Album review

Dominic Miller – ‘Vagabond’

Dominic Miller – Vagabond

(ECM 4589048. Album review by Julian Maynard-Smith)

Dominic who? Here’s a clue: on Spotify, the most listened-to tracks from Dominic Miller’s previous albums are covers of ‘Fields of Gold’ (2.2 million) with Sting himself singing, and a solo guitar version of ‘Shape of My Heart’ (1.8 million). A quick Internet search reveals that Miller has been Sting’s guitarist from The Soul Cages (1991) onwards, and co-wrote ‘Shape of My Heart’ – which must be both a blessing and a curse, because how on earth do you escape the shadow of someone that famous?

Perhaps by exploring different genres, because Miller’s albums under his own name have ranged from smooth classical (Shapes, 2004) to jazz-rock fusion (November, 2010) to Cuban-tinged jazz (Hecho en Cuba, 2016). Conversely, his last three albums are all primarily acoustic (on them he plays nylon- and steel-string acoustic guitars only) and steeped in the aesthetic of the ECM label on which they appear, creating a sound world not dissimilar to ECM stablemate Ralph Towner.

The first of these ECM albums was Silent Night (2017), duos with percussionist Miles Bould; the second Absinthe (2019), a quintet with bandoneon, keyboards, bass and drums (Santiago Arias, Mike Lindup, Nicolas Fiszman, Manu Katché); and now there’s Vagabond – a quartet with Jacob Karlzon (piano, keyboard), Nicolas Fiszman (electric bass) and Ziv Ravitz (drums) playing eight Miller originals.

Miller has said that he’s never intended to make a guitar album, seeing himself ‘more as an instrumental songwriter’. Certainly, a songlike quality breathes through all the compositions, right from the arpeggiated guitar intro on ‘All Change’ that opens the album. And if they’re songs, they’re mainly quiet, introspective ones: the ballad-like qualities of ‘Cruel but Fair’ are enhanced by Ravitz’s subtle brushwork and Karlson’s delicate piano; ‘Open Heart’ is so quiet that every fret click is audible; Fiszman’s electric bass across the whole album generally provides a warm pulse rather than a strong beat; and the album’s only non-acoustic elements are synth colouration soft as a breath of warm air on ‘Open Heart’ and ‘Vaugines’.

‘Clandestin’ is more extravert, building from a gentle guitar riff overlaid by rippling piano runs that recall the quieter outings of Lyle Mays with ECM-era Pat Metheny, to a strong rhythmic pulse from bass and drums topped by a mercurial piano solo – as is ‘Altea’. But straight after is ‘Mi Viego’, a pure nylon-string guitar solo with a slightly Spanish tinge, followed by the closing track ‘Lone Waltz’, which occasionally (like ‘Clandestin’) hints at Metheny/Mays largely due to Kalzon’s piano.

Miller’s observation that he sees himself as an ‘instrumental songwriter’ is borne out not only by the songlike quality of the tracks but also by their collaborative nature. The only photo of any band member in the CD’s insert is a lone headshot of Miller himself, but on a blindfold test one would be hard-pressed to identify a leader. Not a sideman, then, but a fine composer/performer and first among equals in this highly listenable quartet.

Release date: today 21 April 2023

LINK: Buy Vagabond

Categories: Album review, Reviews

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