|Two years in the making, Conspiracy Theories is guitarist Phil Miller’s most ambitious record to date. A member of legendary Canterbury groups including Hatfield and the North, National Health, Matching Mole and Delivery, Miller has devoted the majority of his energy over the past quarter century to his more overtly jazz-centric In Cahoots group.
While the core of In Cahoots remains - über-bassist Fred Baker, keyboardist Pete Lemer and relative newcomer Mark Fletcher on drums - Conspiracy Theories introduces saxophonist Simon Picard and trumpeter Simon Finch to the line-up. Miller also calls on a number of friends old and new, including Gong alumnus Didier Malherbe (woodwinds), Annie Whitehead (trombone), Barbara Gaskin (vocals) and ex-Hatfield mates Dave Stewart (tuned percussion) and Richard Sinclair (bass).
Conspiracy Theories features seven new and characteristically dynamic compositions from Miller, and one each from Baker and Lemer. The group expands and contracts, ranging in size from quintet to a full eleven-piece for Miller’s episodic, metrically-challenging and texturally rich “5s & 7s” - the largest ensemble Miller has written for to date. Miller’s writing has never been more complex yet approachable, and the indefinable British nature of his writing, dating back to Matching Mole, remains a defining quality.
Miller, always a democratic leader, has also never been so liberal in providing his musical cohorts solo space. Still, while he doesn’t take a proper solo himself until half-way through the disc, his distinctive and immediately recognizable harmonic voicings can be heard throughout. When he does take his first evocative solo on Baker’s powerful ballad “End of the Line” it’s clear that Miller’s unique linear approach, one that steadfastly avoids any clear reference points but fuses an abstruse harmonic sensibility with a harder rock edge, continues to evolve.
Miller has never been one to grandstand, but there’s still nobody who sounds quite like him. He’s an economical player who values the meaning of space and thematic development over pyrotechnics and purposeless displays, and while he solos less on Conspiracy Theories than on previous outings, every note in every solo counts.
Conspiracy Theories is an important and welcome return for Miller after 2003’s All That. Fans of the Canterbury scene will undoubtedly rejoice, but Conspiracy Theories’ finely honed compositions, outstanding arrangements and compelling solos make it an album equally deserving of attention from the broader jazz listening public.