means the spirit of fire, the creative force that burns within unleashed in these piano improvisations.
One for Ives
is a tribute to the composer Charles Ives with quotes from The Concord Sonata and other works. Esfoma
is inspired by Cecil Taylor, the ultimate avant-garde pianist. Raga Vishnu
is an Indian-style raga adapted for piano. Chorale & Variations
is influenced by 20th century European serialism. Piece for Two Pianos
is dedicated to Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Accolades for Greg Mills...
As it happens, this afternoon I picked up randomly from the enormous pile of last year's records that are still waiting for a review, retrieving a couple of absolute gems in the process. Freedonia is run by Jay Zelenka, who in August (of 2008…) had sent me a letter which described the artistic intentions of this "micro-label": "to promote contemporary musical endeavours and to preserve vintage recordings that are out of print or were never released". Together with the missive there were two CDs by pianist Greg Mills who — like all musicians involved with this imprint — is based in St. Louis, the "geographic unifying factor" of the enterprise. Mills is a technically gifted architect of the Steinway, a classical grounding manifest since the first moment one hears him playing; these are the only works published under his name to date.
Esfoma was originally conceived in 1984 yet it sounds unmarked by the passage of time and totally gratifying, characterized as it is by a kind of passionate expressiveness corroborated by digital nimbleness and thoughtful artistry. This is the album that probably will satisfy the listeners who want to enjoy more harmonic content and less experimentation (although rarely the man leaves us without a serious attempt to transcend the barriers of genres). The composer/improviser himself lists the influences that lie behind these five pieces: Charles Ives, Cecil Taylor, Indian raga, 20th century European serialism, Karlheinz Stockhausen. Blue Oktober, recorded in 1998, saw the light eight years later; its subtitle is "improvised compositions for piano: solo, duos, trios and percussion". Mills used tapes of live concerts as a basis, to which he added instant overdubs, capturing the whole in a single take. A superior stage of pianism is in this case showcased in shorter episodes and contrasting snippets, and parts of the program might result slightly difficult to digest for the scarcely trained. This record, too, is a magnificent example of clever improvisational craft, in a way appearing as the ideal complement for the contrapuntal lusciousness that characterizes the majority of Esfoma.
I would definitely recommend to get a copy of both releases for better understanding the creative vision of this musician, whose dedication to the instrument is evidently visceral. A rare occasion in which the listener can be gratified either by an attentive, concentrated examination of the material or by keeping it at lower volume while maintaining the same sort of enchantment, such is the sheer delight originated by the mere presence of those gorgeous runs, clusters and designs which — even in the knottiest sections — seem to be influenced by a touch of romantic melancholy. This is what attributes a unique voice to Mills, a hitherto obscure talent that must be brought to wider attention worldwide, a veritable rejuvenator for those who feel tired of listening to problematic albums just for the sake of belonging to certain circles of (a)pathetic intellectualism. This stuff reconciles with life by respecting the true aim of music: something that's played from the heart, received by sensible human beings, able to elevate them that tiny bit indispensable for carrying on through the mental and emotional poverty experienced daily. Something that's plain beautiful.
--Massimo Ricci, Temporary Fault, 28 Sept 2009
"Gregory Mills' solo piano album, ESFOMA
, reveals an eclectic musician who seems at home in a variety of settings ranging from classical to jazz and Indian ragas. Although it was recorded at Premier Studios here in St. Louis, it has the feel of a live album...
"ESFOMA begins with Mills' tribute to turn of the century American composer Charles Ives, One For Ives
. The cut presents Mills juggling lyrical and dissonant passages throughout, reminiscent of Ives' eclectic musical approach. The title cut, Esfoma
is a 15 minute showcase of Mill' virtuosity on the keyboard. Mills begins slowly, but increasingly picks up the tempo until one's own fingers begin to ache with empathy. Esfoma
at times sounds similar to the work of avant-garde jazz pianist Cecil Taylor.
"Side two begins with Raga Vishna
, which uses the raga form as a jumping off place for some lyrical improvisation. Mills uses a simple Corea-like theme as the basis for some inspired playing that, at least for this reviewer, is the highpoint of the album. Chorale and Variations
returns to the classical mode, and contains some fine playing... The album concludes with Piece for two pianos
, with Mills playing a different piano part on each channel.
"Gregory Mills is a pianist with a wealth of talent. His playing rises above any questions of influence and his compositional skills are interesting. ESFOMA
is an excellent showcase of Mills abilities, and anyone with an interest in fine piano playing, would find this album entertaining."
--Terry Perkins, The Riverfront Times, June, 1984
"In this release, aficionados of Chick Corea's Circle
period have cause to rejoice, for the number of pianists who have put out work of this nature have been as few and precious as a unicorn horn.
"Mills has a love for dodecaphony (music with 12 tone scale rows,) and names Ives, Shostakovitvch, and Cecil Taylor amongst his influences--the last of which Corea also expresses love for. Mills' compositions speak to one with the same mystic, frantic unraveling supra-coherency as the best of e.e.cumming's strange spiels. The title piece, Esfoma
, explodes and pauses, slides and stutters, rambles and orates like a gifted madman's smoothly disjointed visions. Shastokovitch would have gaped at the Siberian flashes ad barren eloquences jostling with the schizophrenic Rorschach blots accompanying every line of lucidity. For a debut lp, this should have made a big splash nationally...Mills ability (most comparable to Al DiMeola's first lp, just in terms of stunning debuts although not in styles) places him easily in a class with Jarrett and maverick jazz's baddest bad boys."
--Marc Tucker, Camera Obscura, 1984
"Over the past several years Gregory Mills has been building a reputation as one of St. Louis' most daring and most technically facile improvisational pianists. His music is difficult to categorize, drawing inspiration as it does from such divers sources as 'cool' jazz, a variety of non-Western cultures and early- and mid-20th-century avant-garde schools. This debut recording, for example places a set of pointillist variations between densely-textured dialogues for two over-dubbed pianos and an extended piece in the manner of an Indian raga, an almost popsy homage to Charles Ives alongside a 15 minute soliloquy (title cut) articulated with massive tone clusters and bursts of upper-register filigrees. It seems that even in the calmer passages Mills' playing radiates a high level of intensity and when he really gets going the music's dynamic forcefulness is almost overwhelming."
--James Wierzbicki, The St. Louis Globe-Democrat, June 23, 1984
"Is Greg Mills the best pianist in St Louis, whatever that means? The 30-year old St. Louis native would never say such a thing, but many of his listeners would. Everyone agrees that his technique is phenomenal. Less apparent is the groundbreaking finesse with which he combines elements of jazz, classical and third world music. Yet Mills remains terribly neglected. He makes his living not as a musician, but in a Central West End restaurant, his music known only to a small coterie of admirers, many of them musicians. The avant-garde often suffers from a small public...
"Greg's musical background is eclectic. He began his studies at age eight with six years of classical tutelage at the St. Louis Institute of Music...In his mid-teens he jammed with 'various ill-fated rock bands' and from age 17-19 played in a jazz duo, Epoxy
, with bassist Carl Richardson. At age 22 he began studying the vibes and various percussion instruments, a move which has aadded a drummer's ferocity to his keyboard approach. Around this time Mills also teamed up with the saxophonist Jay Zelenka to form EXILES
. Over the last seven years they've performed dozens of concerts and have produced two cassettes, 1984's The Only Cure
and this year's Dangerous Music
. In addition Mills released a formidable solo album, ESFOMA
, in 1984.
"Mills cites as influences 'Post WWII 12-tone music, John Coltrane (his spirituality as much as his music) and various ethnic musics world-wide.' To these sources I would add Charles Ives, Oscar Peterson, Dimitri Shostakovich and Cecil Taylor -- a list that should intrigue anyone this side of MTV.
"Blessed with a highly-tuned absurdist humor and cursed with an overwhelming humility, Mills can nevertheless be lofty when he speaks of his music: 'I've spent the last couple of years trying to adapt the Indian raga to piano...in general, I'm trying to expand the vocabulary of improvisation to include forms not yet invented.' Anyone else saying that could risk sounding pretentious. Greg Mills has the training and the musicality to follow through."
--Tom McDermott, The Riverfront Times, Sept 24, 1986