devoted brother and brilliant guitarist, later released two solo piano albums by Steve, on his own Crescent Discs label, available here (UK) and here (USA). I’m ordering them…

Next up: chap with a very a-peel-ing voice…

Read/Leave Comment