Steve Miller’s continuing exploration of the blues roots of jazz for Jazz at Lincoln Center goes to Appalachia this weekend.
Miller, a Jazz at Lincoln Center board member since 2014, is joining forces with Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives band for a pair of Music From Appalachia shows on Dec. 7-8 at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. The second show will be streamed here and on the Jazz at Lincoln Center Facebook page, and Miller promises it will shed a different insight on the music after previous explorations into Miles Davis, T-Bone Walker and the “blues triangle” of the Mississippi Delta, Chicago and Texas.
“All the basic blues really came over from Africa with the slaves and was developed primarily in the Mississippi Delta,” Miller tells Billboard. “The Appalachian blues is kind of interesting because it’s mountain music, and it was more integrated than the Delta blues was at the beginning because of coal mining and timber. There were a lot of jobs in the mountains and you had all these country people from Scotland and Ireland and the English isle, and you had all these people from the west coast of Africa getting together and working together. Everybody’s playing guitar or banjo or a fiddle and you end up with all this sort of Scottish and Irish and English folk music blending with Delta blues, so we’re going to explore that music.”
The Music From Appalachia concerts will feature standards such as “In the Pines,” “Old Hat,” “No Hard Times,” “John Henry,” “Great Speckled Bird,” “The Unseen Hand” and more. “There’s so many,” Miller says with a laugh. Pastor Evelyn Hubbard from Mississippi will play organ during the shows, and the recordings and musical charts will become part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s burgeoning blues pedagogy.
Miller is also looking forward to giving Stuart and company a spotlight outside its usual Americana realm. “I can’t think of anybody better to do this with than them,” Miller says. “They’re one of the best bands in the world. They’re so great live. We’ve done some other things together in Nashville and at the Metropolitan Museum, where I work in the musical instrument department, so we’ve been playing together for the last few years and it’s just a thrill to work with them and to bring them into this.”
The thrill will continue next summer, in fact, when the Steve Miller Band will be tour with Stuart and the Superlatives, with plenty of onstage collaborations expected. “I’m thrilled because I’ll be taking mandolin lessons every day,” Miller says with a laugh. “Marty and his guys are going to come out and travel with us all over and country and I’m going to expose him to my audience. They’ve already come up to me and said, ‘Oh, man, come on, we wanna do “Jet Airliner”! Let’s do “Going to the Country.”‘ It’s just going to be a great time.”
Miller, meanwhile, has also been having his own archives mined for future releases to commemorate his 50th recording anniversary, which he actually marked this year. Despite a stated aversion to vault-mining, Miller says his crew has turned up “three or four CDs worth of stuff” — including unreleased studio and live material — that he hopes to start putting out next year. “Some of it’s really, really, really good,” Miller notes. “It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s great. I’ve realized I’m just this absurd perfectionist and some of it is embarrassing and horrible, to me, and to other people it’s really interesting. So it’s not just what I think, it’s what other people think and what’s interesting to other people, and we’re going to put it out next year.” After that and the tour, however, Miller is planning to lay low while he works on his next musical statement, with a return slated for mid-2021.
“I’m at this point where I’ve been touring basically non-stop for 16 years, and I want to sort of stop and consider what’s left to do in the time I have left, which is…who knows?” Miller says. “I just want to take about 18 months off and think about everything and write some new stuff and think about how I want to go out and how I want this last run to be. I’ve done this two or three times, where I’ve taken sabbaticals. I can’t go away for three or four years like I’ve done before, but I’m going to take time off and re-think what I’m doing. I’m gonna read and write and I’m gonna re-organize everything and start afresh in 2021 — June, I think. That’s the way I’m looking at it right now.”