Atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere. That’s what guitarist Dominic Miller’s Absinthe is all about. But its not some wispy, tentative conception of atmospherics. Rather it’s the intentional use of sound, space and time to evoke a strong sense of place or emotion. I’m not sure what I was expecting from this collection, the follow-up to Miller’s ECM leader debut Silent Light, but Absinthe blew away all preconceptions.
Sense of space and place are palpable, as Miller’s acoustic guitars evoke most often his current home in the sunny and languid south of France, and Santiago Arias’s bandoneon pulls the proceedings across the Atlantic with his evocations of non-tango Argentinian indigenous tunes, elastic melodic structures and often unexpected harmonics. Add to that the rhythmic foundation of Manu Katché’s inventive percussion and the rootedness of bassist Nicholas Fiszman, and the subtle keyboards of Mike Lindup for a set that is revelatory.
Both Miller and Katché have played for many years in pop-star Sting’s band, and that long-time relationship comes through from the beginning. The title track, which opens the album, begins with a long and languid introduction; Miller’s evocative finger picking on nylon strings is given emotional heft by Katché’s subtly dramatic cymbal work, and then Arias’s sensitive interplay. That changes in an instant with a dramatic downbeat on the snare from Katché and we’re in fusion territory.
The title of this song and album were the first thing that came to Miller, before he even wrote any tunes. It refers of course to the hallucinatory alcoholic beverage that was favored by the Impressionists, who made art in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the south of Franch where Miller now lives.
“Living in the South of France, I am fascinated by Impressionism,” he says in the liner notes. “Sharp light and witchy mistrals, combined with strong alcohol and intense hangovers must have driven some of these artists toward insanity. Skies that are green, faces blue, perspective distorted.”
Every track on Absinthe is almost like a short story. “Mixed Blessing”, which Miller plays on steel-stringed guitar, pits his upbeat fingerpicking and Katché’s skittery brushes against the blue chording of Arias’s instrument, Lindup’s mellow synth meanders and Fiszman’s somber bass line. Lindup’s piano sets the neutral mood on the morning-after meditation of “Verveine,” while bass and drums ground the setting of “Ombu,” an unsettled piece in 5/8 named for an Argentinian tree known for its vast root system. “Ténèbres” is a Castilian word for darkness, and Arias’s bandoneon and Miller’s nylon-stringed guitar convey a somber mood. “Bicycle” with its lovely fingerpicked pattern, rolling rhythm and languid melody on bandoneon certainly evokes a pleasant ride through the countryside on a sunny day.
The way this music crosses lines between classical, jazz and pop is nowhere more apparent than on “Etude.” This new video plays with that kind of genre-blending, pairing a romantic modern dance piece with Miller’s straightforward performance.
The album finishes with my favorite piece, “Saint Vincent,” on which the bandoneon moves to the front and provides the melodic push as well as driving the work’s harmonic excursions. It’s a strongly rhythmic piece that pays homage to the late Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini, a long-time collaborator with Paul Simon and a mentor figure for Miller. The guitarist steps forward with a challenging solo section toward the end, but mostly he works in concert with pianist Lindup as part of the driving rhythm section.
Can you tell I’m blown away by this album? The endlessly inventive intertwining of Miller’s guitar and Arias’s bandoneon keep this one on repeat.