The LA Scene calls drummer Allison Miller “one of the most exciting percussive people on the music scene today.” From Natalie Merchant to Marty Erlich to the Indigo Girls to Dr. Lonnie Smith: Everybody wants Allison Miller. She’s got that intuitive melodic jazz sense combined with locked-in-the-pocket grooves that elevates any ensemble: pop, jazz or something completely new. With her recent CD, Boom Tic Boom, named one of the year’s top 10 jazz albums of 2010 by the Los Angeles Times, it’s no surprise that Allison tours the world on behalf of the U.S. State Department as a Jazz Ambassador. Named a Rising Star Drummer four times by DownBeat, she breaks new ground at the Stanford Jazz Festival with reed-playing superstars Donny McCaslin and Ben Goldberg.
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New York City tantalizes musicians with seemingly infinite opportunities, but the stylistically segmented nature of the scene means that before long, most newly arrived players feel they have to declare allegiance to a particular niche. When Allison Miller moved to Gotham in the mid-90s, she was looking to establish herself as a straight ahead jazz drummer with the chops and taste to accompany the city’s elite improvisers. Within a few years she attained her ambition, working regularly with singular bandleaders such as organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, reed master Marty Ehrlich, and Sex Mob trumpeter Steven Bernstein. But she had also grown up loving rock, folk, and funk, and her other musical passions resulted in a double musical life, touring and recording with charismatic singer/songwriters Ani DiFranco, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Merchant, and Erin McKeown.
She credits the astoundingly prolific bassist/producer Greg Cohen with helping her realize she could avoid musical typecasting. Driving together to a recording session she asked how he managed to fit in so well with artists as divergent as Tom Waits and Ornette Coleman. “‘Music is music,’ he said. ‘Whatever gig it is, I try to play what the situation calls for,’” recalls Miller, 38. “At the time I was 27 or 28, struggling with this pressure from the New York scene to pick one style and stay with it. But I’ve never been interested in that. Hearing him say that eased my stress a little bit.”
These days, Miller is still a stylistically expansive player, but she’s channeling her creativity into her work as a composer and bandleader with Boom Tic Boom, an all-star quartet that released its second album, No Morphine, No Lilies (Royal Potato Family) last April. Focusing on her emotionally taut, insistently kinetic compositions, the band features Berkeley pianist Myra Melford, Oakland bassist Todd Sickafoose, and Arcata-based violinist Jenny Scheinman, who are all distinguished composers and bandleader themselves. When Miller launched the band about a decade ago all the players lived in New York, but now she’s the only one left in the city. Scheinman’s numerous commitments means she’s often unavailable for Boom Tic Boom gigs, and for the band’s Stanford Jazz debut Miller has recruited two extraordinary reed players: Berkeley clarinet wizard Ben Goldberg and Santa Cruz-raised New York tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin.
“Donny was on one of the first gigs I played in New York in 1996, and I’ve been trying to get him on board since I started Boom Tic Boom but he’s always busy,” Miller says. “I just keep reaching out, and he could finally make a date. Jenny is the primary fourth member, but with Donny and Ben both available I decided to try it as a quintet. I’ve been very excited and inspired, writing new music and arrangements.”
Though not initially inclined to lead her own band, Miller found that she needed a well-defined home for her rapidly evolving compositional sensibility. Like definitive drummer/composers Jack DeJohnette, Paul Motian, and Matt Wilson, Miller wasn’t interested in creating a forum to showcase her monster trap set technique. Rather, she was looking to create “a palette to get that music out there,” Miller says. “It’s funny, I write at the piano and the last thing I think about is the drum part. I’d write the music, find the right players, get on the bandstand and go, ‘oh my God, what do I do now?’”
In looking for collaborators, Miller has found equally expansive artists. As the leader of an acclaimed band Tiny Resistors, Sickafoose is also a rigorously melodic composer whose themes can feel like power ballads just waiting for lyrics. At the same time, the bassist has toured and recorded widely with the singer/songwriters Noe Venable, Carla Bozulich, Laurie Lewis, and Ani DiFranco. Goldberg is the most startlingly original clarinetist to emerge in the 1980s, a steadily evolving player who recently released two remarkable albums, Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues and Unfold Ordinary Mind, which feature heavyweight collaborators such as drummer Ches Smith, tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, and guitarist Nels Cline. And Donny McCaslin has been a creative force since he joined vibraphonist Gary Burton’s band in 1987.
But the founding impulse behind Boom Tic Boom was Miller’s desire to collaborate with Melford. Even before they first worked together in a project led by reed player Marty Ehrlich, the drummer says she had long admired Melford’s music. A mid-career master, Melford left New York in 2004 for a tenure-track position in UC Berkeley’s music department.
Rather than diminishing her visibility, the pianist’s Bay Area move has coincided with a burst of activity reflecting her status as a visionary bandleader/composer who embraces a global array of influences. While she’s known for her percussive attack and roiling keyboard technique, Melford is also a deeply soulful player with a passion for Afro-Caribbean grooves and classical Hindustani music.
“Myra to me is the centerpiece in my band,” Miller says. “I feel very tied to her rhythmically. In fact, I would prefer not to do Boom Tic if she’s not available. She’s able to bring her own sound to my music, and to let me be the bandleader. I’m constantly awed. She seems like this quiet little creature and she just comes alive and explodes when she plays.”
That explosiveness is a quality that Miller shares. It’s not a question of volume and muscle, but rather intensity and commitment to the moment’s improvisational imperative.