Simon Millerd: Lessons and Fairytales

Lessons and Fairytales, the first recording by Montreal-based trumpeter Simon Millerd under his own name, makes sense as a title choice when tracks such as “ACIM Lesson 39 (My Holiness is My Salvation)” and “The Tale of Jonas and the Dragon” appear among the nine pieces, but perhaps an even better selection would have been “Quiet Now,” the album track arguably most emblematic of the album's largely hushed tone. By Millerd's own description an extremely personal record, Lessons and Fairytales draws emotional potency from the relationship breakdown he experienced with vocalist Emma Frank after three years together; the fact that she appears on a number of the album's songs, including “Quiet Now,” only serves to intensify that personal dimension. Its title signifies on more than one level: on the one hand, it refers to the calm that follows the tumult of a relationship's end; on the other, it can be read as a gentle directive to relax and be still. In keeping with the understated character of the recording, Millerd's approach to the horn is more Chet Baker and Arve Henriksen than Freddie Hubbard.

Millerd cites Coltrane and Shorter as primary influences, and it's not insignificant that the music of both artists involves a spiritual dimension, Coltrane's belief famously captured on A Love Supreme and Shorter's Buddhist roots less overtly acknowledged but present nonetheless in his song titles. Millerd experienced his own spiritual crisis early when feelings of depression and meaninglessness prompted a three-year break from playing after high school, a period that in turn encouraged his own spiritual leanings.That self-reflective side comes to the fore in track titles such as “ACIM Lesson 39 (My Holiness is My Salvation)” and “ACIM Lesson 70 (My Salvation Comes from Me).” To realize his personal vision, Millerd's joined on the forty-four-minute release by keyboardist Pablo Held, bassist Robert Landfermann, and drummer Jonas Burgwinkel, plus on selected tracks guests Jacob Wiens (guitar), Mike Bjella (tenor sax), Ted Crosby (clarinets), and Frank.

By now it should be apparent that Lessons and Fairytales is no blowing session but instead a carefully considered collection of musings on matters romantic, philosophical, and, let's not forget, musical.The album's tone is asserted the moment “Looking Back” presents a wistful meditation featuring Millerd's breathy expressions accompanied by the textural shadings of Wiens' acoustic and Held's synthesizer; effective percussive embellishments and acoustic bass grounding by Burgwinkel and Landfermann, respectively, also add much to the presentation. Melodically, “The Unwinding Road” suggests, if subtly, a Shorter influence, given how much the piece's floating drift and angular melodic trajectory (especially when voiced by Bjella's tenor) evokes the character of a typical early Shorter ballad.

To offset the ballad-styled settings, a few robust pieces add an energized spark to the album. “ACIM Lesson 39 (My Holiness is My Salvation),” for example, benefits from Bjella's spirited tenor contributions, as does the inclusion of improv episodes elsewhere that alleviate the restraints of compositional structure. The buoyant “ACIM Lesson 70 (My Salvation Comes from Me)” is elevated by the luscious woodwind textures of Crosby and Bjella and a surprisingly drum'n'bass-inflected turn by Burgwinkel, while “The Tale of Jonas and the Dragon” takes the set out on a high with a freewheeling performance that casts any residue of romantic regret aside.

On the tracks on which she appears, Frank's vocalizing makes a critical difference, whether she's emoting wordlessly (“Wherever You Are,” “Montreal March”) or singing lyrics (“Quiet Now”). Her soft voice so naturally complements both Millerd's compositions and his style of trumpet playing that one could be forgiven for hearing in these performances evidence of a relationship whose history extends beyond the recording sessions. Quiet the album might often be, but it's no less powerful for being so.

September 2017