By Scott Scholz
In the decades before Tiny Mix Tapes (both the recently-retired website and actual tiny mix tapes), and even further back into the mists of time, just before phonographs and radios found their way into most households, the center of household entertainment often was a piano. When new tunes came out, folks dusted off those keys and played ‘em for themselves right out of the freshly-minted sheet music. Of course, outside of the classical world (or occasionally jazz), very little music is published first nowadays to paper, save for the Beck Song Reader book project in 2012.
Philly-based guitarist Nick Millevoi is having none of that business. He’s the sort of fellow who has already played on 20-ish records and led his own killer jazz-inflected instrumental rock bands like the Desertion Trio and Many Arms. When the inspiration hit to write a series of songs that didn’t lend themselves neatly to his working bands, he gathered them into their own songbook. As you might expect based on the book’s title, “Streets of Philadelphia” contains a set of 25 short instrumental pieces written to celebrate the urban pathways around the City of Brotherly Love. He assembled them into an edition of 100 handcrafted, risograph-printed books that was published last September, so that you too can let your fingers do some walking on these fabled streets.
As a sheet music-reading person who happens to travel by bicycle, I felt connected to these pieces as soon as I started working through the book. I found myself looking up the streets associated with these pieces on Google Maps, putting myself in Street View, and imagining myself biking on them myself as I considered the music. Many are gentler, lower-traffic residential streets I’d look for as a cyclist to avoid the vehicular congestion (like Albion), or short little jogs of a block or two that save some trouble where the urban grid falls a little out of symmetry (like Clay or Mower). The songs capture the sounds and rhythms of moving around a city by bike, with lots of odd rhythmic cells huddled together as though you’re having to adjust your speed, chromaticism that feels like sneaking between cars or down alleys, and dissonant intervals that remind me of traffic noise and car horns. Millevoi intended the street names in the songbook to be a more general celebration of Philly streets past and present, and included some streets that no longer exist, like Point No Point. However, it’s notable that he’s a bike traveler as well, and a cycling pace and consideration of one’s surroundings flows naturally in these pieces.
Because the songs are written for open instrumentation, you can play them on any instrument of your choice as solo pieces, or get a few friends together and whip up an arrangement or two. Are they “jazz” or “classical” or what? That all depends on how you decide to play them! They’re very flexible, like one needs to be maneuvering the Streets of Philadelphia. But just in case your music-playing abilities slow down when there’s a piece of sheet music in front of you, Millevoi has assembled a cast of first-rate Philly musicians who have realized a selection of ten tunes from the songbook, and the digital album drops on December 3rd at Nick’s Bandcamp:
Nick’s ensemble for Streets features himself on guitar, Veronica MJ on viola, Tom Kraines on cello, Dan Blacksberg on trombone, and Anthony Di Bartolo on marimba and percussion. Two pieces utilize the whole ensemble, while others feature solos, duets and trios broken out from the main quintet. The open-orchestration nature of these charts allows for lots of interpretive latitude, and the ensemble turned out a refreshingly diverse set of recordings, made in January of this year just before everything turned into lockdowns and social distancing. A few of my favorites from this set:
Gaskill: this is such a playful tune! You can feel a Beefheart influence on the songbook hiding in the shadows on this street. The trombone/marimba unisons are stellar, with perfectly matching phrasing. Di Bartolo deftly switches from marimba to percussion at the perfect moments to drive this tune forward. This is one of the full-ensemble takes, though the strings lay back to let the trombone and marimba drive the piece hardest. Everyone digs in hard on the last run through the form.
Markoe: A string trio arrangement of sorts, the theme is laid out mostly in octaves between viola and cello, with Millevoi adding ethereal accompaniment. The melody has a bit of an early 2nd Viennese School vibe on paper, and it takes on a cinematic quality in this recording.
Plover: This is one of the more playful tunes in the songbook, switching between a pointillistic melody and carnival music rhythms. Millevoi steps out for some warped lead work on this track, taking things pretty far out while the orchestral strings hold down an ostinato figure to keep things on the road. Then Blackberg takes a short turn. There’s an album’s worth of ideas in this song alone, and you can really hear how much fun everyone has with the piece.
Mower: This tune reminded me a little of if Horse Lords tried to write a Zappa tune when I first read through the sheet music, and this arrangement definitely carries that vibe to a fun place, with its stuttering major 7ths occasionally coalescing into bits of rock and roll dirtiness, but just as often soaring along with that kind of Vareseian all-tension, no-release vibe. This is probably my favorite recording in this set. While there’s not the space for improvisation that some of these arrangements have, it functions as a brilliantly balanced, powerful composition. Short street, incredible tune!
Silver: Tom Kraines closes out the album with a tender solo cello interpretation of “Silver.” While it’s a short take that adheres to the printed page, he brings out a gentle, undulating feel in the piece that I hadn’t picked up on looking through the sheet music initially.
And that’s the beauty of this project: you can simply enjoy these great recorded takes on selections from the sheet music, but if you’re a musician yourself, you can also use them as inspiration. The songbook is full of memorable ideas, but as I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of flexibility built into these tunes. Why not take a ride on the Streets of Philadelphia yourself? A .pdf of the songbook is included with purchase of the digital album, and you also can still order a beautiful hard copy of the songbook. The book was designed and printed in Philly by Erik Ruin. It features some fun color renderings of the charts in blues and reds and greens--a nice personal touch that doesn’t affect readability. You can find it on the Nick Millevoi Bandcamp page, where it can then be delivered to a street wherever you are.
(And remember, Friday is "Bandcamp Day," where Bandcamp waives their fees so that artists can keep making it through the pandemic since performances are mostly halted around the world, so it's the perfect day to support the artist.)