Tom Millar Quartet
Photo Credit: Monika S. Jakubowska

Pianist TOM MILLAR is inspired by people and travel, writes AJ Dehany.

No sooner had Tom Millar jumped off the plane from Switzerland than we were in the bar at London’s Kings Place, grocking Neck Oil and having a highly millennial conversation about renting. Mostly we talked about music, everything from Debussy to Django Bates, with a lot in between.

Tom recently finished a 20-date UK tour promoting his debut album as a band leader, Unnatural Events, a diverse set of finely wrought originals driven by his encyclopaedic gift for the piano and displaying a supreme generosity to his fellow musicians, showcasing Alex Munk’s bittersweet guitar tone, Misha Mullov-Abbado’s versatile bass and Mike Clowes’ responsive drumming. Acclaimed singer Alice Zawadzki features in a moving setting of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s proto-environmentalist poem Inversnaid.

“The Hopkins is inspired,” I told him. “It’s one of my favourite poems in the language.”

“It’s amazing isn’t it? Really great poem.”

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down…

He confessed, “I’m not a great poetry reader at all. I like to read novels.”

“They’re harder to set to music,” I said.

“I wouldn’t try to set a novel to music, yeah.”

Tom has an unassuming self-confidence that is upheld by his talent and generosity toward his fellow musicians. For a sideman turned bandleader who has never held a “proper job” he’s had some colourful employments. He was part of Ollie Howell’s band for three months inaugurating Quincy Jones’s jazz club in Dubai. He’s just come back from Switzerland, playing film soundtracks in an orchestra with the amazing stipulation that they’re not allowed to look at the film they’re tracking. In more relaxed regimes he has toured with the Lyric Ensemble and with Swiss blues star Philipp Fankhauser. He also enjoys teaching and running workshops.

“I think jazz musicians these days have to be versatile. You end up doing crazy things that you didn’t expect to do, but it’s all good – I mean, I’m making a living out of music, and that’s a wonderful thing.”

To record the album, Tom was awarded funding from a Jazz Services Recording Support Scheme and he ran a successful Kickstarter. Is this how you make an album today?

“I get the impression it’s more democratic these days, like anyone can do it. If you decide you wanna make an album you can. You just have to put a lot of work in.”

A few years ago Tom moved to Switzerland and studied with left-field jazz treasure Django Bates. In their fortnightly sessions, shredding over piano basslines and studying NDR big band charts, Django gave him valuable advice that helped him get to the album. Today Tom’s learning comes from more disparate sources, especially his immediate peers.

“At a certain point it becomes musical taste, doesn’t it? There are different levels of virtuosity and different levels of ability but everyone’s got a different thing to bring to the table. You learn so much from your peers, and I try to support them. It’s very important to have a scene going on.”

Given the ensemble feel of the album, I asked if he might follow Laura Jurd and Dinosaur in moving from a “Name Quartet” to “Band Name” format, respecting a more collaborative approach.

“It’s not at all collaborative!” he declared with a giggle. “I just decided to stick with my name. A few people have told me not to, but I’m standing my ground. I really feel I wanna push this quartet. I think there’s something to be said for having a project that you can really call your own.”

Tom Millar is one of those musicians you just believe in. A follow-up to Unnatural Events is inevitable, but it’s only part of the journey.

“I just want to play in as many contexts as possible and get as much experience with as many people as possible. I still have the same mindset, I just feel a bit more confident in myself, with my own playing and having something to say that people wanna check out. It’s been good to do an album, to put my stamp on something and get some nice responses from people. That’s cool.” (pp)

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk

Tom Millar Quartet plays at the Green Note Camden as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival on 15 November

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