Jane Miller: ‘Boats,’ guitar technique, and teaching

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Photo Credit David Hollender

While her professional life has taken her around the world, Jane Miller’s personal life remains close to her roots. She still resides in her home state of Massachusetts, where — like so many of her colleagues — she works primarily from her home studio.

Miller grew up in central Massachusetts, the youngest of four sisters from whom she absorbed record collections and discovered a variety of singers and styles. Piano was her first instrument, but she felt drawn to the guitar and developed a passion for singer/songwriters. Eventually, she discovered jazz, and since then, she has fluidly merged all of those influences into her own work.

Her debut album with the Jane Miller Group was released in 1993. In 2013, she introduced her first solo guitar album and fourth overall recording, Three Sides To A Story. In 2018 came Boats, a 14-song collection that she wrote and arranged. She is joined on the project by bassist Lincoln Goines, pianist Tim Ray, and drummer Mark Walker.

Photo Credit Emily Joy Ashman

In addition to being a career musician, songwriter, and recording artist, Miller is well versed in other aspects of the industry. She is a professor at Berklee College of Music, contributes articles and lessons to guitar magazines, and has authored two books: Introduction to Jazz Guitar (2015) and Triads for the Improvising Guitarist, both through Berklee Press/Hal Leonard.

“It has become clear that writing music now includes recording and knowing how to put projects together by yourself,” she says. “I used to separate those two things, writing music and arranging it. But more and more, when someone is looking for a composition or piece of music, they’re looking for a complete, put-together package for the whole production, so those things are harder to separate. So what I’m working on now is just getting better at presenting my music that way.”

How was Boats the next chapter in your writing and recording trajectory? It features new songs as well as older ones, some going as far back as 1992.

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I think it was 2003 when the whole concept for Boats came to me. In the meantime, I recorded a solo guitar CD, so that kept being put aside. It never left my head, but it just kept being put aside. Over time, more songs gathered that seemed like they would fit this collection. I don’t know how to explain when the time is right, but when I felt like I was ready to do it, I applied for a grant and that got it off the ground. I completed the work outside of the scope of that because once something’s going, I can’t stop. I have to finish it. Once a song comes through, then I can explain, “All right, now I’m going to apply the craft, arrange it, give it a form that makes sense, think through the instrumentation,” and all that. That part’s easy to explain. But the very beginnings of things and the timing of things, I don’t know.

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer?

I like stereo recording on an acoustic guitar — two mics, and sometimes three. For electric guitar, I like miking the amp and going direct. I also like to take a line from the acoustic so that there’s that feed to mix in. I have a piano at home, and I keep a pair of mics on the piano. I have an iPad that I keep next to the piano bench so that I can switch on GarageBand very easily and then just play whatever comes out. If I happen to capture something I like, I have it there, and if not, I move on. It’s like a scratch pad version of sitting at the piano and writing.

Photo Credit Emily Joy Ashman

. . . when I added guitar, that became a deeper musical connection for me. It spoke to me.

Did you take piano lessons? When did you move from piano to guitar?

The family story is that I begged for piano lessons when I was 3 or 4, and I was found walking down the street, going to the house of a neighborhood woman who taught piano lessons. She had a musical note on her door. I have a vivid memory of that. I don’t remember her name; I just remember seeing that note on her door and thinking, I’m going to go there and take piano lessons. I was quickly grabbed by my parents or older sister. Once my parents decided that I was old enough for piano lessons, when I was 7, they took me to someone they knew, and I did that for four years.

I still love piano, but when I added guitar, that became a deeper musical connection for me. It spoke to me. I don’t know if it was something I related to, or a generational thing, or a voice of the time in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It just felt like a good match for me.

Did you also take guitar lessons?

I watched Laura Weber on PBS. She had a show called Folk Guitar, and I watched her faithfully when I first learned to play. She taught a classical approach to fingerstyle, but through the filter of folk music, and I just thought she was the coolest thing. That’s how I learned to play at first. And this was television, so it was, “Oh my God, it’s six o’clock — time for my lesson!” It didn’t matter if we were in the middle of dinner or whatever.

She was so ahead of her time. She was awesome. She was into Phil Ochs and Hot Tuna, and she would have guests on her show sometimes. Every now and then, her name comes up, and notable folk singers give a nod to her.

Photo Credit Qi Wei

I can hear writing styles or arrangement styles that are deep in my bones now.

Who were you listening to at the time? What inspired you?

I listened to The Beatles, of course, and I have three older sisters, so I listened to records that they brought home. I loved singer/songwriters — Crosby, Stills, & Nash, Joni Mitchell, Kenny Rankin. Janis Ian was a huge influence. I read liner notes and learned about the studio musicians and their stories, and I learned more about music that way.

Eventually, I started listening to singers who did the standards, like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Tony Bennett. I still have a big record collection of singers along with instrumentalists. I learned by listening to them, which is a good way to learn because you learn the lyrics, you learn the tune from every which way, and when you listen to an instrumental version, you get it from the inside out.

Of course, I was floored by Ella Fitzgerald with Joe Pass. Wes Montgomery was a life changer. When I heard him play “While We’re Young” from his album SO Much Guitar!, that was a turning point. To me, it was absolutely impossible. This gorgeous song, this gorgeous arrangement — how was he doing that? I wanted to learn, and it’s funny, I never really wanted to learn that piece. I wanted to learn how to do that in general.

That’s also true of favorite bands, favorite arrangements, and compositional styles. I take it in, and then it somehow filters through later. Steely Dan is another example. Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, and those kinds of writers had instrumentation or arrangements that were really interesting to me. It’s not like I did their tunes, or covered things and learned note for note what they were doing. But just listening, taking it in, made it come back out of me in different forms in my own way. When I go back and listen to those recordings now, I go, “That’s where I got that.” I can hear writing styles or arrangement styles that are deep in my bones now.

Photo Credit Emily Joy Ashman

Was there a learning curve when you moved from fingerstyle and folk to jazz guitar?

The barrier to breakthrough for me was playing single-note lines versus chords all the time. Accompaniment came somewhat easily, but crossing into single-line territory was the thing to figure out. I took lessons with a friend of mine, Mark Marquis, and I learned scale positions and things like that from him, and a little bit about chord soloing, which I was already beginning to do.

I also took a few lessons from a friend of mine in Worcester, Massachusetts, named Rich Falco. He’s a brilliant player. I went to him because my hand was sore. His technique is just so impeccable, and I wanted his advice on what I was doing to my hands. Plus, he gave me good insight about improvising ideas.

But I think the biggest growth for me was listening to Emily Remler and taking lessons with her. We became fast friends when we met, and I learned a lot from her.

What was key to developing your own style and technique?

It takes dedication to your vision of what that is, and it takes courage and commitment to that, rather than looking around and thinking that you have to be this or that, or you’re not as good as this person or that person. You have to trust yourself to be who you are, and it might not be as important for each of us to be everything.

Comping is my thing that I’m creative with and naturally good at. Soloing is something that I can do and teach, but not in the same ways that other people can do. Everyone has their own little angle and gift. To be good at whatever it is that you do, you want to trust yourself and give yourself permission to really develop that and present that.

I always thought of myself as a better writer and arranger than player, so that’s usually where my focus is. And I love to play. I never get tired of playing standards and playing with different people and freelancing. Taking solos is fun, I really like that, but I know where my strengths are. I think that old saying “You go where you aim” turns out to be true.

Groove is a feel-good thing and you definitely don’t want to fight it.

We always hear about bass and drums locking into the pocket. Where does the guitar fit? Boats obviously has some quiet compositions, but when it grooves, there’s no denying it.

I think probably the best example of a groove-oriented song on that album is “At Spag’s,” and that’s one of the older tunes. It started with a groove. It started with the minor major 7 bass riff that I came up with. That’s what that whole song is about. The melody is a diminished scale.

That song is all about the groove, and what I did was just lean on the rhythm section. That’s usually my best bet. If I’m playing with other people, lean on them, and listen and feel what’s going on in the studio. When you have experienced players who are really, really good at that, you can listen and react and trust. Groove is a feel-good thing and you definitely don’t want to fight it. You want to trust it. If it’s not exactly metronomic, it’s not that big a deal, as long as it feels good and you know that everyone’s internal clock is breathing similarly.

Obviously, you play acoustic and electric. How is the approach similar or different for you?

I think when you practice electric, you’ve got to plug in. I tell students to practice that way so that it’s not so shocking when you hear what comes out of an amp or p.a., because it is very different and it can throw off your concentration if you’re not used to hearing that. Whereas acoustic, it is what you get. When you reinforce it, you still want it to sound like an acoustic. It shouldn’t be a shockingly different sound.

That guitar is gorgeous.

Which guitars are your go-to instruments?

I have very small hands, and so I like a small neck and low action. I don’t want to have to work that hard physically to get around on it.

When I do a solo gig, it’s always with an electric guitar, a hollow-body jazz guitar. My solid-body these days is a Guild that has a hollowed chamber. I got that especially for recording, when I need distortion and want to rock with that a little more. But acoustic is what I first learned, and even though I play electric, I still play fingerstyle more than half the time. I use a pick maybe thirty or forty percent of the time.

I have a Martin from their custom shop with a slightly smaller neck, and it’s a little stiffer in terms of action. I use it for certain things, but I can’t really get around on it to play improvised solo lines or do anything too complicated, like jazzy chord solos. It’s not the guitar for that. But it’s great for when I want to lay down a chord part or strum an acoustic sound. It’s beautiful for that. And it’s gorgeous. That guitar is gorgeous.

I also have a 1957 Gibson acoustic, and the neck is a dream. It’s just perfect in my hand, and the action is low. It’s set up beautifully by my friend Jack O’Brien, in New Hampshire, and that guitar is a whole other thing. It sounds amazing, and I can get around on it. That’s been a real gem.

For a long time, my main jazz guitar was a 1967 Guild X-50, which Jack made a custom cutaway on. Again, the neck is just perfect. In the past ten years, I’ve been playing a Benedetto three-quarter-size jazz guitar called the Andy. The neck is perfect. It’s not a compromised neck or a compromised guitar in any way. It’s a really high-quality guitar, but small enough to put on your back and get on a plane.

Photo Credit Lawrence Libby

I’m going to keep doing the work that I do.

You’ve been on the faculty at Berklee since 1994. How has the school changed over the years, particularly in terms of the number of women on faculty and in the classes?

I originally thought I had to be a folk singer. It took me a while to realize I could play instrumental music like what I do now. I can’t really say if that was because I thought this is what women do or what. But it wasn’t obvious to me at first that that was a possible career path. When my first album came out, a lot more became possible, and I think that’s partly how I was taken seriously enough to get the teaching job at Berklee. And I certainly had the gigging experience.

When I first started teaching in the guitar department, I was the third woman on the faculty out of maybe a total in the thirties. There have been as many as sixty faculty members in the guitar department. I think we stand at fifty-four now and there are eight women. The chair and assistant chair of the guitar department are women, Kim Perlak and Sheryl Bailey, and they’re fantastic. So it’s going in the right direction. It’s a reflection of the student body, which is changing and, of course, has grown. There are a lot more women at the college in general. The voice department has exploded in numbers, and there are a lot of women in that department.

At first, I didn’t really consider the importance of that. But after teaching there for a while, I did see the importance of being a role model for someone, whoever it might be. Not that you can make a job out of being a role model, but I think it just happens naturally — when you keep your head in the right place and do your work, people will see that. So if women need to see what’s possible, just the way I needed to see what was possible, then great. I’m going to keep doing the work that I do.

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