Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Kristen Miller in Actors Studio benefit

Kristen Miller has been turning the cello on its head for years, mixing hypnotic African rhythms and Eastern melodies with rock attitude, vocabulary and gear — like a vintage Tube Screamer distortion box and a battery of effects pedals. But these days Mama's got a brand new bag. The Byfield cellist, who drastically cut back her performance schedule after her son Lucas was born four years ago, has this jazz thing going on as she returns to Thomas Eaton Recording at the Tannery to work on her follow-up to 2006’s “Strange Little Valentine.”

Not that listeners will be able to peg the music as hard-bop or post-bop. It’s more about attitude than definition. It’s jazz that “comes out sideways,” says Miller. She’s going into these sessions with some ideas, not songs ready for the can. “It’s a much looser approach than I had with ‘Valentine,'” she says. “I don’t have a plan. I’m going by intuition. I start playing and find out what song wants to be recorded now. We’ll see what we have at the end.”

But, this being the always-elusive (musically, at least) Miller, who cites everybody from Bartok to Zeppelin as an influence, you know the new album is not going to sit still stylistically. The still-untitled album, which she hopes to release in early 2010, will include instrumentals and spoken word, tunes with a worldbeat vibe and rock — including a cover of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” which was “a little bit of a gimme since it has such a great string arrangement to begin with.”

You can get a taste of what the cellist has been up to this weekend, when she joins the Powow River Poets in a benefit for the Actors Studio at the Tannery. It will be one of her last shows of the year, as she settles back into the academic life at The Governor’s Academy, the former Governor Dummer Academy — or what the cool kids are calling “the Gov's,” avoiding the whole issue.

The Govs is where the whole jazz thing got started. Miller, who grew up in New Jersey, plays a handcrafted turn-of-the-last-century Leon Bernardel cello. She learned the “right” way to play the instrument at the University of Connecticut. She did what was expected, performing standard repertoire in trios and quartets — and teaching — to pay the bills. She moved to Byfield — just around the corner from the Gov's — about 12 years ago.. That's where she developed "cellobrew," which is what Miller calls the unique east-meets-west, classical-meets-rock musical hybrid that flowered on 2003's "Later that Day" and, three years later, "Strange Little Valentine."

After her son was born, Miller started looking for a more dependable gig, and and landed a position as orchestra director at Governor's Academy. That went so well that they offered her the chance to lead the school’s jazz ensemble. She told them that jazz was just a little bit outside her comfort zone, but they were impressed with her teaching chops and said, essentially, that’s cool — and packed her off to a weekend seminar with jazz educator and author Jamey Aembersold, then followed that up wih a weeklong seminar with NEA jazz master David Baker. The seminars clicked, generating a lot of new ideas that are coming to fruition on the new, still-untitled album.

In the schedule-busting mix of dayjob, mommyland and creative imperative, something has to give, and for Miller that has been performance — at least during the academic year. “I have to make time for the cello," she says. She’s also making time for session work, playing on “Some Assembly Required,” the new album by roots-rockers Assembly of Dust — a disc that included such high-profile players like Richie Havens, Bela Fleck and John Scofield. She also played on Irma Thomas' “Simply Grand,” which grabbed a Grammy nomination for best contemporary blues album early this year. She is part of a string quartet on “What Can I Do?,” a tune Burt Bachrach wrote specifically for the album. She got a call from Rounder Records asking if she could play the session “and I said ‘Yeah, I think I can make that happen,’” she says. "I tried to play it cool. I don't think I succeeded."

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Cellist Kristen Miller will perform with the Powow River Poets at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 3 at a benefit for the Actors Studio of Newburyport at the Tannery. There will be a reception in the concourse of Mill #1 after the program. Tickets are $45. All proceeds benefit the Actors Studio. For information or reservations call 978-465-1229. For more info, log onto

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