The strangest thing about Nick Millevoi's new bimonthly gig at the West Philly bar Booker's is how not strange it is.
On Thursday evening, the guitarist and his trio the Stardusters — bassist Matt Stein and drummer Mike Szekely — played repertoire ranging from Hank Williams to Duke Ellington, with classics like "Red River Valley" and "Caravan" rendered as Americana-tinged jazz with a surf-guitar flair. But the melodies were played straight, lovely enough to serve as happy hour background music (or, in Millevoi's preferred term, "social music") if you didn't pause at your bar stool to tune in to the band's obvious virtuosity.
"The idea of the band," Millevoi says, "is to play music from the '50s and '60s that you can google and find a million different versions of, but they're not necessarily jazz standards. They might be both — 'Autumn Leaves' is a jazz standard that also would have fit into this other canon of music — but aesthetically, songs that were recorded as pop instrumental covers or in exotica versions."
Musical influences don't typically pass through Millevoi's hands quite so unaltered. The Philly guitarist has co-led the power trio Many Arms, which parlayed blistering riffs and mathematical complexity into rigorously brutal prog-metal workouts; with frequent collaborator Dan Blacksberg, he formed the avant-garde trombone/guitar duo Archer Spade and played Hasidic doom metal and radical klezmer music; of late, he's played in psych-experimentalist Chris Forsyth's Solar Motel Band and performed pieces from uncategorizable composer John Zorn's extensive catalog alongside Cleric guitarist Matt Hollenberg.
If each of those projects thrives on a collision of styles, Millevoi's Desertion Trio is a traffic-stopping, multi-genre pileup. Given the band's vigorous sound, free jazz freakouts can emerge from a haze of Crazy Horse distortion, or a free-floating country twang can suddenly sharpen into surf-rock riffery. One track may conjure a scene of secret agent skulduggery while another offers a glimpse of a fantasy landscape constructed from Les Baxter exotica and soft-focus cinematics.
On Thursday night, Millevoi and the Desertion Trio will celebrate the release of their second album, Midtown Tilt, at Johnny Brenda's, with jazz harpist Brandee Younger opening the show, presented by the Ars Nova Workshop. The band, which also includes Many Arms bassist Johnny DeBlase and drummer Kevin Shea of Mostly Other People Do the Killing, will be joined by the adventurous (and impressively bearded) keyboardist Jamie Saft, who appeared on and recorded both of the trio's albums in his New York studio.
You can rattle off a laundry list of names from Neil Young to the Ventures as touchstones, but the main influence behind Midtown Tilt is not an artist but a place: Wildwood. Raised in Northeast Philly, Millevoi has been frequenting the Shore town since childhood, discovering inspiration in its uniquely nostalgic aesthetic in recent years.
"I started thinking about what Wildwood has meant to me," he says, "but also what the city of Wildwood means as a cultural object. It's a unique place, and so much of it is preserved intact. That idea of Wildwood being a time capsule relates to my feeling of music, that these tunes are frozen in time. There's a personal nostalgia, but then there's a nostalgia for a place that is nostalgic."
Millevoi's adoration of the look of Wildwood feels untainted by irony; even his guitar, a custom seaside green Jazzmaster-style Creston, looks like something that could be mounted on a spinning neon sign a block or two from the beach. He and his wife frequent the city, on and offseason, usually staying at the well-preserved Caribbean Motel.
"It looks exactly the same as it does in pictures from the '50s," Millevoi says. "Each one of these themed motels — the Shalimar, the Singapore, the Malibu — is supposed to evoke a place that the people that built it probably had no idea about. It's like listening to exotica music: It's fake culture. You go down one street and you have all these places evoking other places in other time periods. I wanted to explore that musically, with each track on the album having its own feeling and its own sound, so you can have a cowboy track next to a spy track next to a surf track."
As opposed to the recognizable renditions of classic tunes he plays with the Stardusters (whose name refers simultaneously to a jazz standard, a Wildwood motel, and an early Neil Young band), his music with the Desertion Trio is more exploratory, distorted, and warped. Conceptually, that might suggest the decay that many of these Shore town landmarks have suffered in the intervening decades, but Millevoi says that's not his intention. "That's my lens, how I feel music. That's not conceptual; that's just me."