It's Friday night, Young Circle in Hollywood, and Sushi Blues Cafe is jumping with bodies sloshing sake and gobbling hand rolls. Tonight, National Public Radio's here to record Sushi Blues' house band for a segment of Morning Edition, featuring avant-garde musician and local businessman, Keshavan Maslak, a.k.a. Kenny Millions. On Friday and Saturday nights, Millions romps simultaneously on drums and tenor sax, and if the NPR crew's head-jiving is any indication, the sounds spiraling from the stage are coming in loud and clear.
"Music is communication," Millions later remarks. "You're not just doing it for yourself; it's a two-way thing. Many artists are very arrogant, and they're just like, 'Well, I'm just going to do my thing, and if [the audience] doesn't understand it, they're inferior.' But there's a way of doing it so that you can do what you have to do, make them happy, and make yourself happy. The best artists are the ones that communicate the best."
The brainchild of Millions, the Sushi Blues Band transmits its versions of blues, funk, and avant-soul to ecstatic visitors and Hollywood locals alike. More than 30 original recordings document Millions' hybrid approach to music.
After 20 years of gigging joints in the United States, Russia, Japan, and Europe with the varied likes of Laurie Anderson, Chet Baker, and the Temptations, the high-voltage Millions, age 51, tired of touring. "You lose your brain," he explains. In 1989 Millions decided to hunker down and set up shop -- or sax, so to speak.
"My wife's a Japanese chef, and we wanted to combine that kind of food with American roots music," he says. "It was an experiment. We're actually surprised that it's lasted ten years. People really dig it."
Philosophically similar to the eclectically conceived cafe, the band morphs the expected Howlin' Wolf covers with improvisational syntheses of atonal avant-garde riffs. With lead guitarist Dave Morgan growling out vocals and serene bassist Melissa Maslak (Millions' daughter) rounding out the trio, Millions thickens the usual blues and R&B stew with his brand of acoustic assault. Keeping time on drums -- left leg pumping the high hat, right squeezing out a New Orleans-parade blues beat -- Millions' fingers flutter fast over his tenor sax, a series of love slaps that illicit brain-rattling shrieks, gut-powered groans, and blatant and bombastic wailing -- more Sun Ra than Son House. Even with every appendage otherwise occupied, Millions somehow greets regulars as they bottleneck past the tiny stage by the door.
"The people in this area like blues, but I just can't copy the original records," he explains. "I still hit that familiar bottom beat but with all that extra stuff on top of it, because that's me."
The iconoclastic Millions grew up in Detroit, where he was encouraged by his Russian immigrant grandfather to begin studying and playing classical music at age six. "My grandfather played the mandolin and sang Russian folk songs with this big booming bass voice, so I got into music at an early age. I started playing clarinet and saxophone in the first grade, and I just stuck with it."
Millions began working weddings on the weekends at age 11 and later made the rounds through salsa bands, polka bands, symphonic orchestras, even punk outfits. "You name it, I've had that experience," he says. "You can learn from every style."
During high school Millions lived in the urban center of Detroit, and his classmates plugged him into the burgeoning free-jazz and blues scenes. "A lot of my friends were black kids from the ghetto, and they turned me on to Miles Davis, John Coltrane," Millions remembers fondly. "My friends would take me to the heart of the ghetto to these great clubs. I heard Miles Davis at the Minor Key -- it was just a joint -- playing with Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams. I'd be the only white kid in the club, and everyone was cool to me. Then I started playing in some of those clubs."
Jazz wasn't the only genre turning the young Millions' head. At the time, his high school, Cass Tech, was stomping ground for later Motown Hall of Famers Diana Ross and at least a few of the Temptations. On nearby Grand Boulevard, a house known as Motown Hitsville, which later became Berry Gordy's Motown Records, hosted a slew of R&B greats. "It was close to my high school, and I would go there and hang out because this new thing was happening -- the Motown sound in the mid-'60s. I remember seeing this little, blind, black boy playing the harmonica and singing his butt off." Millions says with a laugh. "You know who that is!"
During the '70s, after studying at the University of Michigan and North Texas State, Millions made his way to New York City. "That's what you did if you were a musician -- which is pretty much still the case," he says. He penetrated the New York loft scene, an avant-garde milieu where multimedia talents gigged in assorted loft spaces.
"There were no other outlets for artists," Millions recalls, "and at that time the rents were really cheap. Especially in Soho; it wasn't a trendy place yet. Lots of artists and musicians would live in a big loft and put their living facilities in one part of it, and in the other part, they would organize concerts or an art gallery or something."
Today you can see Millions' loft legacy tacked to a wall at Sushi Blues: a gig poster in which a felt-hatted, white-scarfed Millions cradles his sax. Although Millions plays drums, clarinet, flute, miniature guitar, the Hum-Ha horn (a trombone-trumpet-saxophone hybrid he concocted during the '70s), and his sampler, it's his sax that serves as his love supreme.
"All these other instruments are like garnishes on the plate, something to spice up the entree. They're an embellishment of what I do."
Millions cites his Lilliputian guitar as a case in point. "I'm not a guitar player, but I've been messing with it for a number of years," he says. "I put weird strings on it, and I get my atmosphere out of it, my own sounds that I want."
Sounds kaleidoscope through Millions' extensive discography, where connoisseurs of the weirdly wonderful can hear anything from rubber bands bouncing off guitar strings to the outer space droning of between-radio-stations static. Millions likes to throw everything into the pot, and what comes bubbling to the surface is a welcome and quirky mixture.
Take his 1996 release, Friends Afar, with Russian artist and close friend, the late Sergey Kuryokhin, whom Millions met in Leningrad while touring in the '80s. Kuryokhin, an actor, film composer, pianist, and poet, shared Millions' stew-of-stuff sensibility for the record, combining titles like "My Happiness," a Russian folksong from the '30s, with a dramatic vocal interpretation featuring Kuryokhin sobbing his head off.
"Most of the tracks were improvisational," says Millions. "We talked about it beforehand, but we'd make it our own version while recording. We were both the same way; we wanted to throw everything on there."
After collaborating with Kuryokhin, Millions went on to fuse notes and noise with Japanese turntable artist Otomo Yoshihide in their 1998 release, Without/With Kuryokhin. "It's 'without' because [Sergey] was supposed to be with us for that Moscow tour," Millions explains, "and it's 'with' because Otomo sampled some of Sergey's voice and put it in there like if he was still there."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Millions' own label, the fledgling Hum-Ha Records, boasts two releases: the 1997 Father and Daughter Show -- Live @ Knitting Factory NYC and the more recent Kenny Millions Jams. The first, recorded two years ago, combines classical tracks like Debussy's "Jardins Sous la Pluie" with original Millions compositions such as "Junko and Neon Crayola" and "Cheeto Head."
Like her father, Melissa finds nothing odd about the eclectic set. "It blended nicely in and out of certain pieces," she says. "It mixed together really well." Melissa, now age 17, has studied and performed classical piano for more than ten years. The bass came later. "A couple of years ago she asked me to buy her a bass," Millions recalls. "So I bought it, and a week later she started playing at Sushi Blues. She learned it herself. She's a natural musician; it's in her."
Recorded at Sushi Blues, Jams is a one-man show featuring four bluesy tracks with Millions' typical acoustic irreverence woven throughout. The CD is his homage to his regular weekend shows at Sushi Blues. "I wanted something I could cut for myself to document the sound inside the Sushi Blues Cafe," he explains. This summer, Sushi Blues will lose both Millions and his daughter, but only for a little while. After hearing Melissa tickle the ivories, a German promoter invited her to Europe for her own transatlantic gig.
"We're going over there, and I'm going to be her roadie," says Millions. "It's cool to see that happening, but it's worrisome too. I think, 'Oh my God, I hope she doesn't have to go through what I went through.' I don't want her to have to live on the Lower East Side in a closet with a million cockroaches. Knowing the way it works, I can steer her in the right direction.