Brooklyn-based guitarist-composer Cameron Mizell offers something of a mission statement in the liner notes to his fifth and most recent album, Negative Spaces. The liner essay author, one of Mizell’s lifelong friends, recounts a conversation he had with the guitarist, about how it is absence as much as presence that defines music. Mizell explained: “As musicians develop their skills, the focus is on creating sound. Get the note out of the instrument, and then repeat… fill the silence with your sound. But there comes a point where you have to learn not to play. If you play constantly, the most memorable moment of your performance will be the time you didn’t play. An artist understands this and knows how to ‘play’ rests, how to let a musical idea breathe, develop and tell a story.” This ideal underscores the title of Negative Spaces, a trio disc with kindred-spirit keyboardist Brad Whiteley and drummer Kenneth Salters, released in October 2016 by Destiny Records. DownBeat magazine made it an “Editor’s Choice,” praising the album as “a program of painterly originals that uses sparseness and absence in artful, melodic ways.” A review of the disc in All About Jazz concluded that the guitarist “really deserves attention,” while the review in Jazz Trail sums up his music’s allure: “Cameron Mizell doesn’t need words to show he’s a great storyteller.”
Mizell, who was born in 1980 and bred in St. Louis, explains the method that makes Negative Spaces different from his previous trio albums: “Previously, I had composed from the groove up, but I wrote the pieces of Negative Spaces from top down as if I were a vocalist, away from my guitar, with pen and paper. I even transcribed singers like Sam Cooke to get into how they phrased a melody. The idea with a lot of improvised music is to see how far out you can get. But with this album, I wanted to rein it in, create singable melodies and allow room for music to happen around them.” Even with its sparer, melody-oriented dynamics, Negative Spaces has a lush overall feel, what Jazz Trail described as “an inviting sound,” with Mizell’s gorgeous guitars – by turns lyrical and textural – complemented by Whiteley’s variety of keyboards: Hammond organ, Wurlitzer, piano, synth bass and Fender Rhodes. On drums, Salters can go from sounding like a full percussion section to adding apposite touches with only brushes. DownBeat appreciated how the album moves from "edge and attitude" to "grace and splendor."
To Mizell, music should reflect the wider world. Negative Spaces features subtle sound effects – birdsong, kids playing, a boat horn – recorded in his Brooklyn neighborhood, along with references to personal experiences and special places. As one example, the song “Whisky for Flowers” got its title from Mizell’s customary exchange with his wife, who has become a connoisseur of bourbon, buying it for her husband as he buys her blossoms. Mizell’s wife was also the ideal sounding board for the sensibility the guitarist was trying to cultivate with Negative Spaces. “She’s my barometer for the writing and playing of music like this – chops don’t matter to her, not a bit,” he says. “If she hums something later that I’ve played her, I know I’m on the right track. And she hummed tunes from this record a lot.” The review of the album in The New York City Jazz Record seconded that emotion, saying: “These tunes are eminently hummable, reflecting the sensibility of artists who have created music that reaches out to an audience but never insults its intelligence… There’s so much to appreciate on Negative Spaces thanks to the cohesion of group, its individual voices and Mizell’s song-oriented vision.”
Negative Spaces follows Mizell’s Destiny album from 2015, The Edge of Visibility, a ravishingly atmospheric solo EP that All About Jazz praised as “hypnotic” and DownBeat singled out as “splendid… striking… separating this guitarist from the pack.” The LP saw Mizell create an enveloping aura of sound with only his customized Fender Telecaster, looping device and various tone-bending, oscillating effects. The review in No Depression extolled the album’s virtues at length: “Combining improvisational jazz with traces of progressive rock and avant-garde experimentalism, Mizell explores the sounds of the dreaming and waking world. This is a thought-provoking album, one that lingers in the memory long after it has ceased spinning.”
The solo sensibility of The Edge of Visibility was inspired by some of Mizell’s guitar idols. “Before recording, I had been listening to early blues guitarists, like Blind Willie Johnson and his haunting ‘Dark Was the Night’,” he explains. “But Bill Frisell’s solo LPs have always been a big influence on me, too, the way he just commands melody – you can sing everything he plays. David Torn is a favorite, and his recent solo LP, Only Sky, is so inspiring for that sense of intimacy, even vulnerability. What he does with effects is just magic, but he also incorporates the incidental sounds of the guitar, like finger scrapes, into a piece – everything he does becomes the music. And I got lost in Marc Ribot’s Silent Movies for a long time. With The Edge of Visibility, I aspired to that way of creating a whole world with just a guitar. It sounds a lot like what I do when I play by myself, for myself. You hear the guitar noises and the process – the clicking of buttons and so on. That record is the sound of one man and a guitar in a beautiful room. There are a lot of possibilities there.”
Mizell, a Brooklyn resident for the past decade-plus, was educated in music at the University of North Texas and Indiana University. In New York City, he has played with rock bands, singer-songwriters, bluegrass acts and Latin groups, as well as for Broadway musicals and dance companies. As a bandleader, Mizell has ranged from jazz-funk to Americana, recording the album Tributary in 2010 with his trio featuring Whiteley and Salters. Prior to that, Mizell released a trio disc with Whiteley and drummer Mike Fortune, Life Is Loud, in 2007. The guitarist made his debut on record with an eight-piece ensemble for Cameron Mizell, released in 2004.
Early on in his career, Mizell concentrated on the tradition of guitar in jazz and funk, developing his style with those genres in mind. “Eventually, though, I was confronted by the fact that, to be a working guitarist, I had to play in whatever style the gig called for – Latin music, a folk-rock singer-songwriter thing, whatever,” he recalls. “Still, I would compartmentalize the way I played my music versus the way I played the music of others. I finally started to shed that outlook with my album Tributary. That’s what the record was about – the confluence of different musical voices. Then writing for Negative Spaces took me further downstream to recognize how learning and playing a wide range of music in diverse situations affects the way I hear music. The lines between genres blur, and the styles sound more like different dialects of a universal language. That variety has shaped the accent of my own musical voice.”
Complementing his performance activities, Mizell has also worked in the music business on the label side, with years at Verve Records and, as label manager, Destiny Records. In 2008, he decided to combine his knowledge of the industry with his understanding of life as a musician and put it to good use. Together with Dave Hahn, Mizell founded Musician Wages, offering music industry advice geared toward the working musician. The site became a thought-leader in the musician community thanks to Hahn and Mizell’s commitment to integrity, practicality and an honest perspective from their own careers. Education is also important to Mizell, who has provided private guitar and mandolin instruction for two decades. He has written lessons for his own website and Premier Guitar, and he teaches regularly via Skype to students across the country.
Reflecting on the inevitable two-way street of learning involved in pedagogy, Mizell says: “Every student brings his or her own fascination with music to our lessons. They ask big questions, some of which I’ve already thought about along my path as a musician, as well as others that require some further exploration of my own. Through teaching, I’m constantly reminded of what drew me to music in the first place: the ability to express a creative idea in a unique, precious moment. You can play the same song every day and allow it to evolve with you, your abilities and your environment. It’s a lifelong pursuit of constant imperfections, adaptations, seasons of growth.”
— Bradley Bambarger