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Guitarist Mike Miller: From Sioux Falls To L.A.

Sioux Falls-born, Los Angeles-based guitarist Mike Miller is serious about his music, but he doesn’t forget that it’s also supposed to be fun. His new album Trust is filled with playful jazz fusion grooves and original compositions with waggish titles like “Bi-Polar Bear,” “Reindeer Glue” and “All Cows Eat Grass.” It’s Miller’s fourth solo album and his first in several years. The ten tracks were selected from music he’d been working on over the past decade and feature performances by such stellar musicians as bassist and Yellowjackets founder Jimmy Haslip, percussionist Airto Moriera, drummer Chad Wackerman, trumpeter Walt Fowler and his former colleagues from Chick Corea’s Elektric Band II: bassist Jimmy Earl and drummer Gary Novack.

“I’m always amazed at the caliber of players who are willing to play on my songs,” Miller laughs. “It’s just ferocious, ferocious musicianship and creativity. I bring my songs in and we start to play them and after the first couple passes I realize, ‘oh, that’s how my song is supposed to sound.’ I learn a lot from playing with these guys and there’s a great chemistry that happens. You need outside input. Sometimes I feel if it’s just me in my studio I’m like a scientist and I have two test tubes and I’m just pouring things back and forth. So, to get some other people’s takes on it is a catalyst for other things to happen.”

Trust includes four different line-ups of players with music developed out of four different scenarios. One of the tracks, “Furtive,” evolved out of Miller goofing around at his house with drummer Tom Brechtlein.

“We were playing this thing and we’re knocking it around for an hour,” Miller says. “I’m recording it all, and we just hit on this hilarious little moment where Tom does this thing and so I jump in and did it. We were laughing at out how hilariously off the wall this little thing was. Listening back to it later, it was like, ‘oh, that’s a great little moment of inspiration; a lucky accident.’ And now it’s an integral part of the song.”

Mike Miller has had a remarkable career with an impressive number of credits. He’s appeared on hundreds of albums. He’s played jazz with Chick Corea, the Yellowjackets, George Duke and Quincy Jones and rock/pop with Gino Vanelli, former members of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and Burton Cummings of the Guess Who. He’s currently touring with singer/songwriter Boz Scaggs. 

Miller’s life in music began in Sioux Falls where he was born into a musical family in 1953. His father was a trumpeter and bandleader who had each of his four sons learn the bass so he wouldn’t have to worry about finding a bassist in Sioux Falls. He was 12 when first recruited to play bass in his dad’s band.

“At the time, as a kid, you go ‘Oh, I gotta’ play all this cornball stuff.’ But when I look back, it was all kinds of music. It was Dixieland and jazz standards. We played some of [Antonio Carlos] Jobim’s Brazilian stuff. We played some Burt Bacharach. We played some Beatles. We played all kinds of stuff.”

Miller gives credit to his father’s pianist Don Eliason for helping him develop a strong foundation in understanding music.

“He was a great teacher and mentor,” Miller says. “We would be playing with my father at one of the country clubs and on the break the grown-ups would go to the bar, but Don would stay on the bandstand with me and he would play these little musical games. He’d pick three notes and ask, ‘What triad is that? What is this one?’ And he’d move the notes around and I’d get used to identifying these things and realizing that what I played on the bass was a very powerful thing. It changed everything.”

Things changed even more when Miller first heard Eliason play Miles Davis’ landmark 1970 jazz/rock fusion album, Bitches Brew. 

“I about lost my mind,” Miller remembers. “It was like nothing I’d never heard. I had no idea what they were doing and it was killing me. That opened me up and I started to hunt down, like a detective, all of these players. I remember when I first discovered Chick Corea on an album by Eric Kloss, a saxophonist from Philadelphia. On the same record was guitarist Pat Martino. And they just knocked me out so much that I went down to the record store and said, ‘Give me every record you can find with these guys.’”

Along with playing bass with his father, in school and in what was then known as the Sioux Falls Symphony, he was also playing guitar with his friends in rock and blues bands. He says he was better on bass until he was about 19 when he started focusing on guitar. To help advance his burgeoning music career, he left Sioux Falls after high school and moved to Denver, Colorado where Miller says there was a thriving music scene.

“I ended up meeting and playing with some heroes of mine like [guitarist] Larry Coryell,” Miller says. “And I kind of fell in with now-famous guitarist Bill Frisell, who is from Denver. Bill and I played together a lot, before he ever went to Berklee [College of Music]. We would, musically, chase each other around. You’d sit down to play and you’d look up at the clock and five hours had gone by. It was a very fruitful time because I was surrounded by people who also wanted to work. So, we were practicing and woodshedding and listening to music and just figuring out how to do it.”

Miller also met another one of his heroes after he moved to Denver: Chick Corea. The legendary pianist and composer’s band had a week-long gig at a local club and Miller says he was there every night. He met Corea and sat in with the band and they came up to his house in the mountains to jam. After that, Miller says, he and the legendary pianist/composer were always crossing paths.

“After I moved to California, I was working with various people where I kept running into Chick,” Miller recalls. “He would come in and sit in. Or he would be on a recording session. Or we’d be somewhere in Europe and there’s Chick. And eventually I got the chance to be in his Elektric Band II. It was daunting because he’s so ferocious and here’s this guy you’ve been listening to who’s been cleaning your clock since you were 14-years-old and he’s got this big grin on his face and he’s gonna’ trade fours with you. So, yeah, it was exciting and it was kind of like being Mike Tyson’s sparring partner. You knew you were going to get beat up, but there’s no one else who can teach you what he had to teach.”


The great 1970s fusion bands formed in the wake of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew have had a lasting influence on Miller’s music, including Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, Weather Report and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. Miller says he ate the Mahavishnu Orchestra for breakfast every day for years and years and years.

“I really studied that kind of music for a long time,” Miller says. “Some of my music is like that. Some of it is much more songs. I think over time the stuff that moved me was not really the crazy soloing, it was more like when the whole group moves. It’s really composition that has been floating my boat for a while.” 

While Miller’s new album Trust features sterling playing by some of the masters of the contemporary fusion sound, it’s all in the service of the guitarist’s memorable, melodic compositions. Miller likes to use challenging and unusual time signatures, but he and the band never lose the flowing groove of the music. 

“There is some rhythmic and time stuff going on, but I’m trying to hide that,” he explains. “My best experience with that stuff is when you don’t notice that it’s in an odd time signature. Nobody notices that something like the Beatles’ ‘All You Need is Love’ is in 7/4. You don’t think about it because the thread of the melody flows and you get to go along on this journey. And these players [on Trust] adapted so well. With a lot of these songs, I would be writing the chart and didn’t realize I had written the song in seven and that there’s a bar of five. Because I just hear the flow of it. And that’s what I’m looking for.”

If Miller could go back in time, peer into his future and see where his career in music would take him, the guitarist says his teenaged self would be stunned at the way it all turned out. He gives credit to his brother Mark for giving him great advice that helped make it all happen.

“I couldn’t afford to go to Berklee College of Music and as far as college in [South] Dakota, I knew that wasn’t going to work for me,” Miller explains. “My brother Mark said, ‘Since you know what you need to work on, you need to move out to another city and find a private teacher and do it yourself.’ And he asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, ‘I’d love to work with somebody like Frank Zappa or this guy or this guy.’ And he said, ‘If you really work hard and do the preparation, one day that window will open. It won’t open for long, so you want to be ready. If you can be ready, you might be able to pull it off.’ And he was right. He was absolutely right.” 

As he enjoys the release of his new album, Miller is preparing to go out on the road again in May with Boz Scaggs. Meanwhile, he’s happy to have Trust available for people to hear. “These songs have been stuck in my head for 10 years. Since I’ve recorded them, they’re kind of unstuck, so I’m hoping they’ll get stuck in some of your heads.”

Mike Miller’s Trust is available through Blue Canoe Records. For more information visit