Photo from Cuneiform Records
In Memoriam by Gary Gomes
Phil Miller was an English rock and jazz guitarist, probably best known to American audiences as a member of Delivery, Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North, National Health, and many collaborations with, among others, Lol Coxhill and Hugh Hopper, and his own band In Cahoots. He was also a member of the U.S.-based avant garde band Absolute Zero which also included his childhood friend drummer Pip Pyle and legendary bassist/composer Enrique Jardines. Miller was an active player up until his passing on October 18, 2017.
Miller was an extraordinarily unique musician who came to attention during an era in which guitarists were valued more for how many notes they played more than the intellectual content of their playing or how well they constructed an improvised solo. Phil was capable of displays of chops. Delivery used to do covers of a Tony Williams Lifetime song that featured John McLaughlin ("Vashkar"), but his most impressive quality was in the way in which he combined thoughtful improvisation over complex chord structures while maintaining a passionate sound on his instrument.
No one listening to Miller play could doubt the passion he brought to his instrument. His tone was thick, rich, and when he played he sounded like a person working in marble to make a memorable solo that would surprise the listener. The notes were chosen carefully, compressed and then broken down and spit out, exploded almost, like a blues players, but with an almost explosive quality. He would often bend notes Robert Wyatt is supposed to have said of him that he would rather play a wrong note than play something that had been played before. There are guitarists I can think of that had a similar approach to Miller's, like Belgian guitarist Pierre Dorge or Bill Connors but Miller was a one of a kind guitarist. Good examples on other instruments would be Steve Winwood, who played organ slowly but seemed to pick the weirdest combinations and resolve them, or Rod Argent who would start off without referring to the theme but will a unique edifice with a solo.
Miller played a more complicated form of music than either of those players, and while playing creatively, was in a very small marginalized idiom. One can hear great examples of his playing on any of the Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North, In Cahoots, or National Health recordings, but you can hear an example of his sensitivity on Matching Mole's "God Song"-finger picked acoustic, but very complicated and delightfully odd. I always particularly enjoyed his exchanges with Dave Stewart on the first Hatfield album.
However, it would be a mistake to limit exposure to his early years, He was continually pushing himself to explore new directions—his collaboration with Absolute Zero, a very dissonant and experimental group shows that. And he was the essence of an exploring musician, who was in it for the music, not the fame, wealth or even acceptance that a lot of artist's explore. Not as radical as Fred Frith or Derek Bailey, but more exploratory than most of his contemporaries. Music was an adventure to him. Passion, humor, taste, intelligence and grace are all part of the late Mr. Miller's legacy, showing that musical adventures and creativity don't have to be demonstrated in a flurry of notes, but that the answers to musical questions lie in exploring and probing, not obliterating the landscape. Especially in the guitar community, we need more, not less, like him.
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