This interview with Simon Millerd was conducted by email during May-June 2017.
Tony Reif: Let’s go back to the beginning: how did you get interested in jazz and the trumpet in particular? Your bio says you grew up in family of musicians, and you’re from Salt Spring Island, BC, the largest of the beautiful southern gulf islands between Vancouver and Victoria. What was it like for you growing up there? Tell us about the fairy doors of Mt. Erskine, which inspired “Gnome Home”.
Simon Millerd: I got interested in the trumpet and in jazz through my stepdad Mitch Howard. When he brought home my first trumpet, I opened the case and started shaking with excitement just seeing it, so I’m told. Similarly, when I first started taking solos in jazz band in middle school my legs would be shaking from the thrill of it! I guess something in me was primed for this music from the beginning.
Growing up on Saltspring was incredible but we really didn’t know how good we had it. It was only when I left the island for a while and came back that I could really appreciate the nature, the ocean, the community. “Looking Back” and “Gnome Home” are the tunes which try to bring a bit of the island to the listener. The latter refers to these little doors carved into the trees on Mt. Erskine where supposedly fairies live. One of my biggest influences for this music is Skuli Sverrisson, who comes from Iceland, where most of the population really does believe in fairies, so I guess that makes sense.
TR: Who were your early influences in music? You’ve said that as a young jazz musician you were obsessed with the perfection of your technique and execution of chord changes, and that after high school you stopped playing music entirely for three years? What happened?
SM: My early influences, again thanks to my stepdad Mitch, were Clifford Brown and Wynton Marsalis, then Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, then all the jazz greats. I really loved all that stuff from the 50s and 60s. In high school I started participating in a lot of competitions and definitely became obsessed with perfecting the jazz thing, but not always for the right reasons. I stopped playing for three years after high school because I became very depressed and lost interest in everything. It took a long time to get healthy and enjoy life again, what felt like eons. That experience led me to spirituality and the search for a meaning to all the suffering in the world. My music inevitably has become an expression of that, instead of this quest to be the best, impress people etc. I don’t blame the competitions for anything but I do question why we are rating bands ‘gold’ and ‘silver’ and what the use is for naming one guy the winner over all his peers, it seems to lead only to selfish, divisive attitudes.
TR: You’ve said that when you started playing again you were looking for a different approach to music, one that would help you connect more with humanity instead of making you feel more separate. You moved to Montreal (what year was that?) to study at McGill, where Chris McCann opened the way to this connection for you. Some of your classmates there who also studied with Chris and who you’ve continued to perform with have also mentioned him as a very important influence. Could you talk about him and your closest musical friends and associates at McGill and after (some of whom are on the record)? How has your own music developed as part of that scene in bands and collective groups such as Nomad, the Emma Frank Quintet, the Isis Giraldo Poetry Project, Chronicale Infinitas and Kalmunity?
SM: I moved to Montreal in 2008 and met my teacher Chris McCann around 2010, at McGill. Chris was my first teacher to talk at length about the importance of developing as a person, not just as a musician. Music became about the expression of emotion, the illustration of the complexity of how we feel. His lessons were life lessons, philosophy, inquiries into truth. He had a lot of practical advice too, how to practice very efficiently and ‘go deep’ by playing very slowly, how to avoid injury etc. My closest friends were almost all private students of his as well. There was a group of us that really took his stuff to heart. Some of us lived together and formed different bands – Nomad, Isis Giraldo’s Poetry Project, Chronicle Infinitas, Brilliant Ally etc. Lots of other great bands came out of his inspiration, and when Resonance Cafe opened in 2011 it gave us all a really great centre to the scene. Martin Heslop, one of the owners of Resonance, played in Chris’s personal project for many years and they used to talk a lot about the cafe before it opened, so some of us consider Chris to be kind of like the grandfather of Resonance.
TR: In 2011 you toured in the European Jazz Orchestra, and that’s when you met Pablo Held and the other members of his trio, bassist Robert Landfermann and drummer Jonas Burgwinkel. How did that gig come about for you, and how did the connection with Pablo lead to you making this record with his trio? How do you see that collaboration in terms of your own artistic and spiritual direction, your search for deeper meaning in music?
SM: I was invited to play with the European Jazz Orchestra in 2011 thanks to a recommendation from Kevin Dean [McGill prof and trumpet player]. Pablo was the only member of his trio playing in the EJO on that tour, but he showed me the trio’s recordings and I fell in love with their music right away. Pablo invited me back to Germany later that year for a couple concerts, and it was a total thrill to play with the trio. I had been looking for an opportunity to collaborate again but it didn’t happen until they were planning a trip to New York to play at the German Consulate in 2016. I asked if they wanted to make a little detour to Montreal and they agreed. The timing was perfect because I was also looking to record some of my music but didn’t have a regular band in Montreal.
The trio has been a major inspiration for my own musical direction. They are so free, adventurous, interactive, united, it is really a joy to listen to. I have applied some of their concepts to my own bands, for example they don’t play with a set list but instead have all their music memorized and can jump from any point in any piece to any other point at the drop of a hat. It keeps the music fresh, keeps you on your toes!
TR: At what point did you decide to include Emma and some of your Nomad bandmates on the record? It certainly makes it a different statement than it would have been just as a quartet throughout.
SM: Emma was an obvious choice to sing “Quiet Now” and “Montreal March” since they’re inspired by our relationship and our breakup. I started hearing her on more of the songs as I was preparing for the album, as well as the other guys, mainly Jake and Mike from Nomad. I was hearing a nice thick, warm sound and so for a lot of these tunes it became the more the merrier. I even added Jake on some stuff last minute in the studio because I liked how his sound was fitting in so well with the band.
TR: You’ve mentioned Trane and Wayne as being your biggest influences, Coltrane inspiring the Lessons theme (spiritual evolution/learning) and Wayne the Fairytales (adventure/imagination and the joy of musical storytelling). You’ve also referred to Miles Davis and Arve Henriksen – how does what you’ve taken from their performing styles relate to your musical direction as a composer/performer? Would you say that innocence and experience, their tension and its hopeful resolution (in the Blakean sense or any other) are also formative and ongoing themes? And where does free improv fit in this picture?
SM: John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter are definitely among my biggest influences. I think they are so important to me because it’s to Wayne and Trane that I go for relief. Their music is so powerful that it literally can take away my physical pain. It is interesting that they accomplish this in very different ways, different styles. Coltrane is very direct in his song titles and is almost always pointing towards the spiritual realm. With Wayne the song titles refer more to adventure, myths and so forth, only rarely alluding to his Buddhist roots. Lessons and Fairytales is a collection of songs written over the past five years or more, and so the themes that connect that long period of time are quite broad, but I think the title summarizes nicely what the album is about. It was only recently that I connected Coltrane to the Lessons aspect and Wayne to the Fairytales but it is a really strong link that has been growing for many years.
Innocence is a big theme throughout this music, yes. It’s a lesson that our teacher Chris McCann used to talk about, how a child doesn’t get to choose what his parents tell him or what comes on the TV. Humans simply can’t tell the difference between truth and falsehood and because of this we make a lot of wrong moves, but because of this we can also look at another’s harmful actions and remember that they just don’t know that they’re doing something wrong and are under the influence of powerful delusions and illusions. A Course in Miracles refers to it more often as our sinlessness. We are forgiven when we realize that there is nothing to forgive. These kinds of ideas are expanded on emotionally in the music in a natural way, we don’t really think about it or talk about it too much, but I feel that it more subconsciously informs the music. The lessons seem to part the clouds for inspiration to come through, and the fairytales are more like little sparks igniting a collective movie that the band is creating together.
Free improv is incorporated into these songs as a contrast more often than a constant. It’s a relief from the organized structure, and a chance for everyone to build something collectively. It takes a lot of trust and a lot of imagination and I think it brings out a lot of character and unity in the band, especially in the fairytales such as Gnome Home and Jonas and the Dragon.
TR: What are your plans for this music and beyond?
SM: I don’t have many concrete plans for the music at the moment besides a few shows on the west coast this summer (simonmillerd.com for details), but I certainly hope to continue playing music with these wonderful people for many years!