Guitarist Cameron Mizell Releases a Beautifully Produced, Melody-Minded Trio Album, Negative Spaces, via Destiny Records on October 7
Mizell’s fifth release finds the Brooklyn-based guitarist joined by kindred-spirit keyboardist Brad Whiteley and drummer Kenneth Salters in a set of irresistible originals
In the liner notes to Negative Spaces, the writer recounts a conversation he had with its maker, guitarist Cameron Mizell, about how it is absence as much as presence that defines music. Mizell explained: “As musicians develop their skills, the focus is on creating sound. Get the note out of the instrument, and then repeat… fill the silence with your sound. But there comes a point where you have to learn not to play. If you play constantly, the most memorable moment of your performance will be the time you didn’t play. An artist understands this and knows how to ‘play’ rests, how to let a musical idea breathe, develop and tell a story.” This ideal underscores the title of Negative Spaces, Mizell’s fifth album, a trio disc with kindred-spirit keyboardist Brad Whiteley and drummer Kenneth Salters, to be released on October 7, 2016, by Destiny Records.
The spaces between the notes are indeed as vital as the notes themselves on Negative Spaces, with an emphasis on less is more; the magic of this music lies in melody, the catchy tunes hinting at not only vintage jazz but rock’n’roll and all manner of Americana, with Mizell’s guitar ‘singing’ a set of irresistible instrumental songs. If “Big Trees” can evoke Bill Frisell in his avant-folk mode, the track “Take the Humble” is the sort of song that should make Steely Dan green with envy, the playful, syncopated tune seemingly tailor-made for some sly Donald Fagen lyrics. “On my past trio records, I composed from the groove up, but I wrote the songs of Negative Spaces from top down as if I were a vocalist, away from my guitar, with pen and paper,” explains the 36-year-old, Brooklyn-based Mizell. “I even transcribed singers like Sam Cooke to get into how they phrased a melody. The idea with a lot of improvised music is to see how far out you can get. But with this album, I wanted to rein it in, create singable melodies and allow room for music to happen around them.”
Negative Spaces follows Mizell’s Destiny album from 2015, The Edge of Visibility, an atmospheric solo EP that All About Jazz praised as “hypnotic.” The review in No Depression extolled the album’s virtues at length: “Combining improvisational jazz with traces of progressive rock and avant-garde experimentalism, Mizell explores the sounds of the dreaming and waking world. This is a thought-provoking album, one that lingers in the memory long after it has ceased spinning.” On The Edge of Visibility, Mizell created an enveloping aura of sound with only his customized Fender Telecaster, looping device and various tone-bending, oscillating effects. His playing remains gorgeous on the new trio album, yet the sound and gestures are leaner, even more dynamic. Negative Spaces still has a lush overall feel, with Mizell’s guitars complemented by Whiteley’s variety of keyboards: Hammond organ, Wurlitzer, piano, synth bass and Fender Rhodes. On drums, Salters can go from sounding like a full percussion section to adding apposite touches with only brushes.
About his trio partners, Mizell says: “Both these guys are such amazing, open-minded musicians. I met Brad 15 years ago playing in a big band at Indiana University, and he has been on each of my group records. He’s so versatile, playing synths with Regina Spektor and playing organ for mass in a cathedral in the Bronx, not to mention leading his own groups on piano. He always serves the music, being able to shred but not always feeling compelled to show it. If I’m the ‘singer’ on this record, then Brad is the ideal accompanist. Kenneth has crazy chops, too, but he’s also about favoring musicality over technique. In the song ‘Clearing Skies,’ he orchestrates this long, slow burn ideally; he stokes the dynamic energy of a track as well as any drummer I’ve heard.”
Negative Spaces ranges from ambient-accented ringing chords in the pair of title tracks to the rocking funk of “Get It While You Can.” The near-epic “Clearing Skies” features one of Mizell’s most dramatic guitar lines, while the groove of another album highlight, “Barter,” suggests John Scofield at his slinkiest. The title of “Yesterday’s Trouble” came from a phrase that the grandfather of Mizell’s wife liked to use, one that struck the guitarist as like a quip from a Tom Waits song. “I’m not Marc Ribot,” Mizell says, “but the playing in that track was my nod to the gritty, quirky sound he has given a lot of Tom Waits songs.” With the continuity of favorites from Frisell’s Disfarmer to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here in mind, Mizell created melodies that echo and complement one another, imbuing the album with a satisfying, suite-like sense of unity.
To Mizell, music should also reflect the wider world. There are subtle sound effects – birdsong, kids playing, a boat horn – recorded in his Brooklyn neighborhood, along with references to personal experiences and special places. The song “Whisky for Flowers” got its title from Mizell’s customary exchange with his wife, who has become a connoisseur of bourbon, buying it for her husband as he buys her blossoms. Mizell’s wife was also the ideal sounding board for the sensibility the guitarist was trying to cultivate with Negative Spaces. “She’s my barometer for the writing and playing of music like this – chops don’t matter to her, not a bit,” he says. “If she hums something later that I’ve played her, I know I’m on the right track. And she hummed tunes from this record a lot.”
Guitarist-composer Cameron Mizell, a Brooklyn resident for the past decade-plus, was born and raised in St. Louis and educated in music at the University of North Texas and Indiana University. In New York City, he has played with rock bands, singer-songwriters, bluegrass acts and Latin groups, as well as for Broadway musicals and dance companies. He has also worked in the music business on the label side, with years at Verve Records and, as label manager, Destiny Records.
As a bandleader, Mizell has ranged from jazz-funk to Americana, recording the album Tributary in 2010 with his trio featuring keyboardist Brad Whiteley and drummer Kenneth Salters. Prior to that, Mizell released a trio disc with Whiteley and drummer Mike Fortune, Life Is Loud, in 2007. The guitarist made his debut on record with an eight-piece ensemble for Cameron Mizell, released in 2004. His most recent release before new trio record Negative Spaces was a ravishingly atmospheric album for solo guitar, The Edge of Visibility, from 2015.
In 2008, Mizell decided to combine his knowledge of the industry with his understanding of life as a musician and put it to good use. Together with Dave Hahn, Mizell founded the website Musician Wages, which offers music industry advice geared toward the working musician. The site has become a thought-leader in the musician community thanks to Hahn and Mizell’s commitment to integrity, practicality and an honest perspective from their own careers.
Cameron has kindly asked me to say a few words about Negative Spaces, since I was there when he got the idea for it. Am I a musician? No. I’m a dentist with chronic insomnia and an almost debilitating interest in space. But let’s get on with the story.
It all started with the Cosmos series. After tossing and turning one night I decided a show about science would be just the thing to put me to sleep. But I ended up watching for hours, mesmerized by space—how its not just some empty thing we move through but that it can bend and twist and invert itself and all this other stuff. I finished the series in three nights but I couldn’t stop thinking about space. So I bought one of those little beginner’s books, A History of Space that Doesn’t Take Up Much. Stupid title, I know, but it was fascinating.
It started with ancient philosophy, but the only thing I remember about that part was Plato’s idea that there was a sort of receptacle that acts as a cradle for the cosmos—as if even space had to have some other kind of other space to happen in.
The really great stuff, though, was about the scientific revolution. Isaac Newton said space was real and absolute, the way most people think of it. But he had this German rival Leibniz who said space wasn’t really a thing at all but was just our way of understanding the relations between things. And apparently this debate never really ended and scientists like Mach and Einstein went on arguing about it into the twentieth century. That last part about modern physics was a bit over my head, I admit. But the gist of it is that instead of small particles we now think of the cosmos as composed of a bunch of tiny strings of different length vibrating at different frequencies. Still though, nobody knows if the strings produce space or if, like Plato said, there has to be some kind of space already there for the strings to be in. But I think my favorite bit was something Newton said about space being like the sensory apparatus of God. How crazy is that—we’re all here moving around and bumping into each other without ever suspecting that we’re really inside God’s central nervous system!
So one morning I call Cam, who might have been up already, and get him to meet me for coffee. “We’re gonna talk about space again, aren’t we Hector?” Indeed. So he lets me go on for a few minutes and I’m doing my best to sound like I’ve been thinking about this stuff for more than a couple weeks. I notice this guy at the table across from us—a real ancient mariner type, thin and with a gnarly dark beard. In profile I could see his brown eye revolving slowly around the room. He was nodding along sometimes like he was listening to us. It was really eerie. And he was nodding at the wrong times, like he was hearing the conversation with a ten-second delay. Or maybe he was hearing it in advance. Was that even possible? I looked at Cam and motioned to the old sailor with my eyes. “You’re paranoid Hec.” Fine, so I went on with my little space jam.
Finally I asked him what he thought. “Listen, unless you’re Stephen Hawking you’re probably not going to understand space just by thinking about it.” I admitted I was no Steve H. So what do you do? “You get to know space by learning how to manipulate it. For me that’s about music. People always associate music with time but when I’m playing I usually think about space. Groove doesn’t exist without rests and harmony is as much a sum of pitches as it is the absence of others. Melody has to be phrased between pauses, just as intonation is determined by the space between pitches.” “Bring it down a little, man. I played the recorder for like two months.”
“Okay, think of it this way. As musicians develop their skills, the first thing they learn is to play. The focus is on creating sound. Get the note out of the instrument, and then repeat it until you can do it consistently. Fill the silence with your sound. But there comes a point where you just have to learn not to play. If you play constantly, the most memorable moment of your performance will be the time you didn't play. The artist understands this and knows how to play rests, how to let a musical idea breathe, develop, and tell a story. Without negative spaces, music would be…” “Noise,” I said, happy to fill in the blank. “Sure, why not.”
I slowly let the idea of negative spaces sink in. “Right, so you make meaning through a pattern of negative spaces—a poetry of precise absences.” Come on, that’s pretty good for a dentist! I went on in my most scholarly voice: “It reminds me of the Australian aborigines. For millennia people have discovered shapes in the Milky Way, but they were the only ones who found a pattern in the darkness between the stars. A pattern of negative spaces in the shape of an emu.” “Yeah, I know. I saw Cosmos.” Should have quit while I was ahead. But now that the ball was rolling we came up with more and more examples—from music and language to sex and sound and trees and the deep web. Some were better than others.
And all the while the old sailor’s head moves up and down thoughtfully, like he’s right there with us. I saw him take a bottle of Wild Vines out of his jacket pocket. No cap. Guess he didn’t need it. As he takes his swig he turns his whole face to us and for the first time I notice he’s got one brown eye and one blue one. And one of those old Roman noses. I always notice noses because an ancestor of mine wrote a book about them. He puts the bottle away and slowly says “En-ri-que.” I guess it was his name but he said it more like it was a comment on something. Then this young waitress walks by and you could see his head turn. The old sailor had a wandering eye. Which one?
“Look at the light shine through that!” he says. What? “They go all the way up!” “Her legs?” “Nawh man the spaces! Sexiest part of a woman, professor. And it ain’t even there! Put that on the list.” And with that the ancient mariner left us, if he was ever even there. I couldn’t believe it. “This is a sign. Obviously. We need to write this up. A theoretical study of negative spaces, with chapters on the cosmos, the human body, and the arts and sciences. It’s going to mean lots of long nights but we can do it. It’s what Enrique would want.” Cam wasn’t convinced. “Come on, man, I need this. I need something to do and I’m so fucking tired of teeth!”
“I just don’t see it as a book. Maybe an album.”
“Fine. But can I pullease write the liner notes?”
Hector Slawkenberg, DDS.
1) Negative Spaces I (2:56)
2) Big Trees (2:50)
3) Yesterday’s Trouble (6:09)
4) Whiskey For Flowers (5:18)
5) Take The Humble (4:36)
6) Clearing Skies (7:39)
7) Get It While You Can (4:33)
8) Barter (4:58)
9) A Song About A Tree (4:13)
10) Unfolding (5:33)
11) Negative Spaces II (2:36)
12) Echoing, Echoing (5:39)
All music composed by Cameron Mizell (BMI)
Cameron Mizell: Electric and Acoustic Guitars // Brad Whiteley: Hammond C3 Organ, Wurlitzer, Piano, Synth Bass, Fender Rhodes // Kenneth Salters: Drums, Tambourine, Triangle, Finger Chimes
Produced by Cameron Mizell // Recorded by George Shalda
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