Kenny Millions is wailing. Rather, his tenor sax is wailing. Legs akimbo, rocking slightly as if on an invisible canoe, the straw-haired, bespectacled saxman blows some furious riffs, weaving in and out of the basslines Dave Wertman pulls from his upright acoustic. Abbey Rader's hands blur over his drum kit. Guest horn Noah lends another voice, a Coleman Hawkins to Millions's Ornette Coleman. Just another night at Sushi Blues.
Like the raw fish dish, Millions's avant-garde jazz may be an acquired taste, shunned at first, gradually appreciated, eventually craved. And like the name of the restaurant he and wife Junko opened four years ago, the man and his music are full of contradictions, enigmas, wry humor. He's adored in Japan and Europe, but holed up in Hollywood, relatively obscure. He can play lush as Paul Desmond, romantic and breathy as Lester Young, or honky-tonking as Bobby Keys, but instead he chooses less commercial avenues. He takes his music seriously, but that's about it; even his stage name (he was born Keshavan Maslak) goofs on the whole Mr. Fabulous world of show biz and the unartistic ideals he disdains.
Take the titles on To Be a Star, one of a pair of new CDs he recorded with pianist Paul Bley. Put all the song names together and they form the central thesis of the work, recited by Millions at the end of the disc: "Trying Hard to Be," "A Star Trying," "Too Hard to Be A Star," "I Must Try," "Not to Be," et cetera. Taken separately, they mean nothing, hardly related to the completely improvised musical pieces they accompany (although Millions maintains that he is intentionally trying to hammer home his message). That's Kenny Millions's humor. It's also his stubborn adherence to his art and ideals, his fuck-the-Establishment and the horse it rode in on.
It's an attitude that many performers wish they could indulge in. But compromise is the name of the game, especially for those scrambling hard to find gigs in a competitive market. Kenny? He's got his cafe. Which means he can play what he wants, when he wants, with whomever he wants. And agents in Europe and Japan keep in touch, assuring that the saxman will have at least a few travel opportunities throughout the year.
"I can not be a working musician," Millions stresses. "For me to make my income playing every gig in the world, I couldn't be creative. It would just jam me up. Sushi Blues gives me freedom. For me to be a creative artist, I cannot have anything to do with the music business. You have to cut that off completely. My primary lifestyle, my primary source of income, cannot be from music."
But the horn player paid his dues, living the New York jazzman's life for fourteen years before moving to Florida. "I just could not take myself playing that game any more," he says. "I was getting too old for that -- any age is too old for that. After a certain while of living that life and playing that game every day, of being totally aggressive and being on the phone every minute -- 'Don't you know who I am? Aren't you going to give me a gig? Where's my next tour? How much does it pay? Blah, blah, blah' -- I was turning insane. I saw some of my colleagues lose their minds, lose their lives, do drugs, drink, commit suicide, become idiots just for the sake of success and being a star."
Millions knows well the rewards for releasing more mainstream recordings. "The temptation's always there. A lot of my New York colleagues -- I won't mention names -- have become household names. But I've seen what they've had to do to get up there on that worldly success level, and I'm not going to do it."
Releasing two CDs of improvised music with one of the world's premier avant-garde jazz pianists seems a certain way to avoid fame and fortune. Millions first met Paul Bley in SoHo in 1977. The two remained friends although they had never performed together. There were no ideas sketched out beforehand, no notation, no safety net. "It's pure music," Millions says of his sessions with Bley. "I have nothing against notated music, I write notation pieces, also." In fact, Millions was commissioned to write five pieces for a big band in Holland and has just returned from Rotterdam where he presented them and "free conducted," leading the band through an improvised session. And you can be sure there's plenty of room for individual expression within his notated pieces, as well. "Improvisation is the most important aspect of my performing life," he states. "The great composers were all great improvisers. You have to be a trained musician. You can't just take out your guitar and start jammin'. Or jellyin'. Or whatever. You have to study for years and years and years."
Sounds such as Millions breathing into his sax without producing a note, dryly tapping the keys with his fingers, or Bley plucking and strumming the strings of his piano, add to the eclectic free fall of spontaneity between the two. Millions tantalizes with the sweet and emotional tones he produces on alto, tenor, and clarinet. Damn! This guy could make it in the mainstream! Parts of Romance in the Big City, the second album recorded with Bley (particularly "Junko's Dreams," dedicated, as is the album, to his wife) are simply beautiful.
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And although uncompromising, Millions denies nothing, even tunefulness. "Sometimes, if it does work out in A-A-B-A structure, that's fine. If that's where it wants to go, then I let it. I'm not inhibited, saying, 'No, I can't have any structure.' Many so-called avant-garde artists, if you play anything melodic, they freak out. What they don't understand is that that attitude is very mainstream, very traditional, because it's very predictable. You can't be anti-anything. If you have the experience and the knowledge, you can take these ideas as they come and not be inhibited by them." But then there's also the confounding elements, the ones that destroy populist notions. "Next time bring your own sheets, Paul," Kenny intones behind some wildly percussive Kurt Weill death piano and a decidedly flatulent sax blast on Romance. "Toilet paper is expensive."
Fortunately, the more-than-moderate success Millions has managed to attain has come on his terms. "It's more difficult this route," he says of holding to his musical ideals. "But I can wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and say, 'All right, I'm still doing what I'm supposed to be doing.'"
Kenny Millions performs with guest artists Wednesday through Saturday at Sushi Blues Cafe, 1836 S Young Cir, Hollywood; 929-9560.
"Improvisation is the most important aspect of my performing life.