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Joel Miller with Sienna Dahlen: Dream Cassette
by George Graham
(Origin Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/6/2016)
Artists have been mixing rock and jazz for about 50 years now. Most of the time it takes either one of two forms – rock tunes with some added jazz instrumentation and stylistic touches, or music that comes basically from a jazz composing style with electric instrumentation. Examples from the early days include respectively, Blood Sweat & Tears, and the Mahavishu Orchestra. Jazz-rock fusion continues in the 21st Century and sometimes gets fairly eclectic, but basically continues in those two schools. But, as you might expect from my talking about that, this week we have something of an exception. It’s by Canadian artists Joel Miller with Sienna Dahlen, and called Dream Cassette.
Joel Miller is mainly a jazz sax player and composer, a native of New Brunswick. In 2012 he released a somewhat more conventionally jazzy album called Swim. For the new release, he got together with singer-songwriter Sienna Dahlen who created lyrics to Miller’s tunes, which are intentionally genre-crossing. Miller grew up playing a variety of different musical styles, and was also a fan of skateboarding. He says that striving for perfection in his skateboarding was what drew him to jazz. He says that the new album was inspired by the simplicity of American folk music, and some of the tunes have audible hints of that. Ms. Dahlen and Miller collaborated on some of the songs whose styles Miller wanted to get into, with Ms. Dahlen penning the lyrics and Miller heard on various instruments including the saxes, keyboards, acoustic guitar and some vocals. They are joined by a varying cast of supporting musicians, who take the music in the different directions sonically, from folky acoustic to electric rock to electronic dance-influenced to something close to straight-out jazz.
Where there are lyrics, they tend to be spare, and occasionally witty. And sometimes there are wordless vocals. Miller, who had not previously sung on his recordings, appears in that mode, using his voice to add texture to some of the arrangements. Those varied sonic approaches are what makes this album so interesting, along with the way the music neatly evades the expectations for jazzy rock or vice-versa.
Some of the musicians who appear most prominently on this Montreal-area recording and get solo spotlights include guitarists Francois Jalbert and Jordey Tucker on electric guitars, and David Carbonneau on trumpet.
The material on Dream Cassette is reminiscent of an old fashioned concept album in the way the tracks flow from one to the next, sometimes as overlapping segues and sometimes just through the flow of the music, thus making the record worth listening to as a continuum.
Opening is a two part piece called Blue Times, the first section of which is an interesting mixture of a folky texture with an almost madrigal quality with a what sounds like loop based percussion. <<>>
That leads into the second part of Blue Times which gets into what I suppose could be called “jungle jazz.” <<>>
Somewhat more ethereal in sound is Flying Dream which includes a little Indian tabla with the wordless vocals. It’s another engaging piece for its distinctive sonic pastiche. <<>>
Warm Lake is about as close to a jazz ballad as this album comes. It features more of the laconic lyrics of Ms. Dahlen. <<>>
A song called Corey Heart is one of the more distinctive and witty on Dream Cassette. Though “heart” in the song title is spelled “h-e-a-r-t” as opposed to the spelling of the Canadian pop singer’s name, it’s about memories of one young woman and how she was a fan of the 1990s teen idol. Musically, the piece is a quirkily clever stylistic blend. <<>>
There is one straight-out rock track, Streamlined. It turns out to be an elegy for Miller’s nephew who was an avid skateboarder and died young at the age of 14. <<>>
Another musically distinctive piece is called Ta Da!, which is used as an interjection in a composition that seems out of the art rock world coupled with the jazz instrumentation featuring Miller’s sax and David Carbonneau’s trumpet. <<>>
The album ends with another bit of sonic cleverness. No I Got the Blues starts with a bunch of wordless vocals that evoke Bobby McFerrin... <<>> before it gets into a kind of jazz-rock fusion romp. <<>>
Jazz-rock fusion takes numerous forms, but a newer generation of musicians from the jazz world who grew up on alternative music and perhaps new age, are pushing the mixture of styles in new directions. Joel Miller’s new album Dream Cassette featuring singer-songwriter Sienna Dahlen is a good example. Rather than borrowing from two or three standard genres, this album does a kind of musical free association combining ideas in perhaps unexpected ways – including folk-influence with world music, hip-hop style drum samples and straight-ahead jazz soloing, while keeping things very tasteful and appealing. Ms. Dahlen combines a jazz singer’s technique with a sometimes folky approach, while Miller’s playing also combines more conventional kazz with the eclecticism of his compositions.
Our sound quality rating gets a rare full grade “A.” It strikes a nice balance between studio enhancement with good clarity. It helps that it was mastered more like a jazz album, so it has good dynamic range and was not overly compressed, something that is hard to find these days.
Joel Miller with Sienna Dahlen have made an album that deftly evades categorization. That may tend to make it a hard sell in the traditional music biz, and with the recording being a kind of concept album that would lose a lot less enjoyable if deconstructed into separate digital files or streams. But for those who like a good old-fashioned listen, either as a kind of mind-clearing sonic backdrop, or something that one can dedicate one’s full attention to, it’s definitely a worthwhile piece of musical art.
(c) Copyright 2016 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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