James Miley’s “Watershed Suite” – Beyond Category – ep 32

The Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble gives two world premiere performances of James Miley’s newest work “Watershed Suite.” This six-movement piece is inspired by distinctive bodies of water in the Oregon landscape, from the Tamolitch Pool to Oaks Bottom, capturing the spirit of each through music. James Miley joins PJCE Executive Director Douglas Detrick for a conversation about the piece taped at Sellwood Riverside Park, on the banks of the Willamette River.

Hear Watershed Suite August 16th at Roaring Rapids in Eugene, and August 18th in Portland at the Montavilla Jazz Festival.

Episode Transcript

[Doug] Welcome to Beyond Category. I’m Douglas Detrick.

The Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble gives two world premiere performances of James Miley’s newest work “Watershed Suite.” This six-movement piece is inspired by distinctive bodies of water in the Oregon landscape, from the Tamolitch Pool to Oaks Bottom, capturing the spirit of each through music. Head to pjce.org/watershed to learn more about this new piece and the performances in August, 2018.

And stay tuned for the release of Trio Untold, with James Miley on piano and keyboards, Mike Nord guitar and electronics, and Ryan Biesack on drums. It’s the thirty-third release on PJCE Records, and it drops this September.

Here’s the episode.

[ambient tape: “I hear water…”]

[James] This is James Miley, I’m a composer/pianist.

[Doug] Meeting near a waterway seemed appropriate.

We are down along the Willamette River, this is Sellwood Riverfront Park. We’re looking at the Sellwood Bridge, listening to waves from a really noisy boat that just went by a little while ago.

I’m doing two projects with PJCE this summer. First is a trio recording that’s going to be out in September with Mike Nord and Ryan Biesack, and that’s called Trio Untold. It’s all freely improvised music in the moment. And the second is a new piece for the ensemble and that’s called the Watershed Suite.

Each section is inspired by a waterway here in Oregon. And I’m using watershed, the term, fairly loosely. I settled on it mostly because of the connection to the idea of a drainage basin, a large area that a river gives identity to. And, the concept of shedding, as musicians.

[Doug] This is a bit of a musician’s joke. If you hear a musician say they need to “shed” a particular piece of music, that means they need to practice it. Shed is short for woodshed, which is where a musician would go, as the story goes, to practice away from an audience.

[James] I wanted to write a piece about the Tamolitch Pool, the Blue Pool, down near Eugene up off the McKenzie River. Which is an extraordinary place. If you haven’t gone, you need to check it out. It’s a spot where the river goes under ground then bubbles up in this intensely deep blue color that doesn’t seem real at all. I wasn’t prepared when I saw it. I thought “oh it’ll be some water, and it’s blue, and it will be pretty” but it’s really really wild. It’s, I don’t know, thiry-ish feet deep, and you can see all the way down to the bottom, just a really deep, kind of intelligent kind of blue.

I had all these sketches, all these ideas, and I just couldn’t come up with the thing that was working for me to elicit some sense of that place and how it makes me feel. In the process of doing this, we were editing the trio disc and all of this improvise music that we just kind of made up in the moment, and there’s a piece on there that  really speaks to this place. So I went back into that and used that material to write a new large ensemble piece.

Static is not the right word. It feels very serene. All the way through it feels like it’s got this flat sheen, there’s a feeling that you’re looking at something very deep but it never burbles to the surface. Which made me think of that pool, where you stand and you look at it and if you jumped in you wouldn’t be able to swim to the bottom of it. It looks closer than it is, but nothing is quite what it seems.

The water is the connecting point but each one has a specific kind of sensibility to it. What I’ve always loved about Oaks Bottom is that you can get lost in there in a way after this crazy day in a big city. You can find yourself on a path in the middle of these wetlands, staring at a great blue heron, and then realize I’m sitting in the middle of this amazing place and I’m ten minutes from home. So, it’s the most urban of the settings, yet it has these qualities that it can transport you to a different place.

[Doug] Finding inspiration in bodies of water is fitting for James Miley’s music. He crafts melodies with an amazing rhythmic lightness. The music dynamic and dazzling on the surface, but there’s always movement and depth underpinning it.

He holds a doctorate in music from the University of Oregon, and currently is Assistant Professor of Music at Willamette University in Salem. He was born in California, but his studies and creative pursuits have taken him to Nevada, Virginia, Michigan, Arizona, Texas and abroad to Hong Kong and Kathmandu. He’s a master of composing for jazz ensemble, and that comes from a huge range of experience, including professional jazz bands, classical ensembles, and years spent teaching jazz in colleges and high schools all over the country.

So it means something when he says about Portland and the Montavilla Jazz Festival that…

[James] There’s more talent here per capita than any other place that I’ve lived. Even in Los Angeles, there are amazing musicians but there’s also ten million people and you drive two and a half hours between gigs. I think an opportunity to showcase what we have here and connect with the community on a grass roots level is fantastic.

[Doug] If you’re in Eugene, come hear the ensemble play “Watershed Suite” at Roaring Rapids on Thursday, August 16th at 7 pm, free admission! If you’re in Portland, we play Saturday, August 18th at 5:30 at the Montavilla Jazz Festival. Go to pjce.org/watershed to get reserved or VIP stageside tickets. General Admission tickets are available at the door only, but your reserved seating ticket gets you General Admission access to see the whole festival. Learn more about rest of the festival lineup at montavillajazzfest.com.

Have you heard the ensemble play a few times? Have you listened to some recordings on PJCE Records? Maybe you’re a subscriber to this podcast? If you enjoy this music and media, and you want to see us make more of it in the future, I encourage you to become a PJCE Sustainer. You can make a tax-deductible donation of as little as $60/year, or $5 per month, and get access to discounts on concert tickets and PJCE Records releases, and invitations to Sustainers-only events.

We’re offering a $10 discount for Montavilla Jazz Festival reserved seating tickets, and you’ll be invited to a special reception with James Miley in September, available only to PJCE Sustainers. You’re going to have a million questions running through your mind after you hear his incredible music. Come to the reception and you can ask him all of them. Head on over to pjce.org/sustain to become a PJCE Sustainer and we’ll send you all the details.

This has been Beyond Category, I’m Douglas Detrick, Executive Director and Podcaster-in-Chief of the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble. Thanks for listening.