The Phil Miller Guitar Prize – Birmingham Conservatoire 16 March 2023

The Phil Miller guitar prize is an annual competition at the Birmingham Conservatoire, conceived by Phil’s partner Herm alongside Conservatoire tutor (and long-time Phil collaborator) Fred Baker, with Conservatoire students competing for a £1000 prize and performing Phil’s pieces to an audience in the intimate Eastside jazz venue. This was the second edition of the competition: due to COVID and Fred’s touring commitments with the Soft Machine, for whom he is now a full member, the event has had a slightly wonky history, but looks to be a permanent inclusion on the calendar, testament to Herm’s desire to maintain a lasting legacy of Phil in the public eye (Phil’s scores have also been donated to the institution for students to peruse).

Portraits of Phil Miller by Herm Mew

The evening’s events started off with a performance of initially solo guitar from Fred, morphing into a three piece with bass player Mickey O’Brien and ‘new’ drummer Jim Bashford (Jim confided later that he’d been a student of Fred’s back in, I think, the Nineties). Fred started with ‘Calyx’ and moved via the first of the night’s three tracks from ‘Out of the Blue’ into the mini-band set, with performances of the classic Eighties numbers ‘Eastern Region’ and ‘Above and Below’ before finishing with a wild version of ‘Delta Borderline’.

Fred Baker

If I’d had any doubts as to who the competitors for the award might be, a cursory glance around the audience revealed them, as a number of knowing grins appeared from some identifiably younger faces in the room as Fred worked his way through a number of effects boxes and flying excursions around the frets. Highlights for me were a beautiful placid introduction to ‘Above and Below’ and the pulverizing thrust and counterthrust of ‘Delta Borderline’ – a tune Fred admitted that him and Phil had codenamed ‘Brain Damage’, such are its convoluted counterrhythms. He also let slip that he’d missed practicing the guitar whilst on tour with Soft Machine on bass, and there was a certain amount of letting rip here as a consequence! There are plans to perform Phil Miller material with this trio, and an initial thought was that this prequel to the main event might have set the bar rather high!

The Fred Baker Trio: Fred Baker, Jim Bashford, Mickey O’Brien

After a short break, the student performances began, each taking what appeared to be around 10 minute segments of various parts of the Miller repertoire. The nature of the music surprised me: this was almost an antidote to the Phil Miller memorial gigs in London in 2019, where a cast of many hammered out tightly scored compositions in the various denominations of musicians who’d been associated with Phil through his career. Tonight’s performances were largely singular and highly interpretative – at times almost only nodding to their original sources, but all reflecting facets of Phil’s playing or compositions in one form or another. It was uniformly excellent and at times quite breathtaking.

Adam Roberts

Alfie Dean

Oliver Canham opened up with a very impressionistic version of ‘Phrygian Blues’, in many ways the most adventurous of tonight’s performances with great use of dynamics and a real creative feel, ending with a lovely looped outro which faded beautifully around the room; Alfie Dean performed a lengthy version of ‘Truly Yours’ with incredible poise and sensitivity; Adam Roberts, tonight’s only student bass player produced an adventurous rendition of ‘God Song’, in two parts, the first a relatively straight picking out of the melody, the second soloing beautifully to a looped backdrop. Timothy Alan in performing an interpretation of ‘Green and Purple’ eked out a series of guitar lines so quintessentially Phil – no single note was wasted – that I was quite transported (and forgot to photograph the performer). It also somewhat brought the house down and one might have felt, in one’s own subjective way, that this rendition could not be topped. But the eventual winners, the only duo (Joseph Hiles and James Coni) stole the show with their mesmeric ‘Digging In’, with intertwining acoustic guitars trading themes.

foreground are eventual winners of the Phil Miller Guitar Prize 2023: Joseph Hiles and James Coni

As tonight’s events were all filmed from front of stage, there is a hope that this music might all appear on the Legacy site for you to make your own judgements, but what was without question was the joyous release of all performers getting stuck into a concluding ‘Nan True’s Hole’ alongside Fred and drummer Jim, the 6 guitar players all taking it in turn to solo, concluding with Fred. As with the memorial gigs at the Vortex, a glorious way to send us all on our way.

Nan True’s Hole! The Phil Miller Guitar Prize Collective

A few concluding thoughts: great to be able to chat to Fred and Herm and Lynette (who were all so instrumental in organisign those memorial gigs) and to meet Mickey and Jim who I’ll hopefully see again with the Fred Baker Trio. Great also to bump into an old Facelift writer – Martin Mycock, who produced many a fine piece in the magazine’s early days – we worked out we’d not met since convening at a Richard Sinclair RSVP gig in Chester in the Nineties. The walls were dominated by Herm’s 10 portraits of Phil – the miniatures you will have seen as part of the promotional stuff for this concert are extraordinarily almost photographic in their nature, but tonight was a chance to see them in their full glory, I would estimate each is over a metre in length; also it was lovely to hear Phil’s music piped through the wires before, after and between sets, a real treat. But the main thing I would say is to encourage any fans of Phil’s work to make it to the next Guitar Prize night – this was a night of unexpectedly high craftmanship and innovation towards the work of one of our scene’s giants.

Phil Miller’s Legacy site is here:

My interview with Fred Baker in which he talks about Double Up 2 and other Phil Miller projects is here:

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