Steve Millhouse Cinema Trio to Release ‘Valley of the Moon’

Millhouse is a tireless advocate for the electric bass in jazz and a true chordal master on his 6-string Contrabass Guitar

Steve Millhouse Cinema Trio to Release ‘Valley of the Moon’

Millhouse is a tireless advocate for the electric bass in jazz and a true chordal master on his 6-string Contrabass Guitar

“Steve Millhouse is a tireless advocate for the electric bass in jazz and a true chordal master on his 6-string Contrabass Guitar.” — Bass Magazine

Millhouse’s command of intricate and advanced chordal voicings is on full display here, and his ability to incorporate melody lines on top of the chords is simply astounding. It’s what prompted me to call Millhouse “the Joe Pass of the bass.” – Bill Milkowski 

Steve Millhouse has formidable technique and, more important, he’s using it to help define and refine what the electric bass can do to refresh jazz music.” ~Steve Swallow 

“the way electric bass should be in modern jazz”.” -Kazunori Harada, Bass Magazine Japan 

After many years of touring, recording and playing all types of gigs with hundreds of artists  in all genres, Steve has formed two of his own trios to showcase his own style of bass  playing and composition. The Steve Millhouse Cinema Trio draws from the vast body of  musical work written for the cinema. It features Allen Farnham on Piano, Eric Halvorson on  Drums and Steve Millhouse on Contrabass Guitar playing their own arrangements of music  from some of the greatest composers in the history of cinema including Henri Mancini,  Michel Legrand, Johnny Mandel, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Jerome Kern, Sting to Disney and  beyond. The arrangements are both an homage to the brilliant original scores of the past  with a fresh new treatment and perspective. The Cinema Trio’s debut release, Valley of the  Moon, features compositions by Johnny Mandel, Michel Legrand, Jerome Kern and more. 

Few contrabass guitarists have dedicated themselves to the art of playing chords on the instrument as assiduously as Steve Millhouse has. That becomes immediately apparent from even a cursory listen to his 2022 recording for the SteepleChase label, The Unwinding, and even more so from his current outing with his Cinema Trio, Valley of the Moon. Millhouse’s command of intricate and advanced chordal voicings is on full display here, and his ability to incorporate melody lines on top of the chords is simply astounding. It’s what prompted me to call Millhouse “the Joe Pass of the bass.”  

            This singular talent is something that Millhouse acquired over time through diligent practice. And with this second album, he’s elevated it to a high art that rivals chordal bass masters who came before him like Jonas Hellborg, Matthew Garrison, Victor Wooten, Dominique Di Piazza and John Patitucci. And when he’s not chording on his custom-made contrabass guitar, Millhouse grounds the proceedings with insistent low-register walking bass lines in the tradition of his onetime teacher, Rufus Reid, or he spins streams of fluid, high-register single note melodies in the manner of his single biggest bass inspiration, Steve Swallow. 

            A native of Phoenix, Arizona, Millhouse was a would-be guitarist in his grammar school band who switched to bass out of necessity. “I kind of knew what chords were, but I had no idea what notes were in them; I just knew the shapes,” said the longtime New York resident who has primarily made his living playing in Broadway pit bands, touring with Ute Lemper, recording and various other gigs since moving to the Big Apple some 20 years ago. “So I played guitar for two years in the school band, just all single note stuff, while learning to read music from an oboe book they gave me. Then when they decided to combine the two bands from the two different schools the band director taught at, he told me, ‘Well, there’s a girl at the other school who plays guitar way better than you. But if you want to play bass, you could do that.” And I was like, ‘Great, I’ll do it. 

What’s a bass?’”  

            After picking up 4-string electric bass guitar in 1981 and shedding for quite a while on his 

Carol Kaye bass books, Millhouse eventually encountered a track on Jeff Berlin’s 1985 album, Champion, that would open up new possibilities for him on the instrument. “One of the first things I ever heard that made me aware of being able to play chords was Jeff Berlin’s solo bass version of the tune ‘Dixie,’ which he played on 4-string. That really opened my eyes to the idea of playing chords on the bass. I was used to just playing single notes or maybe double stops, so this was really shocking to me.” 

            Millhouse bought his first 6-string in 1990 and began woodshedding in earnest. “I started doing the chordal stuff just to help my ear out by learning standards. So instead of just playing single notes and trying to memorize what a tune sounded like, I figured out how to play the thirds and sevenths with the root so I could actually hear the tune as it goes by. And then occasionally I started trying to put the melody note on top, or I would experiment with different notes on top, mainly just for my own enjoyment. Because the truth is, I didn’t enjoy practicing jazz on the bass just by myself. For me, it was hard to do that. So I think I started doing chords because it was a way to make practicing fun.” 

            He began by playing duo and trio gigs, first with a flutist, then with a singer, saxophonist and even another bass player, supplying all the chordal accompaniment on the contrabass guitar, though he found it extremely challenging at first. “Initially, I played not as complicated chords as I can play now, just because the instrument was kind of unwieldy. It was too big. I could play some chordal things but I couldn’t ever play for an hour at a time before my fingers would start to go to sleep. So I had this more streamlined instrument built by Fodera Guitars with specifications to where I can now play comfortably without paralysis setting in. The string spacing is very narrow on this custom instrument. I don’t have huge hands, but on this bass I can reach across all six strings and play some of the chordal things that I could play before but couldn’t keep up for too long.”  While developing his rich chordal vocabulary, Millhouse kept getting sidetracked by more lucrative offers to play Broadway shows on 4-string electric or upright bass. And though he tried in 2015 to cultivate a trio situation on the side with tenor saxophonist Rich Perry (a mainstay for years in the Village Vanguard Orchestra who also appears on The Unwinding), Broadway inevitably beckoned, including one month-long stay in Japan with a popular touring Broadway show. “I would always get derailed from my work on the 6-string by having to work other gigs,” he recalled. “I tried to get into the jazz scene when I moved to New York because I had done a lot of jazz stuff in Arizona, but all on upright, mostly. But the New York jazz scene didn’t seem like it was really working out very well for me. Meanwhile, it was very, very easy for me to get into the Broadway scene, like immediately. Plus, the Broadway scene was paying much, much better than any jazz gig. Still does. So I did that. I was playing full-time, basically, so I could get health insurance and steady pay and was paying into a pension. So I’d always end up putting the six-string stuff on the side for a while, but I would pick it up from time to time. And though I always really wanted to do something real with it, I never did much.” 

            Millhouse had an opportunity to put in some serious woodshedding time on his 6-string when Broadway went dark during the pandemic. And when Broadway finally reopened in September 2021, he decided to go in another direction. “It’s a different scene now and I kind of removed myself from it,” he recalled, “because I wanted focus more on my own music.”     While The Unwinding may have been his first contrabass guitar manifesto, Millhouse takes it up a notch on Valley of the Moon. Accompanied by pianist Allen Farnham and drummer Eric Halvorson (returning fromThe Unwinding), he tackles five tunes associated with the cinema along with one original, the dynamic title track, which also features guest trumpeter Scott Wendholt.      The collection kicks off with Millhouse’s beautiful solo chordal intro to “In Love in Vain,” a Jerome Kern written for the 1946 film Centennial Summer that was subsequently covered by every singer from Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horn and Nina Simone to Chris Connor, Patti Page and Bobby Darin. Coming out of that superb intro, the trio jumps into a relaxed mid tempo swing mode, underscored by Halvorson’s steady and syncopated brushwork. Farnham’s adept voice leading guides Millhouse through the engaging melody and his agile, high register single note soling over the changes. Then Steve reverts to walking bass mode in the low register behind Farnham’s jaunty piano solo before the two engage in some spirited exchanging of eights with drummer Halvorson before Farnham carries the melody out. 

            Millhouse’s solo chordal intro to Michael Legrand’s poignant minor key “The Windmills of Your Mind,” leads to a lightly swinging samba flavored reading of that Academy Award winning tune from the 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair. Farnham solos first, delivering another tastefully swinging romp through the changes before Millhouse enters with another facile, Swallowesque contrabass guitar solo. “I’ve been a huge fan of Steve’s since his The Real Book record from 1994,” he explained. “And his Duets album with Carla Bley was very much inspirational to me 30 years ago when I was working on some of this stuff pretty seriously. Because Carla would play the bass line and the chord, and Steve would play the melodies of the tunes, and it just sings so beautifully.” He added, “Once I moved to New York, I used to go see Swallow every chance that I could when he was playing in town, whether it was at The Jazz Standard, Birdland or the Blue Note. I became friends with Steve about ten years ago and he actually wrote the liner notes to my previous album, The Unwinding, which were very complimentary.” 

            Millhouse handles the melody on a mid tempo swinging rendition of Johnny Mandel’s harmonically rich waltz number, “Emily,” from the 1964 film The Americanization of Emily. Farnham’s solo is imbued with a touch of Bill Evans elegance while Steve remains primarily in the lower register throughout his graceful solo. And drummer Halvorson, who deftly switches from brushes to sticks, remains highly interactive and in the moment throughout, culminating in some lively solo exchanges with Farnham and Millhouse midway through this engaging number, which was covered by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand. 

            Another Johnny Mandel number, the Oscar nominated “A Time for Love,” from the 1966 movie, An American Dream (by all accounts an absolutely terrible adaptation of the 1965 Norman Mailer novel of the same name) is given a kind of an enchanting “Poinciana” treatment, courtesy of drummer Halvorson. A showcase for Farnham, it opens with a gorgeous and extended solo piano intro before the trio kicks into that undulating groove made famous by the Ahmad Jamal trio with bassist Israel Crosby and New Orleans drummer Vernel Fournier on their 1958 live album, At the Pershing: But Not for Me. “That was actually Allen’s idea,” said Millhouse. “When we were doing it, I told him, ‘Play as long as you want upfront, then play the tune and then we’ll all come in.’ And so we initially did it like a typical ballad, but then Allen said, ‘Hey, why don’t we try it with like a ‘Poinciana’ groove?’ And so we did, and it was nice. Eric’s keeping that thing going, so I can play a little more open and loose on it and slide around down in the real low register on the B-string.”             The lone Millhouse original here, “Valley of the Moon,” also the longest track at 11:28, is a showcase for drummer Halvorson. “Eric is real adaptable and he usually plays what people want him to play, which makes him very much in demand on the New York scene,” said the bandleader. “But in my trios I kept telling him, ‘Eric, I want you to be you in this band.’ So he opened up and really played, even more so on this record than on my previous one. He has a two-minute solo drum intro on this tune, then he opens it up at the end, which is exactly what I wanted. I was like, ‘Man, let it loose!’”  

            They close with the beautiful Michel Legrand-Jacques Demy ballad “You Must Believe in Spring,” written for the 1967 French film The Young Girls of Rochefort. As Millhouse recalled, “I think I first heard Bill Evans do it on his album of the same name with Eddie Gomez on bass and Eliot Zigmund on drums (recorded in 1977 and released posthumously in 1981).” The leader delivers a solo chordal tour de force at the intro before the trio swings the melancholy-tinged tune in supple fashion, with Halvorson on brushes and Farnham playing slightly behind the beat through his potent solo, with the contra bass guitarist walking forcefully behind him. Millhouse’s high register solo here is coming directly out of that Steve Swallow school he so admired.  

            “I wanted to feature everybody equally on this album because my main goal was I wanted it to be a music album, not a bass album,” he said. “I wanted it to be something the average listener could enjoy without really knowing what instrument was being played. Is that a guitar? Is it a bass? 

But it shouldn’t matter as long as it sounds good.” 

            And it does indeed. — Bill Milkowski 

Bill Milkowski is a regular contributor to Downbeat and Guitar Player magazine. He is also the author of Ode to a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker and JACO: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius, The World’s Greatest Bass Player (both on Backbeat Books). 

Bass Magazine   By: Bass Magazine