The Miller Brothers

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Family photo shoot, Vailoa ’70s: from left – Harry Latu Maua

The Miller Brothers are Harry, Latu and Maua. During our primary school years Dad started teaching us by ear how to play the ukulele as a precursor to the guitar, his thinking being the ukulele had only four strings to get one’s fingers across. About singing, he used to say “If you can talk, you can sing.” He was such a stickler for timing, and often barked “Don’t stop to correct anything; stay in tempo and get it right the next time around!”.

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Moonglow Nightclub, Apia 1978: from left – Harry Maua Latu

Perhaps the most important advice he imparted to us was to “play with feeling”. I recall being yelled at one time for just sleepily strumming the chords mechanically. That was never to happen again! “Jazz is a feeling” he said, “not just a bunch of chords”. We developed good ears such that we gradually learned to pick up any tune by ear off the radio and records (stylus permitting ☺). On jazz improvisation Dad explained it as “playing one melody line while thinking of another”. He was quite the task master and it was hard going at the start.

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The usual bonding format, at home in Vailoa, Faleata 1992: Maua Harry Latu

However, it became easier over time through practice, practice, and more practice, in addition to regular public appearances where one just simply had to obey the unwritten rule of “live” performance. You just did it, hoping for the least number of blue notes, either vocally or instrumentally, or both. Naturally, we grew up to truly appreciate what Dad was saying and it certainly put us on a good musical footing for life. Dad led his family band for many years before deciding to let the boys carry on with it while he moved into managing the Moonglow and Le Tanoa nightclubs.

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Outside Montage Studio, Auckland 1997

He would then occasionally join us for the odd jam session or outside gig. The Miller Band, as it was called then, continued after Dad retired, until it disbanded in the early ‘80s. During the playing years we were often asked about writing our own songs and recording them, but the notion just seemed ridiculous and irrelevant at the time, and never happened. It was not until the Willie Miller CD was finally completed in 2012 that I began to gain some confidence in producing music CDs “do-it-yourself” style, using recovered audio. We then thought to ourselves, “Why not do a Miller Brothers CD using the remainder of the old stuff with the three of us playing!”.

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Preparing for family reunion gig (sort of) in Latu’s garage, Auckland 2007

The result was the first Miller Brothers CD, which we simply called Play. Like the Willie Miller CD, Play is a rearrangement of numbers recovered from old cassette tapes and the stereo CD from the 2005 attempt. But unlike the Willie Miller CD we had the opportunity to include one or two numbers from later jam sessions, a luxury we did not have with Dad’s CD. The first track on Play is a cover of Blacksand, a jazz-rock composition by a Hawaiian band called Kalapana, from 1978, during the Moonglow days. The band line-up then was Harry and me on guitars, Maua on keyboard, Billy Fuiono Fa’ai’uaso on bass, and Richard “Pisi” Stanley on drums.

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Family reunion gig, with Lance “Lagi” Bentley on drums, Auckland 2007

As Time Goes By is a studio jam session captured during the making of a friend’s CD in 1997 at Montage Studio, Auckland. You can hear Maua emulating Dad’s tenor sax, on keyboards! Our covers of the jazz standards Caravan, Night and Day, Poinciana, Moonglow, and How High The Moon came from the abandoned 2005 guide tracks that were meant for Dad. We have cleaned them up a little and added some drums, keyboards, and strings. They are performed in the “Dad” chord progressions and feel.

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Preparing for the Orator charity gig at the Vailoa back fale, Apia 2011

Our version of Samba de Orpheu is typical of how we bonded throughout our lives, sitting around with guitar in hand where possible, and jamming away on anything and everything. This title was captured directly into my trusty MacBook Pro in my garage, Auckland 2007. It is a raw guitar trio jam session with no added embellishments. Harry leads off the melody on a Gibson SG on left pan, me on an Ibanez GB10 doing bass/rhythm in centre pan, and Maua filling in on a nylon acoustic on right pan. Maua then takes first solo, followed by me soloing on right pan while Maua plays bass on nylon acoustic in centre pan, and finally Harry takes us out.

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After the Orator charity gig, Apia 2011

Lei Momi (translated “Flower of my Heart”)  is a Hawaiian traditional standard, the base material being an extract from a video capture of the 2011 fundraising charity concert we played at the Orator Hotel in Apia, September 2011 for the Mapu-I-Fagalele rest home. The line-up for the gig was Harry and me on guitars, Maua on keys and bass, Frank Elia on drums, and friends Mac Laban, Oliva Va’ai, and Deacon Eves taking turns on bass. The last track on Play is an instrumental arrangement of Billie Nelson’s It Is Only A Memory. Dad was supposed to have sung this at the abandoned 2005 attempt.

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Parting after Dad’s headstone unveiling, Faleolo Airport, Apia 2012

As far as we know this is the first time the Introduction or Verse of this composition has been voiced or recorded, thanks to a torn and tattered copy of the original manuscript which we found when clearing Dad’s “shed”. That melody part is played by Maua on grand piano. So, again like Dad’s CD, the feel of Play is one of a casual live improvisation session rather than a planned CD project in the making. We are eternally grateful to Dad for his gift of music. While he was certainly a pioneer of Jazz in Samoa, Dad could conceivably be the first Samoan ever, to not only have introduced Jazz to Samoa, but to also continue practising this art form to the end.

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The Miller Brothers’ last “bonding session”, Johnny’s garage, Auckland 2013

If I were to look at Dad with a truly objective eye and not as a son, I can truly say that Willie Miller was a gifted virtuoso brimming with incredible musical talent. He was a multi-instrumentalist with an amazing sense of harmony and timing, and a proponent of the trickiest genre in the musical art form. And all of this was learned through determination and intuition. Such is the legacy of Jazz left to us by the man we know as our father, Tuiafelolo Maiava Willie Miller.

Click on the YouTube links below to watch, hear, or download the tracks from Play.

1. Blacksand (Kalapana)
2. As Time Goes By (Herman Hupfeld)
3. Poinciana (Buddy Bernier & Nat Simon)
4. Samba De Orpheu (Luiz Bonfa)
5. Moonglow (Will Hudson & Irving Mills)
6. So Danco Samba (Antonio Carlos Jobim)
7. Night & Day (Cole Porter)
8. Caravan (Juan Tizol)
9. Lei Momi (Hawaiian traditional standard)
10. How High The Moon (Nancy Hamilton & Morgan Lewis)
11. It Is Only A Memory (Billie Nelson)