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 repeatŠ 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 became 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.