By Dan Ouellette
On the eve of jazz rock fusion ensemble Project Grand Slam’s fifth recording, ‘The PGS Experience’, founder and leader Robert Miller says “I decided to follow my passion to play a heavier sound of rock ‘n’ roll and jazz—to drive things right down the line.” (The official release date of ‘The PGS Experience’ is June 30)
The way the electric bassist looks at it, jazz harking back to the ‘50s is stuck in a time capsule as far as the melodic compositional references being relevant to that time. The deep-grooved, dynamic Project Grand Slam was born with jazz-rock fusion in mind. Miller’s not stuck in the ‘70s either, playing what he calls post-fusion. “We’re not playing the jazz standards,” he says. “And fusion? I don’t know why fusion got a bad name back in the day when you think of a band like Weather Report that packed in audiences who got what was happening with the connection of jazz into rock. But we’re evolving that further to bring in Celtic folk, Afro-Cuban and Caribbean influences.”
Miller didn’t grow up a jazz guy. “I grew up on rock and roll,” he says. “I was into the Beatles whose songs were unique, with different styles, variety and different formats. They were artists who were creating a new level of songwriting.” He adds that for the first 20 years of his life he didn’t know anything about jazz. “I’m totally the opposite of the jazz fusion guys who were classically trained and then began to infuse the rock sound. I started out a rock guy, totally comfortable in that milieu and began to infuse jazz and improvisation into that.”
In the past few years, PGS has even played “totally rock” shows, including Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory that was featuring two heavy rock bands on the bill, and being a supporting act with hard rock/blues band Ten Ton Mojo for rocker Scott Weiland of the Stone Temple Pilots at Gramercy Theater show shortly before his death in 2015. “Our music has gone over with all audiences” says Miller.
Recently, Project Grand Slam opened a show for jazz crossover alto saxophonist Mindi Abair at B.B. Kings in New York, which led to her appearing on the new album. “As a musician, Mindi is a lot closer to my vision,” he says. “She’s basically a rocker who plays a mean sax, and she does covers like a swampy take on Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Chile’ while we do a cover of ‘Fire’. So I asked her if she would play on two of my originals on the album. She nailed it, especially on my ‘Island’ song ‘Fishin,’ which is a great summer tune. She played her alto in a lower register for a meaty sound. Just great.”
Starting on the trumpet, Miller made the transition to bass when he was 14 and formed a band with friends. Since he knew the treble clef from trumpet, he volunteered to play the bass clef on cover tunes they were learning. He was in the rock zone with influences including Blood Sweat & Tears’ Jim Fielder, Vanilla Fudge’s Tim Bogert and Cream’s Jack Bruce.
Jazz came full force into Miller’s life when he took a summer music class at Brooklyn College and ended up doing one-on-one tutorials with John Coltrane’s bassist, Jimmy Garrison, whom he had never heard of. “Jimmy was the sweetest, nicest teacher,” Miller says. “The first piece he taught me was ‘All The Things You Are,’ trying to get me to walk on bass. It was a humble beginning, but I got into the nuances of playing jazz bass.”
When Miller left for Boston, he asked Garrison who he should look up. “Here are the guys who will take care of you,” he said, which led to him forming a band that opened for the likes of Gary Burton, Sonny Stitt and Jaki Byard. “It was a great experience, but that’s also when I got into the fusion of what Miles was doing, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report.”
When he returned to New York five years later he played at clubs like Birdland and Blue Note before taking a left turn into founding a record label. Through a lawyer contact he got together with legendary producer Joel Dorn and the two formed 32 Records. They bought Joe Field’s Muse catalog and began to produce reissues, and had an outsized hit with the 1998 compilation album ‘Jazz for a Rainy Afternoon’ that ended up selling 1 million copies. “The good thing is that we sold the label right before Napster,” Miller says with a laugh.
That actually got Miller back into the band leadership realm, founding Project Grand Slam and forming his own label, Cakewalk, to issue PGS recordings. The ensemble is an evolving cast that he calls his International Cartel because the band members come mainly from various foreign countries including Mexico, Puerto Rico, Italy, and Canada. PGS’s longtime drummer Joel E. Mateo says that he loves being in the fusion zone with PGS. “Robert’s a great band leader because he wants us to bring our ideas to his compositions which gives the fusion a more funky, rocky feel,” he says. “We bring our different cultures to the music to give that salty flavor.”
A strong element to PGS is Miller’s writing—composing songs instead of just heads for his band to play around. “I wanted variety, not just homogeneous licks, that I present to the guys,” he says. He also features female vocalists. In the case of the new album, it’s Ziarra Washington. “She’s an incredible vocalist,” Miller says. “She has great stage presence and captivates an audience. Vocals are important in this band. It enhances what we do.”
As for covers, Miller stretches back to the old days of rock and tries to “reimagine” the songs. On an earlier album (2015’s “Made in New York”), the band worked up an improvisational launch into Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire,” and on its last recording, last year’s The Queen’s Carnival, it zinged into The Kinks’ AM radio hit “You Really Got Me.” “Those are signature songs for me,” says Miller. “The Kinks were the forefathers of grunge, which is why we’ve put the nasty guitar hooks in. I wanted to cover songs that people can relate to. That’s my bag. I love the music of the ‘60s.”
On ‘The PGS Experience’, Miller and co. jump into Cream’s “I’m So Glad,” which also helped to inspire the format of the album, which is recorded half live and half studio. “I was all over Cream’s Wheels of Fire album,” says Miller of the 1968 record that sold platinum. “It was a two-LP set, with one LP recorded in the studio, and the other LP recorded live. I figured if it worked for Cream, let’s try it for Grand Slam.” Originally Miller was going to release a batch of new songs as an EP, but when he heard some recent high-quality live recordings he changed his mind. “They really captured the flavor of the band in concert.”
As for why he formed Cakewalk. Miller says, “We all know the music world has changed dramatically since Napster emerged and upended the system. The major record labels used to be the gatekeepers to the world for artists, together with radio and retail. Now with online, downloading, streaming and social media it’s all different. Artists no longer need a major label to get their product out. They can do it themselves just as well.” He gets PGS recordings out to such streaming services as iTunes and Amazon and has secured a major distributor in SONY/RED.
“That’s the good news,” Miller says. “But it’s also the bad news because it’s harder nowadays for an artist to break through all the clutter with everyone’s music being available online. The old record label gatekeeper system did have its benefits.”
Another good news scenario for Miller with Cakewalk is that “I own all of my masters and my publishing. An outside record label would own the masters and probably require me to turn over half the publishing to them.”
In celebrating ‘The PGS Experience’, the group has a number of upcoming shows, especially at festivals and series outside of New York, including June 4 at the Jamaica Ocho Rios International Jazz Festival, June 23 at the Highland Lakes Concert Series in New Jersey, June 25 at the St. Kitts Music Festival, August 5 at the Jazz On The River Festival in Detroit, and October 1 at Magic City Smooth Jazz’s ‘Jazz In The Park’ Festival. In between those dates, on June 9 at American Beauty in NYC, PGS shares the stage with The Lizards, a Canadian band that specializes in Phish covers, a show, Miller says, which evolved because PGS puts its spin on “Free,” a Phish cover, on the new album. (Check out the video here: https://youtu.be/eNoI9R90eMc)
(photos courtesy dis COMPANY)