CD reviews

CD REVIEW: Dominic Miller – Absinthe

Dominic Miller – Absinthe
(ECM Records – ECM 6788468. CD Review by Jane Mann)

Absinthe is Argentinian-born guitarist Dominic Miller’s second release for ECM and his fourteenth solo album. The list of recordings with other people, however, is immense. Even if his name is unfamiliar you have probably already heard him. He has played with Sting since The Soul Cages in 1991 and masses of other musicians along the way, from The Chieftains to Youssou N’Dour, via Tina Turner, Lesley Garrett, Sarah Jane Morris and Manu Dibango. Some of the musicians with whom he has recorded make up the new quintet for this album.

Absinthe is an airy, atmospheric set of compositions inspired by Miller’s love of the works of the Impressionist artists, many of whom painted in the South of France where he now lives. The title came to him first, apparently – many of the impressionists drank absinthe, that potent anise-based spirit favoured by bohemians known as “la fée verte”. In a recent interview with German news site, Miller expands on the title:

“For me it’s about being out of it. And over the last few years I’ve really been into French paintings and thinking about this history of the early 19th century and how Lautrec and Van Gogh and a lot of these guys were tripping on absinthe but still coming up with amazing work. And because they were such highly skilled artists they could come up with these really outrageous trippy concepts with colour.”

Miller put together a quintet sympathetic to his ideas and wrote the music with the “sonic palettes” of his chosen musicians in mind. First up is young Argentinian Santiago Arias who studied under Dino Saluzzi at the Conservatoire in Buenos Aires. He plays the bandoneon, that concertina-like instrument associated with Argentinian tango. His sound is pure and extremely melodic. The combination of Miller’s lyrical guitar with Arias’ lovely lines is delightful – they are the perfect foil for each other. The other three musicians have all played with Miller for years.

On keyboards is Englishman Mike Lindup, best known for his work with Level 42, but a regular performer with Miller, who played with Level 42 himself back in the 80s. Lindup’s is a third melodic voice with the guitar and bandoneon – he also adds delicate ethereal tones, almost theremin-like in places.

On bass is Belgian Nicolas Fiszman. He studied guitar with Philip Catherine, then changed to bass. He’s played with Miller since 2005, but has accompanied Johnny Halliday, Angelique Kidjo, and Charles Aznavour in his time. Miller describes his playing and intonation as having “the nobility of a great whale”, which is a lovely description and also, I think, fair enough. His subtle and discreet bass underpins the whole endeavour.

Miller describes French percussionist Manu Katché as “an artist on the drums, especially with his cymbal work where he is like a great painter”. His presence is everywhere on this recording, and his contribution adds colour, as well as texture to the pieces. Katché is well-known as a session musician – having played with almost everybody. He’s also an ECM veteran. Miller has recorded with Katché as part of his band, and he’s another long-serving member of Sting’s band, so they know each other musically very well.

It’s an unconventional combo, but it works well – the range of timbres and harmonies is extremely agreeable. There’s an Argentinian tinge to much of the music, though think Gotan Project, rather than Astor Piazzolla, as there is a groove through many of the tunes, not just from Katché’s inventive percussion but the rhythmic qualities of the ensemble playing. On an initial hearing the CD appeared light and easy, bar some disjunct improv in the track Ombu, but this is misleading. I think that the limpid clarity of the production (by Manfred Eicher himself), the pleasant atmosphere, the sweetness of tone and the downright prettiness of the guitar and bandoneon sound just gives that impression. As is often the case with music which can be perceived as light or suave, like bossa nova, for example, on a closer listen, the complexity of the composition and the beauty of the ensemble playing comes through.

From the first track Absinthe, where the bandoneon, after a precise harmonious intro, starts sliding about into little patches of dissonance, and the spectral notes from the synthesiser twist around against a backdrop of precise strings and strangely colourful cymbal sounds, the listener is entranced. By the final track, Saint Vincent (presumably a reference to Van Gogh rather than the countless catholic saints, or indeed the American singer/songwriter of the same name) the sonic palette has been fully explored. Miller’s guitar playing is wonderful throughout, lyrical, deft and harmonious. Saint Vincent builds in layers of colour and light to a Pat Metheny-esque crescendo and then disappears as if blown away by the mistral.

This record will appeal to Miller fans, to Sting fans, to existing fans of any of the other members of the band, and to new listeners who are already aficionados of ECM’s fine output of chamber music. As usual, I now want to hear this live, and indeed a grand promotional tour for Absinthe of Central and South America, and Northern Europe was planned. Sadly it has had to be cancelled for health reasons. Wishing Dominic Miller a speedy recovery.

LINKS: Recording of Dominic Miller the band playing the title track of Absinthe
Dominic Miller’s website

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