Jazz Notes Intel: Drummer Allison Miller’s Upswing Beyond Rising Star; Trumpeter Dave Douglas’ Soiree of 2019’s Greenleaf Records Subscription Series; Tenor Titan Joe Lovano’s Debut as ECM Leader; Brazilian Wonder Claudia Villela’s Live Album; Chucho Valdés Returns to Batá
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, December 7, 2018
The longtime rising star of the drums in critics polls has become a bonafide, go-to drum maestro who’s in the midst of a creative bonanza of music. The leader of her adventurous ten-year-old ensemble, Boom Tic Boom, Allison Miller doesn’t flinch at the assessment. “We’re jazz people,” she says. “We’re in the moment.”
As such, the Brooklyn-based artist has taken a bold stand as one of the visionaries of the genre’s evolutionary new sound. “Compositionally my sonic palette has become so diverse which creates my jazz language,” Miller says during a late November afternoon conversation at her Park Slope neighborhood café Up. “Diverse describes every aspect of my life. It’s my personality type. I’m drawn to so many different kinds of things, and I’m totally open-minded. I’m never too happy in one place. I’m always moving around so many different types of music as long as human beings are playing or singing. I’m not much into digital music, but I still go out dancing sometimes.”
Earlier in the week at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan’s Public Theater complex, Miller debuted music for the new Parlour Game project that is a collaboration with her Boom Tic Boom band member fiddler Jenny Scheinman. The ensemble—also featuring pianist Carmen Staaf and bassist Tony Scherr—is a party of captivating Americana-meets-jazz-meets groove music. It’s lyrical and rowdy and gently gleeful with Miller leading the charge, such as on “Top Shelf,” a song she wrote about “the ridiculousness of getting drunk on expensive liquor.” There are staccato rhythms, dissonant driving and boisterous drum beats that explode. Miller plans to get that music out soon (it’s still in the mixing stage), but management has put it off until later in the year given that Boom Tic Boom’s new Royal Potato Family album, Glitter Wolf, arrives in February and her combustive Sunnyside album Science Fair with Staaf was released in September.
Busy? In December she’s playing with the all-female jazz band Artemis (Renee Rosnes, piano, musical director; Cécile McLorin Salvant, vocals; Anat Cohen, clarinet; Melissa Aldana, tenor sax; Ingrid Jensen, trumpet; Noriko Ueda, bass) and in January will return to Joe’s Pub to celebrate her singer/songwriter friend Toshi Reagon’s birthday. And last night, she was on TV again.
Intel: What were you doing on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert?
Miller: It was my first time there. I did a lot with Seth Meyers on his late-night show and I was even on Letterman’s show a lot back in the day. But never Colbert. I was playing for Sara Bareilles, who writes popular pop songs, was a member of the cast of NBC’s live Jesus Christ Superstar show, she composed the music and lyrics for the Broadway show Waitress. She knew me through the business, and we met through a mutual friend. At this point I’ve done enough music with singer/songwriters that I get the calls. I like it.
Intel: Give me a thumbnail sketch of your background.
Miller: I was born in Texarkana, Texas, but grew up outside of D.C. My mom was a pianist so that’s how I started: piano and vocals. My mom wanted me to learn how to play the piano, so I started the drums at 10 at the Timber Mountain Music Camp. By 12, I was studying with Walter Salb, who lived nearby in Maryland. People told me, you may not like him, but he’s the guy. He turned out to be the most inappropriately verbal and ornery man I’ve ever met. Everyone has stories to tell about him. But he was like a grandfather and best friend. He was a special man. He always had The New York Times in front of him and he had strong political opinions. His house was the space where all the kids would come to get away from the feeling of living in the suburbs. You’d walk into his house and be able to grab a cigarette from a fancy cigarette holder, and he had a hookah on his table. So, we‘d go to listen to old jazz records, smoke cigarettes and talk about politics. The TV was never on.
Intel: What did he teach you?
Miller: Walter was a swing drummer, and he had a band he called the Time Was Orchestra that would rehearse every Tuesday night in his basement. That’s how I learned to play. He was my introduction to the jazz scene. When I got good, he let me take over his drum chair and conducted. I moved to New York when I was 21, and instead of going to a conservatory, I just started working, learning on the bandstand. Walter would call me once a week to check up on me. He would leave messages like, ‘What the fuck are you doing with your life?” if he heard I was playing with someone he didn’t like. When he died 11 years ago, he willed me all his big band charts. They were all handwritten in pencil. I need to hire a copyist to convert them, and maybe someday I’ll do a big band record. I’ve developed a scholarship fund in his honor. (Then she proudly rolled up the sleeve of her blouse to show off a tattoo that depicted smoke and the words Time Was.)
Intel: Tell me about Boom Tic Boom—ten years, five recordings, a great name with a terrific band including Myra Melford on piano and Todd Sickafoose on bass.
Miller: The name just came to me in my mid-20s. I was really into Max Roach and his band M’Boom. I didn’t know what those three words meant to me, but I knew they related to playing rhythmically on the drums.. The drums speak the best, they speak powerfully. I can play quietly and really loud. There are a lot of dynamics, and the range of the instrument is so wide. If you can tune into it, the world is your oyster. When I formed Boom Tic Boom, I played into that with Jenny on the violin, Ben Goldberg on the clarinets and Kurt Knuffke on cornet. They’re not wailers, so I have to be the drums behind because I love the blend they create.
Intel: The new recording Glitter Wolf is full of cinematic arrangements with changes that go off into all different zones.
Miller: The songs just poured out of me one summer. They were simple and somewhat straight-ahead, but I flipped them upside down. This is my band, and I want the tunes to be vehicles for everyone to improvise. As the band has progressed, my writing has changed. I’m hearing more voices, so I let myself go without any borders once I started hearing more transitions, juxtapositions. Why can’t something go from rockabilly to melodic jazz? It’s like the song “The Ride,” which starts out crazy with an almost ska-reggae feel then goes into chamber jazz. It’s about a road trip my family took. Being a parent with two kids can be like that—insane one moment, so sweet the next.
Intel: Parlour Game put on such a great show at Joe’s Pub. I remember talking to Jenny last summer at your Boom Tic Boom show at the North Sea Jazz Festival, and she told me the two of you were thinking of making an album together. How did that come to fruition?
Miller: The idea started on a Boom Tic Boom tour. Neither Myra or Todd were available, so I got Tony on bass and got Carmen to sub on piano. The new band was Jenny’s idea, and we agreed to do it as a collaboration—and not getting it confused with Boom Tic Boom. In my band, I make all the decisions. It’s my baby that I’ve very carefully nurtured to be more adventurous so that every member gets a chance to shine. With Parlour Game, it’s more about the songs—crafting them incisively and getting back to our roots. It’s a little swing with a nice pocket of groove—nothing too intellectual or heady or experimental. If Boom Tic Boom is idiosyncratic, then Parlour Game smooths that out.
Intel: Carmen has such a great presence on the band. How did you get to know her?
Miller: Todd told me about her. I had tried some people out as a sub, but I needed someone super dynamic who understood swing and avant-garde and everything else in between. She would have to play all the genres in Boom Tic Boom and still be herself. I called her to play with us at the Reykjavik Jazz Festival, and I fell in love with her playing—any style and never doing it the same each night. Later we decided to collaborate on a project for a month, which came out to be Science Fair. It’s my most jazz record that I’ve done in years. Doing it made me realize that I still really like jazz, and I’m good at it. I love collaborating with super talented, powerful women. That’s why I like playing with Carmen as well as the band Artemis.
Intel: As a drummer for your bands, are you the leader, the power?
Miller: Yes. I take the role of holding it all down with Parlour Game. I hold the groove and support everyone in the band. With Boom Tic Boom, I’m the instigator. Todd holds it down on bass, and I take a lot of drum solos. They are wonderful gifts to a drummer—the dynamics, the space, the tonality. I’m flabbergasted by people who don’t think drummers can play melodies. The drums are completely melodic.
Intel: You are so committed to teaching with years at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, becoming the artistic director of the Jazz Camp West program and this coming year as an Artist in Residence at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Miller: The best way to know your instrument is to teach it. And, it’s another way of being an improviser. I don’t plan anything out. With 35 years of experience, I’m prepared and open. You never know what the climate of a room is going to be—maybe what I prepare would be beginner or too advanced, so I just go with it. I love Jazz Camp West, which is like family to me. It’s my community. That’s where I got to know John Santos who is the percussionist on the last track of the new Boom Tic Boom track, “Valley of the Giants.” I don’t even play drums on it.
Intel: Then there’s the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Miller: This year will also be the first time I’ve played there as a leader, with Boom Tic Boom and Parlour Game. I’m honored, surprised, excited. I’ll be spending a lot of time there, first at the Next Generation Jazz Festival, the Festival Summer Jazz Camp and September at the main festival. I’m thinking about what another one of my great jazz teachers, Michael Carvin said. He played with Dizzy Gillespie’s band, did Motown sessions, and has a free drumming duo with Andrew Cyrille. His big concept for a teacher is to develop who you are as a player and then pass it on. The jazz genre is all about passing on the tradition. The only way to be a master musician is to pass it on. That’s become my motto.
SCENE OF THE UNHEARD: DAVE DOUGLAS
Historically, jazz trumpeters have led important musical movements, ranging from boundless explorer Miles Davis to the spark-fire creative Roy Hargrove. In the mix of risktakers, Dave Douglas walked away from major label recording deals in 2005 to create his own indie, home-grown label Greenleaf Music, which is now home to nearly 70 albums—projects by himself as well as artists he embraces including Kneebody, Linda Oh, Nicole Mitchell and pre-Bowie Donny McCaslin.
In addition, if you subscribe to the label, you will receive each month a recording created by Dave and a group of friends. On his website, he writes the marketing pitch for the project: “Be a part of this revolutionary profit-sharing model that supports artist freely and fairly. Your subscription supports all of the work we do, and it votes for a new sustainable model for creative music.”
After last year’s 12-song artist-activist project UPLIFT, on December 1 Douglas presented his work-in-progress 2019 suite Action Ensemble (tentative title that night: Enact) in an invitation-only performance at Zürcher Gallery on Bleecker Street in the East Village. The music was recorded in the studio over the next two days and will be “released” monthly through the series.
Throughout his career Douglas has consistently written new compositions that speak to the political/social climate and that fit for a new configuration of players. The rollicking, lyrical, muscular, angular, turbulent, gleeful Action Ensemble (features two other impressive young trumpeters (David Adewumi and Riley Mulherkar of the Westerlies who the leader has recorded with before); the solid saxophonist/trumpeter Anna Webber who harmonized perfectly with Douglas; the beat-holding rhythm team of solid bassist Nick Dunston and rambunctious drummer Kate Gentile; and special guest guitarist Jeff Parker, who played with a fluidity of beauty on his stinging six-string. (Absent was renowned cellist Tomeka Reid who was to contribute to the recordings the next days.)
Without a stage lift or special lighting—and with abstract art hanging haphazardly on the white walls—Douglas and co. made it an intimate, informal but classy affair for the 60-plus attendees that ranged in age. The final piece the band played was a work that will be unveiled next year in December as the finale of Action Ensemble. Smiling and pleased when his fellow trumpeters took their short but unique solos, Douglas made for a memorable evening for family and friends. For more information: greenleafmusic.com.
THREE DOT LOUNGE…
After years of being unattached from a major label, the one-time star of Blue Note Records Joe Lovano has linked up with ECM for the first time as a leader…Lovano is the tenor saxophone titan of our times…Lovano has ECM history as a sideman on superb recordings by drummer Paul Motian, pianist Steve Kuhn, guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Marc Johnson…he delivers the most personal music of his career on Trio Tapestry with pianist Marilyn Crispell, drummer Carmen Castaldi…while mum’s the word on an extended stay at ECM, don’t be surprised…Joe’s never short on ideas…
Now from south of the border…Chucho Valdés stands tall as one of jazz’s preeminent pianists…beginning with his founding of the Irakere Cuban band in Havana…to his brilliant solo career….he returns to his Jazz Batá trio experiment in 1972 pre-Irakere with another sparkling, playful, twisted, fiery, dissonant, beautifully melodic tribute to the Cuban music heritage…Jazz Batá 2 on Mack Avenue Records…Valdés applies his captivating and surprising solos to the percussive rhythms played on batás by Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé…another masterpiece of gusto for Chucho!…
Rio de Janeiro-born, S.F. Bay Area-based Brazilian wonder Claudia Villela returns to her roots with a mesmerizing collection of live outings…self-released Encantada Live…with her simpatico septet as well as stellar duo takes with two different guitarists Jeff Buenz and Ricardo Peixoto…key to the riveting and celebratory album is spontaneity…most of the tracks are fueled by improvisation…the tone moves from avant to dreamy to joyful…key tracks are Villela originals: the shapeshifting suite “Taina” and the terrific impromptu duo with pianist Kenny Werner “Minas”…a revelation!