Hometown: Montréal, QC, CA
Label: Origin Records, Intofocus
Management: e-Management Randy Cole
Sounds Like: Wayne Shorter, Dewey Redman, Benny Golson, Joshua Redman, Stan Getz
Winner of the 2013 Juno Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Recording, Montreal saxophonist Joel Miller marries his awe-inspiring technique and boundless sense of musical adventure with a pop musician’s desire to make music that moves people.
His compositions are inspired by the melodic simplicity and emotional depth of American folk music, and they’ve been praised by Downbeat as “passionate and creative, melodic yet exploratory.” His free-spirited eclecticism has been equally lauded by the magazine for “illustrating the cross-pollination emblematic of the Montreal jazz community.” Dave Douglas calls Miller "a breath of fresh air and one of the great pleasures of the Montreal scene."
Miller’s recording, Swim, pushes the boundaries of the traditional jazz quartet with cinematic passages that evoke a shared universe of stars, a sudden drop-off at the bottom of a lake, and even a humourously dark scene from a Ben Stiller film. The album’s wistful sax lines and frenetic crescendos mark Miller’s first outing as a lone soloist, and they see him floating easily above the surface of his breathtaking acoustic scores. He is joined by his long-time Canadian rhythm section of Greg Ritchie on drums and Fraser Hollins on bass, along with American pianist Geoffrey Keezer.
His 2013 album Honeycomb explores a whole other side of Miller’s musical personality. Its breezy, Latin-inspired cadenzas draw inspiration from his time spent studying Afro-Peruvian rhythms in Lima, Peru in 2008. It is also inspired by his associations with Afro-Peruvian artist Oscar Stagnaro and Latin jazz musician Joé Armando. The moody electronics are an extension of his work with his award-wining jazz-electronic ensemble Mandala, and the additional nods to Latin American folklore derive from Miller’s other work with Haitian and Afro Colombian music.
Uniting all of Miller’s compositions are strong, accessible melodies, which evoke beautiful mental images and emotional states, and arrangements that blur beyond recognition the line between written notes and improvisation. All are born of Miller’s desire to speak to music lovers beyond jazz’s inner circle.
A graduate of McGill University’s jazz performance program and an alumnus of the Banff Centre jazz workshops – where he studied with Chucho Valdes and Kenny Wheeler, among others – Miller distinguished himself as a bandleader virtually from his debut, winning the Grand Prix Jazz Award at the 1997 Montreal International Jazz Festival and earning enthusiastic reviews for his debut album, Find a Way.
Since then he has continued to elevate his already-formidable playing and composing skills by seeking out cutting edge virtuosos such as Geoffrey Keezer, Ben Monder, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Gary Versace and Ingrid Jensen as his regular collaborators. These players share Miller’s ceaseless drive for originality, and together they force each other toward captivating new frontiers.
Starting around 2000, Miller also profited from a decade-long working relationship with Montreal percussionist and composer Thom Gossage, whose free jazz and creative jazz-inspired compositions and multi-disciplinary work with modern dance testify to an artistic spirit as forward-looking as Miller’s own. Their first recording together was 2003’s Sky Beneath My Feet, a “post Zappa para-noise” project featuring Tommy Babin and Miller’s brother, DJ Mercury, that drew inspiration from pop song-craft.
In 2005, encouraged by Dave Douglas to push beyond jazz instrumentation, Miller collaborated with Order of Canada-winning conductor Iwan Edwards, vocalist Amelia McMahon, and the chamber choir Concerto Della Donna for a feature performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival that was broadcast on CBC Radio’s Choral Concerts. That material formed the foundation of Miller’s album of the same year, Tantramar.
Most recently, Miller has enjoyed a close working relationship with the highly versatile, modernist Montreal bassist Fraser Hollins, and their performances with Brian Blade and Jon Cowherd served as partial inspiration for Swim.
Meanwhile, when not serving as band-leader, Miller continues to perform with an enormous range of other instrumentalists, including Eric St-Laurent, Phil Dwyer, Mike Rud, Matt Wilson and Brad Turner. He has also toured with Denzal Sinclaire, and, along with Armando, opened gigs for Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, and Eliades Ochoa.
Miller’s passionate devotion to both creativity and craft has been recognized with a long list of honors. Mandala won the 2006 Opus Award for performance of the year, and its album was named one of the best of 2005 by Alain Brunet of La Presse. It was also an All About Jazz Publisher’s Pick and a nominee for both an ADISQ and an Indie Award. Most recently Swim won a Juno and an East Coast Music Award and went to #1 on the Earshot jazz charts. It also charted at CMJ in the U.S. and was named Jazz Album of the Year by both La Presse and the Ottawa Citizen. Honeycomb was nominated for an ADISQ.
Miller’s ensembles have toured the U.S., Europe, Japan, Mexico and Peru, and his performances have been broadcast on national radio across Canada and Europe. Miller has also toured as part of Michael Bublé’s band and the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
Currently, Miller’s soloing can be heard on his wife Christine Jensen’s 2014 Juno award-winning album Habitat.
Donald Elfman - The New York City Jazz Record
"Miller played with a terse decisiveness throughout the set, letting spaces linger for all they were worth between deftly clustering cadenzas and confidently rippling postbop passages"
Andreas Viklund - Lucid Culture
"Passionate and creative, melodic yet exploratory"
Sharonne Cohen - Downbeat Magazine
"...album excellent parce que virevoltant de la nanoseconde numéro 1 à la dernière."
Serge Truffaut - Le Devoir
"Swim... est un bijou de cohérence musicale et discursive."
Frédéric Cardin - Radio Canada, Espace.mu
“Throughout, Miller’s playing is smart, passionate and winningly individual.”
Peter Hum - Ottawa Citizen
“Voilà à mon sens le meilleur album de jazz québécois lancé depuis le début 2012.”
Alain Brunet - La Presse
Christophe Rodriguez - sortieJAZZnights.com
"Smart and full of joy"
Mike Chamberlain - The Hour (Montreal)
"Very attractive and universally accessible music. It's some of the best original contemporary jazz heard recently"
Michael G. Nastos - All Music Guide
"Miller is not only a thoughtful and melodic player, but also a creative composer who manages the rare feat of being progressive and accessible at the same time."
Alex Hutchinson - Ottawa Citizen
"A very happening tenor player [who] has a very able ear for composition... [and] one of those sounds on tenor that makes you very glad that there is such a thing as the tenor saxophone. . . someone worth pursuing."
Katie Malloch - CBC’s Jazz Beat
“Son discours mélodique... renvoie aussi au chant baroque ainsi qu'aux grands folklores d'Europe. Blues (en hommage au regretté saxophoniste acadien Boogie Gaudet), gospel, folk rock, psychédélisme sont aussi des composantes de ce jazz si singulier.
Alain Brunet - La presse