by G.H. Harding
MILLER’S CROSSING — We’ve tub thumped bassist Robert Miller and his group,Project Grand Slam in this column. Now, with their new album (their 4th) The Queen’s Carnival being properly released next month (via CEN/RED), we went for an in-depth behind-the-scenes conversation with Mr. Miller:
Tell us about the new album The Queen’s Carnival? How does it progress from the previous one?
This album was much more faithful to my two musical loves – rock and jazz, and I feel like I was able to combine them as never before. This is the album that I’ve been building towards my entire professional career.
You played the F. M. Kirby Center in Wilkes Barre (PA) last week and we heard it was terrific … and, you streamed it! Tell us about it and what made it such a memorable performance?
First of all the venue is historic, dating from the early 1900’s when F.M. Kirby founded it (as well as the town of Wilkes-Barre!). Second, the band was really hot! We played like our lives were on the line! Third, we were able to live stream the event over our Facebook page all around the world. How cool is that? As of this writing the concert has been viewed by over 13,000 people, just a few more than were in attendance at the Kirby Center!
We read about your bass-guitarist influences recently; what do you love most about the instrument?
The way that I play bass I’m dictating and controlling the vibe and feel of every song. It’s like a conductor waving his baton at a full orchestra. I guide the emotional and musical feel of the music – which is an awesome joy!
Tell us about working with The Voice’s Kat Robichaud? And, about Lucy Woodward?
I guess I’ve got a thing for beautiful, talented female singers! And the songs that I picked for them to sing (“Fire” and “You Really Got Me”) are quintessential guy songs. So in addition to reimagining the song and making it my own, I’m flipping the entire feel by having it sung by a woman instead of a man. And these two ladies just owned the songs!
How did you come to choose the song by The Kinks? (“You Really Got Me”) Does the audience get it right away?
I’m a baby boomer and a child of the 60’s. I grew up on the Beatles, Stones and the British Invasion bands. I played only rock and roll until I was 19. This music is in my DNA. “You Really Got Me”is one of the hardest, edgiest songs ever recorded. The Kinks were the forerunner of grunge. I loved that song. What better tribute to the Kinks and Ray Davies then to take his song of 50 years ago and give it a new set of clothes! So far the audiences have loved it!
The album is out August 19 and I know you’re holding an event at Rockwood Music Hall in NYC for it. Will you and the band be performing at it as well?
Is the Pope Catholic? Of course we’ll perform! We’re looking forward to playing for about 30 minutes – about 5 or 6 songs from the new album. Enough to get the audience ready for the free drinks afterwards!
The music business today seems to be evolving everyday; first from a singles-market, then to an album one, and then back to a singles-one. I know that the first single from the new album (“The Rescue”) made a lot of noise and the next one is The Kinks re-worked one. Did you have a cover in mind when you began this album?
Yup. I knew that I wanted to try “You Really Got Me”. But I went through a few iterations with it before I got the feel that I wanted. The first time we played it it sounded like Sade singing at a Bar Mitzvah – totally bland! I knew I had to toughen it up. So I told my sax and guitar players to rock out. And voila!
Tell us about the players in your group.
I play with a rotating cast of young, supremely talented, music school educated, mainly foreign born musicians. I call them my International Cartel. And their leader is a guy who grew up in Queens, NY!
Social Media – how much of it is a plus for you and PGS?
I’m still trying to figure out the whole social media thing. My biggest problem is that it’s a very “cool” medium – it takes no effort and no commitment to “Like” something on Facebook or any of the other sites. Translating “Likes” into actual fans that come out to see you perform and buy your albums and songs is a big hurdle. And the other thing that’s daunting is the world has really gone from CDs to downloads and now to streaming – and the artists get paid next to nothing for a stream. So music has sadly evolved into a nearly-free calling card.
I know you’ve played Lucille’s at B. B. King’s and The Cutting Room in NYC and you have a monthly a residency at The Groove in Greenwich Village. Where else would you like to play in the city?
Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall and the Ed Sullivan Show!
Robert Miller Swings for the Fences With Project Grand Slam
Blends Rock, Jazz, Fusion for Unique Sound
Robert Miller played piano and trumpet growing up, but his first love was the bass. He studied under Jimmy Garrison, who played for John Coltrane and now leads Project Grand Slam, a rock, jazz and fusion band.The six-member combo has a unique sound that has won praise from music critics.
Its third album, Made in New Yorkwas released last year.
It features Miller penned hit singles “New York City Groove” and “The Winner,” four other original songs and two tracks recorded live at the world famous New York City jazz club, Blue Note. A re-imagined version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” is also included.
The band’s fourth and newest album, The Queen’s Carnival, is due next month. The lead single “The Rescue” is already out.
Kat Robichaud, a semi-finalist on NBC’s “The Voice,” guest sings with the band and appears in videos for “Groove” and “Fire.” They have been viewed more than 150,000 times to date on YouTube.
Other band members includeMarcello Casagrandi on keyboards, Mario Castro on sax,Yasser Tejeda on guitar, Joel E. Mateo on drums, and Guillermo Barron Rios on percussion.
The band’s music was featured on the NBC-TV series “Lipstick Jungle,” starring Brooke Shieldsand Kim Raver. Five tunes were included on the soundtrack.
IM caught up with Robert fresh from a rehearsal to gain some insights into Project Grand Slam’s unique sound.
TheImproper: Tell us about the formation of Project Grand Slam.
Miller: I formed PGS in 2007. I wanted a different and cool name for the band so I chose the name of the scheme to steal the gold from Ft. Knox from the James Bond movie ‘Goldfinger.’ Only, I got it wrong! In the movie it was called ‘Operation Grand Slam,’ but I had already named us Project Grand Slam!
IM: How did you come to play the bass; and what players did you admire?
Miller: I took up the bass at 14 because I knew one of the Beatles (Paul McCartney) played bass and I already knew the treble cleff from playing trumpet, so I volunteered to learn the bass cleff. My early favs were Jack Bruce (Cream), Jim Fielder (BS&T) andTim Bogert (Vanilla Fudge). My later favs were Jaco Pastorius (Weather Report),Stanley Clarke (Return To Forever) and Victor Wooten (Bela Fleck).
IM: Tell us about recording with Kat Robichaud, (The Voice semi-finalist 2013) How did you both hook up for the recording?
Miller: Kat works with my music team and they introduced us. In addition to being a great singer, she’s very theatrical, which I think is on full display in the two videos she did with us for ‘Fire’ and ‘NYC Groove.’
IM: Your new album, The Queen’s Carnival comes out in August; tell us about the album, which features the first single ‘The Rescue’ and how the SONY/RED connection came to be.
Miller: I wanted to do an album that truly reflected my love of rock and jazz and that would push the boundaries of each. I also wanted diversity. So the album runs the gamut from funk to Carribean jazz rock to Celtic rock to Arena rock.
I think that’s pretty cool! I was introduced to the two guys who run Creative Entertainment Network (CEN), which is part of SONY/RED. They are my ‘Music Quarterbacks.’
IM: I noticed that the word fusion comes up several times in your bio; I remember the term jazz-fusion being used a lot back in the day; what does fusion mean now?
Miller: Fusion got a bad rap in the ’70s for some reason. But I always loved it. To me it’s the combination of the power and beat of rock with the complexity and improvisation of jazz. When you get it right it’s heavenly!
IM: The accompanying video to ‘The Rescue’ is out too; it has a terrific feel. Tell us how that was put together?
Miller: “The Rescue” was literally the last song that I wrote for the new album. I needed another song and this one came to me one day – it rescued me! I initially was thinking about “Crossroads” by Cream, but the song quickly morphed into James Brown-meets-jazz rock fusion funk. The video was put together by my management team at CEN. It’s upbeat and dazzling – just like the track!
IM: Tell us about the others players in PGS?
Miller: I use a rotating cast of young, terrific musicians mainly out of Berklee Music in Boston. The group on the recording is sort of my A Team. Fabulous, creative, enthusiastic – great fun and joy to play with.
IM: I really love the re-worked Kinks song, ‘You Really Got Me’ featuring Lucy Woodward. We’re big fans of hers; tell us how that song came together?
Miller: People like covers because the songs are familiar. But I have no interest in doing a song just like the original. Instead I try to totally reimagine the song and I lean toward covers of classic rock songs from my era. On the last album, I completely reworked ‘Fire’ byJimi Hendrix and it came out great. The reception was superb.
This time around I just had an inkling that I could totally reimagine ‘You Really Got Me,’ one of my all-time faves by a great band. I was so fortunate to have the great Lucy Woodward sing it with us. I told her to think about the lyrics as she sang it. The song is about someone totally under the spell of their lover; completely obsessed. She nailed it in one take.
IM: Any other possible remakes down the line?
Miller: There are a million more songs from the ’60s left for me to mess with, so I’m probably going to continue the trend.
IM: What other music are you listening to right now?
Miller: I just got into Snarky Puppy because Lucy plays with them.