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Nick Millevoi Honors Philadelphia with Album and Book

A feature on the guitarist, composer, and musical cartographer's latest project

Nick Millevoi (photo: Katie Rey)
Nick Millevoi (photo: Katie Rey)

Like an ornery real-estate magnate, the work of Nick Millevoi screams, “Location, location, location.” Whether as a composer or as a guitarist, he makes music that holds a distinct sense of place wherever he roams. And so it’s no surprise that this human GPS chose to write a book of 25 compositions, Streets of Philadelphia, named after streets in his old Pennsylvania stomping ground. It was published in 2019; an album of the same name, featuring 10 pieces from the book, came out late last year. Millevoi’s “locations” teem with melody, feedback and, more often than not, non-traditional tunings—a mélange of shifting terrains.

“Part of my desire to create a Streets of Philadelphia book relates to wanting to have my compositions live in different contexts,” says Millevoi, who not only penned the Philadelphia notes and charts but also had them printed in color on risograph, as if his maps were the truest of buried treasures.

“I wrote the 25 songs after recording Twilight Time [his Desertion Trio’s 2019 album that covered songs by artists like Gene Pitney, Santo and Johnny, and the Platters]. I’d spent so much time in my head arranging music for that record and living in a ’50s and ’60s musical space, which to me comes from spending a lot of time in Wildwood, N.J. as a kid—which still looks like the ’50s and ’60s more than maybe anywhere but Palm Springs—that I decided to just think about Philadelphia, my experience living in the city, and let that come out intuitively. No overthinking, no preconceived ideas about scales or motifs, just being present and trying to tap into that vibe musically. Some of the tunes have nice, singable melodies, some are rhythmically and tonally claustrophobic, all are a little complicated, which sums up my feelings about the city on an abstract level.”

While the published Philadelphia seemed to Millevoi a good way of formalizing those compositions, the recorded version (which features violist Veronica MJ, cellist Tom Kraines, trombonist Dan Blacksberg, and percussionist Anthony DiBartolo in addition to the guitarist) was meant to live on outside of its creator as well—“so it’s not limited to my playing, my sound, or my abilities,” he says. Millevoi credits John Zorn’s Masada Book 3 and Bagatelles with inspiring that idea, but the soulful openness and windy bluster all over these Streets are distinctively his.

They also occupy a very different place from where Millevoi’s Desertion Trio exist on Numbers Maker, a new live album recorded at New Haven’s Firehouse 12 in 2019 that blends the sounds of early electric Miles with James Bond-era John Barry (and Vic Flick). The spy thing comes from Millevoi wanting his new songs “to feel like you’re hearing them with whatever the musical equivalent is of a Dutch angle”; the Miles vibe is all groove, all the time. “Desertion Trio’s other stuff was about being rhythmically free. It was time we really rocked a pulse and [drummer] Jason [Nazary] brought that, so we just leaned into that pretty hard.” (Bassist Johnny DeBlase fills out the group.)

This autumn will see the debut release of another Millevoi project, Grassy Sound—a duo with pianist Ron Stabinsky (Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Meat Puppets)—whose central location seems to be the beach. “I wrote a set of tunes for Ron and I to play that gets into an avant-garde surf/lounge kind of space inspired by my love of water, surfing, and early easy-listening jams, but also some Captain Beefheart.

“I love the guitar,” Millevoi enthuses. “And there are so many guitars that are completely different from each other. What I feel when I play a Telecaster versus a Jazzmaster can be so different, and that is such an inspiring feeling. Amps are the same way. And now we’re in the golden age of guitar pedals, which blows open all the possibilities. But there’s enough in the guitar [itself] to never get bored. It’s completely open.”