The Distinct Groove of Allison Miller and Carmen Staaf


After touring together internationally and playing with various dance projects since 2015, drummer Allison Miller and pianist Carmen Staaf recorded their first co-led album, Science Fair.

(Photo: Chris Drukker)

Science Fair is the dynamic result of collaborative musical experiments in rhythm, feel and composition by drummer Allison Miller and pianist Carmen Staaf. After touring together internationally and playing with various dance projects since 2015, the two recorded their first co-led album, containing equal parts Staaf and Miller compositions. Both are based in New York, but the album also has strong links to California. Los Angeles is where Staaf studied at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz; Berkeley is where Miller records most of the albums for her longstanding band Boom Tic Boom; and the Stanford Jazz Workshop is where trumpet player Ambrose Akinmusire and tenor saxophone player Dayna Stephens joined the project. Science Fair, which also counts Matt Penman on bass and Ben Goldberg as producer, is out now on Sunnyside Records.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

How does dance feature in your collaborative work and on this record?

Allison Miller: Years ago, I had started working a lot with Toshi Reagon. Her music really influenced me, as well as her activism and drive to nurture community and unabashedly be herself. I had been feeling like I had lost my focus of why I played jazz and why I’m a drummer. After playing with Toshi for a while, I realized that I had lost the connection between dance and music, and that those two things need to move together in the world in order to honor this music. So, I put it out in the world that I wanted to work with more dancers, and it happened. I mainly work with two choreographers now: Michelle Dorrance, who’s a great tap dancer, and Camille A. Brown, who’s an influential young choreographer breaking new ground with movement.

We did a show called And Still You Must Swing, created by Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, who’s one of the most virtuosic improvising tap dancers in the world. When I was called to write the music for that show, I called Carmen. Then, I got to do this Indian dance and tap show called Speak, and called Carmen for that, too. The first song on Science Fair, “What?!,” was written for that show. Michelle Dorrance likes to tap using odd numbers, so she’ll be tapping in 4/4 time, but in five or seven or eleven. I wrote this piece that’s based off of groupings of five, and she nailed it. Since then, we adopted it for Science Fair.

The album was created between New York and the Bay Area. Did the distinct music histories and legacies of these two places influence the work?

AM: For me, it’s when I’m writing music, that’s when I’ll think about those influences. When I think of some of my favorite composers, I feel like they were directly influenced by their region. I grew up in Maryland, but doing all my playing in D.C., and every time I play with someone who’s from D.C., I know it, even before they tell me. I know the way they feel the beat, and the way we move together. It’s a very special thing, the D.C. sound, the feeling of the time—not as edgy as New York, but a little more edgy than Philly. The South is coming into the feel, so it’s more laid back and bluesier, but it still has an edge, because D.C. is edgy. There are so many styles of music that were created there, like go-go and a cool punk scene.

Carmen Staaf: Coming from Seattle, I was exposed to a lot of world music and folk music. There’s a great folk scene there, and the University of Washington has an amazing ethnomusicology program. There’s something about Seattle that is similar to the Bay, in terms of a political awareness, thinking also of the Seattle hip-hop scene, which is very socially conscious.

There’s one standout duo tune on the album, Carmen’s “MLW.” What was the genesis of the song?

CS: It came out of us playing duo together a lot. I remember Allison saying something about Mary Lou Williams’ writing, where there’s a drum or percussion part that has a groove, but there’s this melody that’s long and floating over it. We are both big fans of hers; she has such a great quality of being bluesy without it being a stereotype. It was so personal in her and it was beautiful. I wrote that tune thinking of that concept of a drum part that’s groovy, and then a melody floating over the top. We kept playing it duo, I would play the bass line in my left hand and it felt like, “We don’t need a bass player. It works as is.” And Allison’s groove is so heavy.

AM: I play just with my hands on the drum set on that song, and I like that. I’ve always loved duos. And it’s so easy for me to play with Carmen, because she plays so rhythmically, and we really feel the beat in the same place.

CS: As soon as we met and started playing together, I feel like we clicked, and we both felt that we had a lot of the same influences and values musically. We are both grounded in certain traditions and groove and swing, and wanting the music to feel really good. But at the same time, we feel comfortable and trust each other to go into other spaces and open things up. DB

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