Sunday, June 16, 2013

Jazz Mirrors Iran#4: An American in Tehran

photo by Reza Hakimi
In the fourth installment of my ten-week series exploring Iran through the world of jazz, I've looked at Iranian music through the melodies of one its most dedicated ambassadors: Lloyd Miller.

Lloyd Miller is no typical fan boy. If there’s one thing to know about him, it’s that he doesn’t like mainstream music, likely most of the stuff on your iPod. Groupie he is not, calling most of today’s new hits “jumpy ugly obnoxious rock junk that has permeated the whole world like leprosy destroying everyone’s musical tastes and minds.” You could write him off as an aging music snob, but then you’d be missing out on one of the edgiest pioneers in building the musical bridge between East and West.

                                  Segah – Lloyd Miller                                 

If there’s a more important thing to know about Lloyd Miller, it’s his love of Persian music. Born in 1938 to a ballet dancer and a professional clarinetist, he began learning piano at the age of three. By his early teens, he taught himself banjo, clarinet and cornet. There is scarcely a single instrument today that he hasn’t mastered or at least experimented. In 1957 his father, now a professor at the University of Southern California, was invited to Iran in order to oversee the creation of University of Tehran’s business school. Nineteen-year-old Lloyd, already a staple in the American jazz scene, came along, mostly so that his parents could keep him away from a drug culture that permeated into many music circles. Miller himself looked at the trip as a spiritual quest, searching for a new musical language that he found partially in traditional jazz and the more modern Bop, but still felt incomplete.

Out of curiosity one day, Miller turned on the local radio in his Tehran hotel room, only to find himself completely entranced by the sound of the tar, a skin-covered plucked instrument. For him, it was love at first sound. He stayed in Iran for a year, studying music at the University of Tehran, before leaving for Germany to play at Domicile du Jazz in Frankfurt with Peter Trunk and Albert Mangelsdorf, where one night he was joined by great jazz innovator, Don Ellis and Eddie Harris. After Germany, Lloyd went to Switzerland and then left for Stockholm. The next stop was Paris, where he played at the Camillion with Jef Gilson band and occasionally visiting Blue Note cafe, where Miller would be asked by jazz legend Bud Powell to sit in a set or two with drummer Kenny Clark.

After earning a master’s degree in Middle East Studies and a doctorate in Ethnomusicology, Miller returned to Tehran in 1969 on a Fulbright scholarship, where he lived for seven years as a researcher, an arts columnist and worked in public relations for the Center for Preservation and Propagation of Iranian Music. He performed at traditional music festivals, visited sacred shrines, attended wild Sufi ceremonies, all culminating in his dissertation, Music and Song in Persia: The Art of Avaz. Iranians knew him as Kourosh Ali Khan, his stage name while hosting his own prime-time weekly jazz and ethnic music show called Kurosh Ali Khan va Dustan (Kurosh Ali Khan and Friends).

It was during a broadcast of Kurosh Ali Khan va Dustan when Miller debuted one of his great pieces of “Persian Jazz,” Segah, named after one Persian music’s main musical modal systems, characterized by a sad and mournful sound, which always some elements of hope and change appear in it. For this performance, he re-tuned a piano to sound more like a Santur (Persian hammered dulcimer), then played as if his fingers were hammers. Segah is a haunting piece, the kind that makes you visualize Miller’s trips to Sufi ceremonies, his crossing the vast desserts of central Iran, and the thousand years of sufferings in that part of the world which always has ended in redemption and regeneration. If his hands on the piano look like Thelonious Monk, his strange way of playing with his fingertips resembles the work of an experimental musician. Yet both of them could be accurate about Miller in Segah, or his music in general: rooted in the sound of 1950s jazz and the musicians he admires, and at the same time, thanks to his vast knowledge of Eastern music, the combination between jazz and the classical music of the East gives an experimental character to his music.

To Miller, music is the universal language for self discovery and a powerful instrument of spreading the word of truth and beauty. “For me to pick up an instrument in a tea house in Herat, or play in an Indo-Afghan jam session in Kabul, or jam in a music shop on the Black Sea in Turkey, was almost the same as jamming in the Red Feather or Purple Onion during the 1950s, back in Los Angeles,” he reminisces, “the same spirit, the same feeling, the same notes and some of the same melodic patterns and repetitive and mirroring phrases."

Lloyd Miller with Tony Scott
To call Miller’s music an East-West fusion would be a misnomer. Rather his work is a hybrid, where both jazz and Iranian music come together through mutual respect, complimenting each other while also standing on their own. “Jazz and Eastern music have the same roots and through simple or non-chordal improvisation they both find common ground,” he explained. “Not through silly blending, but only through the tasteful placing of both in proximity, without touching the authenticity of either.”

“If we ever achieve mutual understanding and peace in the world, it would have to be along the same philosophy that I used in my Oriental Jazz work. Both cultural systems, Western and Eastern, will have to be placed without altering either… If we appreciate Eastern values and leave them alone, peace can happen. And if we learn from and adopt some aspects of Eastern cultures, peace and happiness will be guaranteed.” Segah is a perfect example of how cultural barriers can be removed by going deep into the basic foundations of different modes of music.

With Peter Brook company at Shiraz Art Festival, Iran.
Like an “intense echo in an unfamiliar key (Francis Gooding),” Miller and his long, never-ending journey prove that serenity is what unifies melodic language, more than just creating “pretty” sounds for an audience. A musician should start by finding the music inside, and then he needs to create a way of performing it outwardly. In that respect, there is no difference between John Coltrane and a maestro of Tar like Jalil Shahnaz from Iran. Lloyd Miller calmly and beautifully stands somewhere between the two.

Read more about Lloyd Miller here.

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