Locals: Pete Mills wasn’t always a natural with the sax

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From the September 19, 2013 edition

Jazz, according to local saxophonist Pete Mills, is something best experienced in the live setting.

“You can talk about this stuff until you’re blue in the face, and you can listen to records and watch it on YouTube and all that,” he said. “But when you’re sitting in a spot five feet away from the band and the music is being generated by the physical being of these people, there’s something happening there you can’t explain.”

Mills will put his theory to the test when he joins bandmates Matt Wilson (drums), Pete McCann (guitar), Erik Augis (piano) and Martin Wind (bass) for a concert at Ohio Wesleyan University’s Jemison Auditorium on Friday, Sept. 20 (a second show is scheduled to take place Saturday at Denison University). The two-night stand marks the release of Mills’ fourth full-length studio album, Sweet Shadow, a diverse affair that incorporates original compositions alongside covers both timeless (Ellington and Strayhorn’s “The Star-Crossed Lovers”) and off-beat (“Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”).

The saxophonist received his introduction to the music from his father, a gas and oil engineer who spent most evenings circulating in the various jazz clubs in and around Toronto, Ontario. As a child, Mills joined his dad for concerts by the likes of Oscar Peterson (“He played for two hours in a packed hall with no [air-conditioning]”) and Count Basie (“His health was failing so they rolled him out in a wheelchair”), and he includes a Duke Ellington cover on every album in tribute to his late father.

“My mom wished I was a doctor and my dad was secretly happy I played music,” he said. “He was not a musician, but he was one of these guys you saw at all the shows. And Ellington was his guy.”

Despite this pedigree, Mills said he wasn’t a natural when it came to the saxophone — “One of my teachers said, ‘He’s probably not the most talented kid I have,’” he said — and he only overcame his musical shortcomings because of his obvious passion for the music and a yeomen-like work ethic.

“I didn’t think this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life, but I was always attracted to it,” he said. “And whatever success I’ve had, if you want to call it that, comes from working really, really hard.”

Photo by Meghan Ralston