By Giovanni Russonello | Published November 2018
We listen to music because we want to be startled and assured at the same time—to hear something striking and then to invest in it. Science Fair is one of few acoustic jazz albums in 2018 that gets there. Within the first few seconds of “What?!,” the opening track, you feel it.
After a braying blast from the full band—drummer Allison Miller, pianist Carmen Staaf, bassist Matt Penman, tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire—the drums hunker down into a taut, pebbly beat, swimming and swaggering in a choppy shuffle. Then Staaf and Penman fall back in and, immediately, the pianist’s gently emphatic phrasing is exuding flexibility and comfort.
“What?!” is one of five Miller tunes on this collection. Those pieces tend to be tight and studious and thrashing, in a way that recalls her work in Boom Tic Boom. An additional four cuts are by Staaf, and hers usually take longer breaths, letting their harmonies glow from within. On pieces like “Symmetry” and “Nobody’s Human,” she starts with a small phrase and reshapes it repeatedly, giving the illusion of repetition, as well as the allure of constant change.
Science Fair is a true collaboration between two impressive leaders, though what makes you sit up and pay attention the most is Staaf’s pianism. It’s brilliant, enriched stuff, as rugged as it is lush. Still a rather unrecognized figure, her playing comes from a lineage that favors Mary Lou Williams over Art Tatum, Herbie Nichols over Herbie Hancock—but every one of those figures is in there. Science Fair suggests we’re just starting to see how deep her talents go.
Science Fair: What?!; Symmetry; Ready Steady; MLW; Weightless; Nobody’s Human; West Of The Moon; Skyway Intro; Skyway. (55:09)
Personnel: Allison Miller, drums, percussion; Carmen Staaf, piano; Matt Penman, bass; Dayna Stephens, tenor saxophone (1, 2, 5, 6); Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet (1, 5).