Experimental music lovers tend to obsess over stories of hermetic geniuses. We imagine them holed up in their bedrooms, coaxing otherworldly sounds out of a mess of gear and dreaming up better worlds to live in than the one we currently occupy. But that's not the only way to make beautiful records. Sometimes it takes a few friends, pinging ideas back and forth, to imagine what utopia might sound like. Or, as in the case of Resavoir, the Chicago-based project led by producer and multi-instrumentalist Will Miller, it takes a little bit of both.
Over the past few years, Miller, who also plays in the indie rock band Whitney, has been teaming up with an expansive cast of collaborators to craft a uniquely cosmic take on spiritual jazz drawing both on the electric energy of in-the-moment improvisation and the obsessive isolation of intense editing. Pieces like single "Escalator" feel handmade and magical, full of slowly unfurling instrumentation and the warping jump-cuts of synthetic beats. Like Makaya McCraven, his labelmate on the tastemaking Chicago jazz label International Anthem, he's able to take alchemical live moments and turn them into something surreal through his careful studio manipulations. For Miller though, this process was a practical choice more than anything else.
"I think there’s a standard of perfection that is almost impossible for me to achieve from a single live recording," he says. "I developed a process that took away the anxiety from being in a live recording environment, but kept the spontaneity that comes from improvisation."
This week, Miller and co. will release a self-titled album—which is streaming in full up above on International Anthem. With featured guest spots from the rapper and multi-instrumentalist Sen Morimoto and the harpist Brandee Younger—along with a host of other players in Miller’s orbit—it's a tribute to the power of collectivity and the joy of letting go. Tracks like "Resavoir" or the Younger-featuring "Taking Flight" are open and optimistic. They flow freely between interlocking melodies, allowing each player's voice space to lead, to follow, to join in the breathy arrangements.
Miller studied music formally at Oberlin Conservatory, but he considers that experience to be "deep in the background" of what he does with Resavoir. "Oberlin gave me some very important tools and perspectives, and what I learned there is undoubtedly ingrained in my musical subconscious," he says. "Afterwards I had to abandon a lot of what I learned and even do some un-learning. I swore off background music jazz gigs and took a job at a pizza place."
Instead, he dedicated himself to a studio practice, focusing on the ways editing allowed him to plot out and reimagine jazz arrangements in ways that feel unexpected. The resultant music, to my ears, is warming and full of hope. The swooning strings on "Plantasy" have a cocooning effect, as if their pillowyness could cushion you from the outside world. But Miller says this wasn't necessarily by design. The mournful feeling that underpins of some of these songs, like the closing track "LML"—which stands for "love my life"—was meant to engage with the way the world is. Written shortly after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, the song is a reflection on the trauma of existence, and the paradoxical perseverance we have to summon in the face of it.
"Being a lifelong citizen of Chicago, where it’s pretty much impossible to grow up without knowing someone who was a victim of gun violence, not to mention the horrors of the daily news cycle here, I was feeling very grateful for life," he says. "I am fortunate and privileged to be in the situation I’m in. So that song, to me, is about acknowledging your blessings in today’s America."
The rest of the record translates that complicated feeling into sound. Lush and lovely, it offers peace to a world in which such feelings are hard to come by. It's an escape, for those who might need it.