Allison Miller’s Life of Juxtapositions

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At age 14, drummer Allison Miller performed at Blues Alley in Washington D.C. with guitarist Charlie Byrd.

(Photo: Shervin Lainez)

“Back then, my writing was just simple stuff,” Miller explained. “I’d say to Myra, ‘Here are the notes and here’s the head.’ But Myra isn’t capable of just playing the notes on the page. She’s going to bring her own personality into whatever she does, and she really brought the music to life.”

As the band developed, Miller began to call more and more frequently on another individualistic player—violinist Jenny Scheinman, who guested on the group’s eponymous 2010 debut. By then, Miller’s compositional shift toward the avant-garde had solidified: On Boom Tic Boom, the sense of time is freer, the improvisations decidedly inventive.

During the decade that the ensemble’s existed, Boom Tic Boom’s sound has evolved, particularly in regard to its instrumentation. Scheinman became a full member of the band and contributed significantly to its second and third releases, Live At Willisau (2012) and No Morphine, No Lilies (2013). Its fourth release, Otis Was A Polar Bear, showcased the group’s expanded lineup, with cornet player Kirk Knuffke and clarinetist Ben Goldberg on board.

“The reason Boom Tic Boom became a sextet is because I started hearing more voices in my composing,” Miller said. “It took me some time to get to this particular instrumentation. But I love this instrumentation.”

Before settling on the clarinet and cornet in her compositions, Miller had tried adding a tenor saxophone and a trumpet to the group’s mix. But something felt off, she said. Then, “by accident,” she used a clarinet when her usual horn player couldn’t make a gig, and the sound fell into place. “The clarinet is the lost jazz instrument—it’s the secret weapon,” she asserted. “It’s beautiful, and it blends so well with the cornet.”

Melford, who’s watched Miller’s emergence as a composer from the front row, points out the increased sophistication that Miller now brings to her writing, evident on the band’s latest release. “It was a big, wonderful, challenging process to learn the music for Glitter Wolf,” Melford said. “In terms of moving parts and orchestrations, Allison’s compositions are becoming longer and more complex. Even so, there’s still plenty of improvised sections—largely through solos, but not exclusively so—and there are places for collective improv on the album, too.”

Melford noted that whether in the rehearsal room or on the bandstand, Miller deeply values her collaborators’ suggestions and critiques. And while she does get the final say on all aspects of the group’s work, the band’s creative ethos is an inclusive one. “This process really makes us feel that these pieces are ours, too,” Melford said. “It’s rewarding that [Miller] is so open to that.”

The composer strives to include all of her bandmates’ voices in her compositions, even if it means sacrificing her own playing to enhance the group dynamic. “Sometimes, the last thing I think about is the drum solo,” Miller remarked, going on to explain her philosophy as a bandleader. “It’s important to treat other musicians with respect. It’s important for people to feel good about what they’re doing.”

Such receptivity to others’ self-expression has earned Miller the loyalty of her bandmates, a factor that no doubt has contributed to the band’s longevity. “I don’t do much side-person work,” Melford said, adding that Boom Tic Boom is the only such gig she’s agreed to since starting out as a jazz musician in New York during the late ’80s. “To feel so committed to being a sideperson in her band is a big thing for me, not something that I take lightly. It’s a testament to how much I respect her and her music.”

For her part, Miller returns the appreciation. “I think of Boom Tic Boom as a collective,” she said. “If it weren’t for the musicians in Boom Tic Boom, my music wouldn’t be so sizzling and bubbly.”

The new album—which was recorded at the fabled Fantasy Studios in Berkley, California—benefited from the tactical expertise and objective ear of Julie Wolf, a multi-instrumentalist who produced the project with Miller. Wolf brought to the project years of audio experience and a keen appreciation for Miller’s talents as a bandleader, player and composer.

“What allows her to move in and out of those roles so easily is an overarching service to the song,” Wolf noted. “If you’re serving the song, you’re going to get out of the way of any ego investment in it. That’s how I feel about producing, too. So, I knew we’d work as an artist-producer team. There was a lot of give-and-take between us, and she let me play to my strengths—which was to lead the flow of the recording.”

Glitter Wolf is the first album that Wolf has produced for Miller, though the two musicians have known each other for more than a decade. For Wolf, though, the album came with some heartbreak: Her base of operations, Fantasy Studios, closed on Sept. 15, 2018, after almost five decades of service to jazz legends and rock stars. Glitter Wolf was the penultimate album she produced there.

Following a tour in support of the album, Miller’s set to devote time to another ensemble. “When the Glitter Wolf cycle is done, Parlour Game is going to be the focus for a while,” Scheinman said, referring to the quartet that she and Miller co-lead. “We’re really enjoying and exploring this collaborative relationship that came out of Boom Tic Boom, and now we have an entire band based around it.”

The ensemble Parlour Game—which also includes pianist Carmen Staaf, with whom Miller recorded the enchanting 2018 Science Fair (Sunnyside), and bassist Tony Scherr—arose from another serendipitous tour date. Staaf subbed for Melford, and Scherr stepped in for Sickafoose at the same Boom Tic Boom show; the result was a new chemistry and a slightly different sonic aesthetic.

“Allie really comes out of old-school jazz.” Scheinman, who’s based in Arcata, California, said. “She likes to swing in those old entertainment grooves; Tony and I do as well. Parlour Game goes after them in a direct way, and it’s really satisfying, because we’ve been in more of an avant-garde scene for a number of years.”

Responsibility for the group’s repertoire falls equally on Scheinman and Miller, facilitated by voice memos of song ideas relayed between the two composers. In contrast with Boom Tic Boom, the new band focuses more intently on singable melodies and danceable rhythms, most often led by Scheinman’s infectious violin work.

What stays the same, though, is Miller’s commitment to building group cohesion among her players. “Allison … has a very clear idea of a band growing over time and producing a certain type of music that is very bonded,” Scheinman said. “She believes that if you keep a group of musicians with their various eccentricities together for a long time, something will happen.”

With Miller at the helm, if past proves prologue, that something is likely to be innovative and exciting—and an exemplar of creative synergy. DB

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