TRACKED: Lloyd Miller and the Heliocentrics
An acclaimed ethno-musicologist and multi-instrumentalist, Lloyd Miller has championed freeform Oriental and Middle Eastern jazz motifs since the late ’50s, even landing his own TV show in Tehran under the name Kurosh Ali Khan. Seriously, the cat has more international drivers licenses than some bands have albums. In his hands, even the simplest piano phrase can be transformed into a psychedelic outernational meditation. For this project, Miller hooked up with UK jazz collective The Heliocentrics, whose Inspiration Information collab with Mulatu Astatke was one of last year’s best releases. As you’ll read in the interview below, Miller is ultra opinionated about the state of modern music, which is good ’cause there’s a lot of beulshat out there.
The self-titled album from Lloyd Miller and the Heliocentrics will be available August 3 on Strut, which, I might add, is a kick-ass record label. You can purchase a CD, vinyl copy or digital download from Strut’s online store, or go the iTunes route here.
MP3: Lloyd Miller and the Heliocentrics - Electricone (3:42)
You’ve played such an important part in the elevation and preservation of Middle Eastern and Oriental musical traditions, and their effect on jazz music. Since 9/11 here in the States, I’ve found that exposure to and appreciation for Middle Eastern music has become a bit maligned. Of course there are exceptions, but certain instruments and melodies that I personally find very appealing and beautiful, many now associate with negative political or sociopolitical things. Is this something you’ve noticed? What can we as a culture gain from allowing ourselves to be more exposed to sounds and melodies and instruments that may be deeply rooted in cultures that, politically, we may not see eye to eye with?
Lloyd Miller: I haven’t found any problems with representing arts of misunderstood and misrepresented cultures. We just performed a big concert here in Salt Lake right in the middle of town for about 600 audience members at a Mormon-owned park close to Temple Square. Everyone loved it and no one seemed to care that we were playing music accompanied by spiritual movements (which could be termed dance) from Iran, Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Uzbekistan and Turkey. Even during the Vietnam era, I constantly played Vietnamese traditional music at concerts all over town; the hippies loved it and the others enjoyed it as well. The worst resistance I ever faced was after the Iran hostage crisis. A few pro-Khomeini Iranian students thought I was setting up to do a belly dance show when they threatened, If you do belly dance, ve keel you! I fervently emphasized in fluent Farsi that I despised belly dance more than they ever could, and that we do only ethnic and spiritual performances. They stayed for the show, ended up enjoying it and clapping along with our folk dances, then became good friends. A large portion of the present-day population realize that Bush used the whole 9/11 thing, whether an inside job or the fantasy they spun, was just an excuse to start a huge blood for oil and blood for gas pipeline agenda which many people now regret and have learned was a detrimental political ploy by the Man. So enjoying music and dance from Iran and Afghanistan is a way to confirm this inner realization that the cruel and destructive wars against innocent Islamic peoples are only for gain and greed. If any Middle Easterners were really trying to hurt us, they could have easily done much more than we claim they did and they would have done it with complete finality. So however audiences perceive all the perfidious political propaganda out there, everyone seems to appreciate learning more about the positive aspects of Middle Eastern cultures. Actually, some people here in the US are completely convinced that America really is “the Great Satan” which will soon collapse. So learning from ancient, wiser and more spiritual world cultures would be very beneficial.
How do the Heliocentrics compare with past trios, quartets or collectives you’ve played with? What was the writing and performing process like with them?
Lloyd Miller: The Heliocentric leaders, Jake and Malc, are enthusiastic, highly talented young fellows and I really like them a lot. They were able to easily adopt various musical cultures, but they still cling to their hip-hop, funk and rock addiction. They learned quickly but forgot slowly; that is they were not able to forget that ever-prevalent and annoying rock beat, funk and hip-hop stuff that has no place in any of the music I do. In the Oriental Jazz genre, it is more important to be untainted by the devastation of the whole rock invasion from the ’50s onward, which unfortunately has now become a worldwide epidemic, than to be able to pick up a few new concepts. The Heliocentrics’ pianist, flutist, harpist and multi-instrumentalist were fantastic; they were immediate quick learners and some of the best musicians I have known. I only had to show each one a couple of minutes of styling or ideas and they absorbed it all like they had been playing that way for years. Still, the best groups I worked with before were: the Pres Keys Quartet in the mid 1960s at Brigham Young University, the Mike Johnson quartet in the late ’60s at University of Utah, Iranian musicians I worked with in Tehran and on NIRTV in the 1970s, musicians I worked with in the Bay Area in the 2000s, and most recently the placid, pleasant piano lady Zoe Rahman, with whom I did a recording session over a year ago in the UK; a session which I have never even heard yet. That was the session I hoped would be released on CD. Many of the most successful former groups from 1965 to the 2000s are on my Lifetime In Oriental Jazz CD recently released by Jazzman Records.
One of my son’s best friends is just getting into the trumpet, and for his 11th birthday I bought him CDs by Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Wynton Marsalis, just as a primer to get him started on appreciating some of the great players. If you were to create a jazz music primer for someone just dipping their toe into the genre, what would your Top 5 recordings be and why?
Lloyd Miller: Great that your son’s best friend is going to be a future jazz star on trumpet. You are absolutely right, for cool jazz trumpet there is nothing like Miles Davis. Kind Of Blue and other similar Miles landmark records are a must. Clifford Brown is also great, whichever LP is out there. Wynton Marsalis is fabulous, whatever LP best represents his virtuosity. As for Louis Armstrong, his Hot 5 and Hot 7 recordings are the best. Unfortunately he later acquiesced to the Man and became way too commercial. But for traditional jazz, one of Louis’ mentors, although he wouldn’t frankly admit it when I had a two-hour chat with him in Paris in the ’60s, Bunk Johnson is the absolutely best trad jazz ever. His LP with my idol clarinetist George Lewis, another of my idols, pianist Alton Purnell, and my drum idol Baby Dodds, is the Bible for trad jazz, just like Kind Of Blue is the Bible for cool jazz. However, we must not forget other greats like clarinetist Jimmy Giufre, along with Bob Brookmeyer and Stan Getz from the West Coast jazz genre with which I grew up.
Tell me about the track “Lloyd Lets Loose.” I take it that’s you on the vocal? What are you surmising? How much fun was it for you to vamp on this crazy instrumental?
Lloyd Miller: As for “Lloyd Lets Loose,” that was a pure accident. Jake and Malc were playing a recording of some of their hip-hop stuff that they knew I just hated. They were kidding me about playing something over it and I was angrily explaining that it was ugly, Satanic, evil and the type of noise that I have been working my whole life to replace with beautiful and intelligent music. I raved on in a semi-rage and they secretly recorded me while they were giggling behind the glass. Then they asked me to do it again, but the second time I wasn’t as emphatic because I had already given it my full anger. Finally they got a take they liked and we forgot about it. Then when they were deciding what to put on the CD, they fought to force that thing in there. I was against it because I didn’t want any of that ugly pop, hip-hop or other satanic stuff on a CD with my name on it. The only way I would agree (griping and grumbling) to accept junk music like that was if I was screaming about the evils of rock, pop and hip-hop. It didn’t come out like I hoped because the first take was the best; but didn’t work because somehow it wasn’t recorded correctly. That track was not fun; it just make me furious even talking about the junk music that has taken over the world, belching out of cars at every stop light, thumping and wretchedly rumbling in all the supermarkets, health stores and even gas stations. It seems we will never have peace again until somehow all electronics are wiped out by some divine vengeance. Or unless we revert to real music and our former quest for beauty not the beast.
I see you’ve collected driver’s licenses from Iran, France and Sweden. Am I missing anyplace? This was more than just travel. From reading collected articles, reviews and interviews on you, it seemed like you totally immersed yourself in other cultures. Which provided the richest musical experience?
Lloyd Miller: That’s right, wherever I lived or visited, even for just a few days, I totally adapted. I dressed like the natives, spoke their languages, sometimes quite convincingly, in a few cases even to perfection; and I adopted all the cultural customs. But I still retained my strict vegetarian regime (since 1962) without using liquor, tobacco, tea, white sugar, white salt or white bread and striving to remain celibate when unmarried according to Mormon requirements. As for musical enrichment, Iran was the most beneficial including Afghanistan (which was formerly part of greater Persia). I also had enjoyable musical experiences in India, Turkey and Lebanon which are all in my very exciting, informative and almost unbelievable book which is soon to be online somewhere called Sufi Saint and Swinger. That’s “swinger” in the sense of jazzman.
I love this quote from you, featured in an article about your weekly TV show on NIRTV: “I don’t care whether a person plays perfectly or not. I only use artists who are spiritually evolved. I would rather spend months training someone who has soul than have to play with some of the wretched phonies that aimlessly wander the halls of the entertainment world.” Now this was back a while ago. Things ain’t gotten any less phony. Do you still seek to train younger artists who are hungry for something more? Do you find there’s still that drive for a spiritual connection to the music?
Lloyd Miller: Yes, right now I have a wonderful former student from my Persian music class at Brigham Young University who has adopted the style of the reigning master of Persian setar and tar, Daryush Talai, who was my friend at the Center for Preservation and Propagation of Iranian Music in 1970s Tehran. This young BYU student performed at our recent concert in downtown Salt Lake and will be at an upcoming performance in a few days in southern Salt Lake. As to whether there is a drive among others for the necessary spiritual connection to music, my whole life’s work revolves around the advice of my music and spiritual master Dr. Daryush Safvat, former director of the Center for Preservation and Propagation of Iranian Music. His message is something like, “first perfect yourself by polishing the mirror of your soul then you will be able to access music directly from the divine source through inspiration and then reflect this divine light to others through that polished mirror.” Without this as a main guideline, music conjured up by those who have no business pretending to be musicians or even those who might have some talent and skills, will have no lasting and definitely no eternal value, but will remain as useless and often unpleasant annoying noise. This is true even if the whole world wrongfully concludes that something might be good music because, as we have learned over the last 6000 years of world history, “the masses are asses.” I won’t cite cases of totally worthless junk music that has destructively oozed throughout the unwitting world, but I could cite a couple of wicked witches who are totally evil pop/rock singers and a gruesome gang of four who have been more culturally damaging than Mao’s gang added to Stalin, Genghis Khan and everyone else of that ilk. I am sure that the Devil will love having those entirely musically destructive icons at his side during future eons while praising them for their hard work as his apostles during the last 50 years. But as long as there are a tiny handful of honest authentic musicians whose preordained life’s work is to bring spirituality to the worlds through music, a minute cadre of the world’s population may be able to stumble across the true authorized masters hidden among the huge endless unfathomably forlorn forces of fraud that musically dominate every corner of the globe.