With this music, Miller and The Heliocentrics are effortlessly tapping into feelings that are at once peaceful and ever-so-slightly disorienting.
Even though I’m sincere when I insist that this release is the most impressive album I listened to in 2010, I’m not sure who I would recommend it to. That said, I do believe anyone with a remotely open mind could be quickly convinced. Convinced of what, exactly? That your world was too small without it, for starters. Not unlike the way a great novel, movie or even a new type of cuisine will remind you that there are places and times you were unaware of, and that someone -- or something -- else can transport you without the use of machines or magic (or even drugs). If, understandably, that sounds a tad too precious, this is music you can put on while you meditate, do yoga, think or have sex. So there’s that.
The Heliocentrics have not wasted any time establishing themselves as an indispensable part of the contemporary avant-garde. In addition to their impressive 2007 release Out There (a nice nod to Eric Dolphy), in 2009, they collaborated with legendary Ethiopian maestro Mulatu Astatke and dropped one of the best releases of that year, Inspiration Information 3.
Who, you ask, is Lloyd Miller? Do a Google search and you’ll find he’s been around for a long time (we’re talking decades) and has been an influential force in world music. His distinct amalgamation of Persian music, American jazz and a sort of psychedelic far-east vibe (think zither and gongs) is quite unlike anything anyone else has done, although serious fans will hear traces of Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and even Santana (circa Caravanserai). For an amazing -- and addictive -- overview of what he’s done, check out the very fittingly titled collection A Lifetime In Oriental Jazz. Considering how much music he has made, it’s disconcerting how little he seems to have recorded. Let’s hope there are lots of dusty treats in the vaults waiting to see the light of day.
The challenge in reviewing Lloyd Miller & The Heliocentrics is twofold: it is necessary to convey how remarkable the music is, and it is necessary to attempt describing what it actually sounds like. For starters, it is not only reminiscent of Sun Ra, it’s reminiscent of peak Sun Ra, circa The Futuristic Sounds album (which, for anyone interested, is an ideal gateway to that wonderful and eccentric artist’s intimidating catalog). But that comparison is inadequate, because even Sun Ra, circa 1958, was incorporating Eastern sounds and rhythms into his Arkestra. Eventually, those tapestries would grow larger, and longer and, for many ears, overwhelming. But from the mid-’50s until the early-to-mid-’60s his compositions were tight, focused and brimming with musical delights that, despite the bizarre persona he cultivated and encouraged, were very much of this world. All of which is to say it is probably more accurate to observe that Miller (and The Heliocentrics) are invoking similar sounds and motifs, from a more ancient-feeling place: far East passing through a syncopated prism of strings, flutes and percussion.
Where Miller’s earlier work, understandably, features time signatures and instruments (oud, anyone?) more associated with Eastern cultures, this collaboration with The Heliocentrics -- aside from being inspired -- manages to further erode any distinctions between Persian music and modern jazz. It sounds improbable on the page (as well as in theory, this being 2011, not 1972) but it is executed practically to perfection throughout this astonishing album. Miller’s reputation and history precedes him, so we should not be surprised at the consistent quality of this work. Special mention, then, must be made of how sympathetic and seamless The Heliocentrics’ accompaniment is throughout these proceedings.
The propulsive bass grounds album opener “Electricone” in a contemporary jazz groove, and the flute and percussion drive a blend of exotic sounds off into the distance. Perhaps the most straightforward number, “Nava”, could easily fit in on an early ‘70s McCoy Tyner album, with its post-bop momentum flavored with Eastern spices. “Bali Bronze” invokes the cymbal-laden call and response of the Balinese Gamelan; flute and gongs weaving a hazy mist that conjures up an Opium dream straight outta Coleridge. One of the standout tracks is the appropriately named “Spiritual Jazz”: Opening with a gorgeous and languid piano soliloquy, it slowly opens up, like a flower straining to reach the sun. Perhaps intentionally, album closer “Sunda Sunset” circles back from tomorrow and gently drifts into the past, like closing titles for an imaginary Kurosawa film.
Miller and his band are effortlessly tapping into feelings that are at once peaceful and ever-so-slightly disorienting. Unforced and never formulaic, this music manages to be adventurous without descending into pretense or abrasiveness -- it is reminiscent of far-away times and places, but ultimately situated comfortably in the here-and-now. Our world is big enough for that, now, and Lloyd Miller has helped make this possible.