Kenny Millions vs. the Free-Jazz Mafia
The altrock movement of the early '90s came as a welcome antidote to the slick sheen of popular music that had dominated the radio airwaves in the previous decade. After a long absence from mainstream exposure, progressive sounds began to receive the recognition and respect they had lacked for so long. It soon became apparent, however, that even alternative sounds could become banal and commercialized as the music industry pumped out one Nirvana clone after another. In response cutting-edge hipsters have increasingly turned to free jazz and electronica for aesthetic salvation.
But as more people flock to these genres, experienced musicians are finding that the refuges from popular culture have created their own rigid codes and guidelines. "For me," says local saxophonist and restaurateur Keshavan Maslak (a.k.a. Kenny Millions), "playing with so-called avant-garde musicians became mainstream. Their mentality was that avant-garde has to be atonal, has to be dissonant, has to be wild and crazy every minute. If it has to be that, then it's very conservative. If you're going to call it free jazz, then that means that anything goes, like rolling on the floor, right?"
Independent-minded musicians like Millions feel pressure from both concert promoters and audiences to find a singular style and stick with it. "To get the gigs, to get the tours, if they heard one record they want you to sound like that record," Millions says wearily. "Even if it's free jazz, they still want you to sound like they heard on the record. Once you're Cecil Taylor, you've always got to be Cecil Taylor, because the audience comes to hear Cecil Taylor go crazy on the keyboard and play a million notes a minute."
Even some of the most supposedly forward-thinking musicians have criticized Millions for his unique style. "I remember I did this one concert in '82 with Derek Bailey, John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Joëlle Léandre -- the French bass player -- and Peter Brötzmann," he recalls. "I was doing this duet with John Zorn and he was blowing his mouthpieces in water, and I was burping. And everyone was offended because I was belching as part of the performance. What's the big deal? You're missing the point."
Despite the criticism Millions has refused to stay in one place for long. Growing up in Detroit, his first musical collaborations were playing Ukrainian folk songs with his grandfather. He went on to play in the horn sections of touring Motown groups such as The Temptations, the Supremes, and Gladys Knight and the Pips. Later, taking Rahsaan Roland Kirk's advice to heart ("His exact words, according to Million, were, 'Go to New York and get your ass kicked'"), he participated in the early '70s "loft" jazz scene in New York City with stellar talents, including Sam Rivers, Rashied Ali, and Jack DeJohnette. He also began performing with experimental artists such as Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass, dipping into the more visually oriented performance milieu at The Kitchen. Still unsatisfied and searching for new musical adventures, Millions eventually moved to Amsterdam to play with what he considered the cream of Europe's free jazzbos. Finally, seeking a respite from the hassle of the music business, in 1986 he moved to Hollywood, Florida, and opened his own club and restaurant, the Sushi Blues Café. For Millions "it has always been about living a very independent life. I'm iconoclastic about the way I present things, enigmatic. Once they put you in a box, you're finished."
Two of Millions's recent CDs demonstrate that he's still blazing his own path through the music world. The first, Without Kuryokhin, is a duet recorded live in Russia in 1996 with Japanese turntablist Otomo Yoshihide. The concert was a tribute to the Russian musician Sergey Kuryokhin, who died before he could join the duo for a tour of that country.
Yoshihide is part of a new breed of musicians who are using turntables and samplers as improvising instruments rather than as mere generators of beats. Instead of providing static rhythms over which an MC can rap, Yoshihide fluidly shifts between various hard disc samples and vinyl, to interact in real time with Millions's sax, clarinet, miniature guitar, and vocal scatting.
The resulting music ebbs and flows naturally as Millions and Yoshihide communicate back and forth. The sounds range from coruscating waves of noise, with Yoshihide taking the lead, to quiet clarinet sobs over sampled keyboard tinkles, to mournful Russian classical music. At one point the duo halts midperformance. Millions explains, "We just stopped playing and waited for them to respond to us. Sometimes you have to stop playing to see if the audience is with you. You've got to allow them to come to you, too. You can't just bombard them constantly. We just stopped playing and said, 'Okay, do you get it?'" The Moscow audience certainly did "get it," as they erupted into an uproarious round of applause and cheers.
Another recent release, Kenny Millions Jams, was recorded live in 1998 at the Sushi Blues Café, and was recently released on Millions's own imprint, Hum Ha Records. Millions operates the café with his wife, a professional chef, and performs his own brand of avant-blues there weekly.
On Jams Millions delves into new sonic territory. "[Jams] is a little different from my other records, because it's dealing with the R&B roots of mine," he says. "I wanted to present it as a very funky production, a really cheap-looking thing. It has to have that gritty R&B thing. And even when we made the recording, they just put the microphone in the room, and I took off."
On a typical weekend gig at the Sushi Blues Café, Millions plays in a trio with his daughter, Melissa, and a blues guitarist, Dave Morgan. For Jams, however, Millions performed completely solo. "I did that CD with my own sampler and programs, but it was still that crazy R&B: I call it avant-blues. The concept, the feeling of looseness, that's what we try to do."
While the music definitely has its roots in traditional R&B and gritty blues, Millions adds his own, unique style to the mix. On his sax Millions reaches deep down to pour out streams of gut-bucket soul. On some tunes such as "Show Jam," in addition to sampled beats, Millions uses a kick drum while playing the sax in order to pump up the rhythmic feeling. On record as well as in person, Millions is able to single-handedly re-create the vibrant feeling of a late-night roadside juke joint.
No matter the setting, be it Japanese noise or avant-blues, Millions constantly strives to please his audience, rather than the critics. "Music is for the people. These musicians and critics get into this game of trying to control [the definition of music] and say what they think it is. It's a big mental-masturbation game and it's very arrogant and has nothing to do with nothing. I don't care what you call it. If you can make your audience, wherever that is, enjoy it and go home feeling better than when they came, then you've done your job. That's how it is for me."
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