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A conversation with 'Oriental Jazz' legend Lloyd Miller, and free download

January 24, 2011 | 11:28 am

Lloyd_Miller_with_dutar One of 2010’s most overlooked albums belonged to Lloyd Miller, whose collaboration with the British funk outfit Heliocentrics yielded a particularly fruitful and unorthodox union. Released by Strut Records, the combination paired the 72-year old musician and ethnomusicologist with a band fluent in the music he despises: funk, rock and hip-hop.

A jazz purist averse to anything opposed to euphony, Miller is old school in the most thorough way conceivable. Over the last several years, as his seraphic and exotic tunes have received a critical revival (thanks in no small part to Stones Throw), he’s achieved a reputation for whip-smart cantankerousness, critiquing the ills of pop culture with an acidic pen -- see this infamous e-mail exchange between Miller and Now-Again Records maestro Eothen “Egon” Alapatt.

Obvious in his diatribe is a burning ardor for jazz and world music ranging from “peaceful and uplifting Indian ragas, Chinese traditional, Balinese, Japanese, Debussy, Bach, [or] classy cool jazz like Miles Davis." Miller’s complaints with the crassness of the modern world stem from the scant attention paid to jazz in favor of rock and rap. But rather than futilely fulminate against contemporary tastes, Miller has spent the last half-century leaving behind a body of work that holds its own with the jazz legends he venerates, anchored by the 1960s recordings he dubbed "Oriental Jazz.

Combining an autodidactic streak (he taught himself the piano, the sax and the banjo) with a scholastic bent (he holds a master's degree in Middle East studies and a PhD in Persian), the globetrotting jazzman was raised in Glendale, but he has spent a lifetime following mellifluous sounds to the ends of the Earth, including stints in France, Belgium, Sweden and Iran. Working as an arts journalist with his own Persian prime time network show, Miller became something of a cult celebrity in the Middle East before returning home to the United States, settling in Utah to perform and record sporadically.

Self-effacing to a fault, Miller describes his work with the Heliocentrics in measured terms, having never warmed to their penchant for a rollicking uptempo sound. Yet like the band’s similarly stellar collaboration with Ethio-jazz legend Mulatu Astatke, Lloyd Miller and the Heliocentrics achieve a beautiful synthesis of old and new -- funky enough for groove snobs and smooth enough for your grandfather.

Dialing from his home in Salt Lake City, Miller spoke with Pop & Hiss about his most recent record, "Oriental Jazz," and his storied career.

Considering your styles are almost diametrically opposed, was there a lot of initial dischord between you and the Heliocentrics, or was the process pretty smooth?

They're very talented musicians, they hear that thumping rock beat, that hip-hop sound, and I just can't do anything with that. I don't even think Shelly Manne could do anything with it. It was a hard process -- it wasn't like they were bad musicians or bad guys, but it was like Tiger Woods going against wrestlers out to trip limbs. Not even Tiger Woods could do well dealing with that in the grass. I like to play jazz, and they're such nice guys that I didn't want to make them feel bad.

But there were people throwing their sticks on the floor, swearing and screaming. When they sent me the tracks, I initially said that I couldn't play on that junk. To me, it sounded like background music for a horror film. I try to make music that’s very beautiful, but not syrupy -- the sort of beautiful that Miles Davis made on "Kind of Blue." I want to make things that feel like watching the sun set at Santa Monica or Laguna. They wanted to make jumpy, scary music, so there was a problem.

You were originally slated to perform at the first Woodstock, but it never transpired. What happened?

Well, Abbie Hoffman booked me at the Woodstock festival. But basically, there was so much chaos that the helicopter flight that was supposed to pick us up couldn't take us in because it was so rainy and misty. I ended up getting paid my $150, but the downside was that no one got to find out about me. I couldn't even go anywhere to see the music, there was an unnavigable wall of people stretching all the way from our hotel to the festival.

You've been a pretty vociferous opponent of rock, pop and hip-hop. Is it the genres themselves or the fact that they exert almost a strangehold over popular music?

That's the thing. What makes me mad is that there just isn't much variety allowed in popular music. It has nothing to do with it all being good or all being bad, but what I resent is that it seems to be an all or nothing proposition. If there was even a 50/50 balance between those types of music and jazz, it would be all right with me. 

When do you think things started to go downhill?

It was about 1955 or something. There was still some good jazz after that and I don't want to blame the four apostles of the devil for being out to destroy world music, but things just got wilder and louder and out of hand. But I think there's people out there who still connect to the old days. There's a bass player in my band who wears her hair like she lived in the 1930s or 1940s -- like she was straight out of a Doris Day film.

What might happen is that we go in this direction like the Salt Flats in Utah, where we're going 400 miles an hour and pretty soon you realize that you can't go any farther and you have to return to where you came from to avoid disaster.

Do you feel that there's a legitimate chance of this happening?

I’m kind of hoping that on my death bed, there's a neo-Puritan revival. I hope that people get tired of being drugged out and sleepless, and that there will be a movement among youth to wear long dresses and nice suits and not get any tattoos. They'd drink wheat grass, and praise the Lord and not be part of corporate entities that are quick to sell them junk. And they'd gravitate toward beautiful dreamy music like Ravi Shankar and Japanese cultural music, and maybe, just maybe, they’d discover an old LP from Lloyd Miller, and say that this idiot was trying to do it a very long time ago and he was ahead of the curve.

-- Jeff Weiss

Photo: Lloyd Miller. Credit: Strut

MP3:Lloyd Miller & the Heliocentrics -- "Electricone"