Miller added texture with an actual donkey jaw rattle  ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Miller added texture with an actual donkey jaw rattle ©Brett Delmage, 2013

Joel Miller and Honeycomb
Montreal Jazz Festival
Wednesday, July 3, 2013 – 6 p.m.

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It was a hot and sultry Montreal evening – perfect for hot, upbeat Latin jazz.

Saxophonist Joel Miller was debuting his new album and new group, Honeycomb, at his hometown jazz festival. His quintet – three well-known mainstream jazz musicians and two Latin percussionists – put on an energetic show. The music was high-temperature enough to match the 34C weather – and it pleased the audience.

Miller won the 2013 Juno for Best Contemporary Jazz Album for his previous CD, Swim [2012], a strong mixture of postbop and ballads, featuring his intense sax work and Geoffrey Keezer's vibrant piano.

Any fans who expected the same type of music would have been surprised, though not necessarily disappointed. Miller's soaring sax lines remained, and John Roney's piano was both propulsive and enquiring. But a different rhythm section – Cuban-born drummer Kiko Osorio, bassist Rémi-Jean Leblanc, percussionist Kullak Viger Rojas on cajón and congas – gave the music a very distinct sound from previous Miller efforts.

The songs played were mostly from Honeycomb, although a few were repurposed Miller compositions from previous albums, now given a more Latin beat. They opened with “Salsa Coltrane”, which featured a strong tenor line over bright piano and strong percussion, and had a bright summery feel. The danceable rhythms continued; “Big Ideas” was introduced as a cha-cha, but was mostly groove-based with an intense soprano sax followed by bluesy piano and a dirty bass line.

“Do It” started with Miller scatting with just a bass line behind him. He then moved to fast and intricate lines on tenor, and then finally the other musicians joined in. Viger Rojas played a double-time conga solo and then dueted with Osorio's drumming, and everyone came in for a high-energy finish. “Smash Smash” was a “New Brunswick-style” bossa nova, a fun piece with lots of variations on the initial groove, and some sensuous keyboards from Roney alternating with Miller's tenor.

Miller said that “Rashers” was a piece he'd refined over many years with almost every group he'd led, and at this point it had reached its final stage. His fast, intense tenor again contrasted against Roney's inflected keyboards, pushing higher and higher until Roney's fingers were jumping off the keys.

“Horse Power” had previously appeared in Miller's Mandala project, but for Honeycomb he turned it into a cumbia, adding a much stronger bass beat and Latin accents. It was a nimbly-performed piece, with Osorio playing the sides of his drums as well as the skins. It steadily increased in pace and density, each musicians layering on the rhythms, before it ended with a horse's “neigh!”.

“Don't Forget Me” (a lando) featured Viger Rojas on cajón (a wooden box with which he produced a deep heavy beat) and other percussion, with bluesy keyboards and tenor sax floating over. Miller added more texture with an actual donkey jaw rattle, and the piece became grittier until it finally devolved to just bass and drums in a sharp exchange.

“This is That” was billed as a reggae/cumbia mix. To me it was “shake your hips” music (in the best sense): fast-paced, a bit swinging, definitely groove-based, but with enough interesting decoration to keep it from sounding simplistic.

The show ended with a piece by Tito Puente, which started with Osorio's fast, bright drumming particularly on the clave block, and equally fast conga work from Viger Rojas. Miller alternated between tenor and soprano, holding both and continuing to switch after a few notes on each. It was a high-voltage piece and that voltage just kept increasing with large flourishes on all instruments until a last strong sax line.

The audience jumped up for a standing ovation, but Miller was due to play at another concert in half a hour, and had no time for a full encore. Regardless, I noticed a lot of happy faces leaving the theatre, and saying hello to the musicians.

Over more than a decade of listening to Miller, I've heard him play straight-ahead, abstract, and sometimes verging on the mystical (for example, with Mandela). This was a departure, but not really surprising, given how well he acquitted himself on Roberto Lopez' recent Afro-Colombian Orchestra CD (and, in fact, he was heading over to play in that band). While Osorio and Viger Rojas ultimately were essential to Honeycomb's sound (and made it incredibly infectious and fun), Miller, Roney, and Leblanc equally got into those Latin beats, and pulled the audience along with them.

It was an impassioned musical set which was well-received in L'Astral, but would have worked really well on an outdoor stage. Ottawa's Great Canadian Jazz Stage next year, maybe?

    – Alayne McGregor

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