A FEW MINUTES WITH… Allison Miller of Boom Tic Boom

Allison Miller
Allison Miller

By J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu

It’s a well-known axiom that it is much easier to destroy than it is to create. When I reviewed drummer Allison Miller’s 2010 Foxhaven release Boom Tic Boom, I was intrigued by how easy it could have been for Miller and her partners – pianist Myra Melford and bassist Todd Sickafoose – to blow the piano-trio matrix to smithereens and simply walk away. Instead, they took the road less traveled, and bent the well-worn medium to their individual and collective talents.

The overall sound of Boom Tic Boom has the traditional jazz framework in mind, and even touches on time-honored material like Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rocking Chair” and Mary Lou Williams’ “Intermission.” But because the thinking (on both these tunes and on the dizzying originals that make up the rest of the date) has so much of the avant-garde world that both Miller and Melford have inhabited, the result is a tumbling musical curveball that probably blew more than a few minds. It sure blew my mind – and after I put all the pieces (mostly) back together, I played the disc again, because I was utterly enthralled with the creativity and freshness this group brought to the table.

I’m still enthralled, and very excited, because Miller and her partners (now officially known as Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom) have just released their latest effort Otis Was a Polar Bear on the Royal Potato Family label, and will be performing on Saturday night (May 7) at MASS MoCA’s Club B-10 in North Adams. But this is not the same band, and not just because it’s six years later. Violinist Jenny Scheinman – who appears on the Boom Tic Boom track “CFS (Candy Flavored Sidewalks)” – is now a regular member, and Miller has expanded the front line with the addition of clarinetist Ben Goldberg and cornet player Kirk Knuffke.

If you’re keeping score, this is a sextet made up of six bandleaders, which should be a train wreck of Biblical proportions. Instead, it’s more of the same cockeyed thinking that made Boom Tic Boom so amazing, only it’s in a larger, smarter, more dazzling package that flows like a waterfall. The opening track, “Fuster,” starts out sounding like a religious text taken from a Middle Eastern temple, with Goldberg’s clarinet playing high while Scheinman kinda-sorta takes the low road, and the rest of the band follows that lead. But then Sickafoose launches this tasty vamp, Miller pumps up her kit, and the piece finds a groove you just have to ride as Melford’s borderline-Latin fills lift the piece while Goldberg, Knuffke and Scheinman find this harmonic that’s not found in nature… though it should be.

There are phenomenal moments like this throughout Otis Was a Polar Bear, and given the overall musical talent in this band, that’s no surprise. But the overall vision that this band puts out started life in the mind of Miller, one of the most interesting musical thinkers I’ve had the pleasure to listen to. Allison took a few minutes to talk about that vision, this band, and many other things that intrigued me about her pre-Boom Tic Boom background:

Q: You started taking drum lessons when you were 10. Was there a drummer you saw that made you want to take up the instrument, or was it the instrument itself that came first?

A: It was the instrument itself – and the tasty grooves coming from my parents’ record player. I was a Prince fanatic! And still am! I also love old soul. My parents turned me onto old soul, classical and vocalists like Etta Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington.  

Q: You’ve got one of the most interesting resumes I’ve ever come across: Along with backing an icon like Dr. Lonnie Smith and a creative monster like Steven Bernstein, you’ve also worked outside the jazz world with exceptional songwriters like Ani DiFranco, Natalie Merchant and Erin McKeown. Is there one thing that links all these gigs together, or does each artist bring a new set of challenges?

A: Each artist brings a new set of welcomed challenges. It’s like starting a new relationship. There is also a common link coming from both sides. I always bring my musical personality, an open-mindedness, a curiosity to learn, a strong work ethic, my love for all types of music, humility (which is a great trait to have as a side-musician), and a collective spirit, to a new situation. And all artists that I have played for welcome an element of spontaneity and improvisation to their music – some more than others, but spontaneity and improv is an essential part of my drumming, in any genre. I love repetition and always honor the song by playing the appropriate rhythmic part, but there will be “in the moment” variations in my playing. All the artists you mentioned hire me to play like me, not to play “perfect” like a drum machine.

Todd Sickafoose
Todd Sickafoose

Q: Another songwriter you’ve worked with is Toshi Reagon, and you backed her when she played MASS MoCA last year. Anything you remember about that gig?

A: Of course I remember that gig. I remember every gig with Toshi. Any gig with Toshi is like a family reunion – with incredible music, good food, community, church, and multiple moments of uplifting rapture. And at the end of every gathering Toshi, like all great makers of change, elegantly and powerfully sends us out to make the world a better place. We all, audience and performer, become her peace soldiers. Our mission: Fight for civil rights. Take action.  

That night was particularly memorable because she masterfully schooled the mostly white audience without shaming them – all the while keeping the insanely fun vibe of Prince vs. Michael Jackson going! And I was the happiest drummer on the planet, because Prince was my very first music inspiration. I am so shocked that he is no longer with us.  
Q: You’ve also worked with one of my favorite bass players, Ben Allison – both with his own band and (most recently) on Will Bernard’s new release Out & About. How did your collaboration with Ben come about, and what was your impression on the sessions for Will’s disc?

A: Discovering a great hook-up with a bass player is like finding that perfect pair of comfy jeans. You never want to take them off, and you hope to never lose them. Ben Allison is one of those bass players. We feel the beat in the same place and have a similar sensibility when it comes to the overall shape of a musical moment. Ben and Todd are similar in the sense that they both provide such a solid foundation. This allows me to be more of a loose cannon.   

We first met playing in Marty Ehrlich’s band together. Since then we have played in many bands together. We have also become good friends, and share similar political and social views. I recommended Ben for the Will Bernard album. I remember that session being fun and jam-packed. We recorded the entire album in eight hours, which is not what I am used to; I like having two or three days to track. I don’t remember all the details of the day because it was so filled with music, but I do remember having fun and getting into some good grooves.  
Q: It’s my contention that jazz values women instrumentalists more than any other genre. Do you share that viewpoint, or do you see it differently?

A: I see it differently. I often feel that male musicians playing other genres are more welcoming to women instrumentalists. There is often less machismo in other genres and less of a need to “prove one’s technical prowess.” Women instrumentalists in the jazz world often feel pressure to prove their abilities over and over again. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this comment directed towards me. “Wow, you don’t play like a girl!” This comment makes no sense to me. Of course I play like a girl. This is how women play. 

Q: Boom Tic Boom was the title of your second disc, but the title has lived on as your band name. What’s the origin of that phrase? (It kind of sounds like something Lester Young might have said.)

A: I love that you think it sounds like something Lester Young would say! The band has always been called Boom Tic Boom. The name references the full range of sound and dynamics that Boom Tic Boom covers and plays around with. We like to play with the dynamics, as quiet as a whisper to a deafening holler, and we like to collectively explore varying textures. Boom Tic Boom also refers to the sounds of the drum kit, from the ground up: The earthy wooden boom of the bass drum all the way up to the metallic tick of the hi-hat cymbal. I love the juxtaposition between these two sounds, and enjoy playing with such a wide frequency range.

Jenny Schneiman
Jenny Scheinman

Q: That disc featured Myra Melford and Jenny Scheinman. I think Myra’s one of the most explosive pianists in the game, and Jenny takes the violin to a whole new level. How did you meet up with them, and when did you start playing together as a unit with Todd?

A: You are right about Myra, and Jenny plays like where she is from, which is a very small town on the northern coast of California. Each member of my band is unique and a bandleader. They don’t play like side-musicians, and that is exactly what I want.  

Jenny and Todd have been part of my musical Brooklyn family for years. We have all played in many bands together including their own bands. Todd has produced many singer/songwriter albums that both Jenny and I have been involved with. I have produced albums and hired Jenny and Todd. It is just one big happy family! We have all spent time touring with Ani DiFranco.  

I met Myra about 15 years while playing a trio gig with Marty Ehrlich at the Jazz Standard. I immediately knew I wanted to start a band that featured Myra on piano. I could feel how she would light my semi-traditional jazz tunes on fire. And she did! And as my composing evolves, I am now able to write for each member of the band with hopes of highlighting their strongest characteristics.  

The band officially began in August of 2008 at the Berkeley Jazz School in Berkeley, CA. It was a trio concert with Myra and Todd. I knew then and there that we would become a band. Jenny joined a bit later when I asked her to play on “CFS.”

(photo by Rudy Lu)
Ben Goldberg, Myra Melford
Q: Your new disc “Otis Was a Polar Bear” sees an expanded line-up, with Ben Goldberg on clarinet and Kirk Knuffke on cornet. Why the line-up change?

A: It became a necessity to have a sextet as I wrote the music for Otis was a Polar Bear. And I love the blend of cornet and clarinet, specifically Ben and Kirk’s blend. I also started hearing Jenny taking on more of a rhythm section role and wanted to free her from always playing the melody. It is a challenge arranging and writing for sextet, but I am loving the process and welcome the huge learning curve.  

Q: I’ve had the pleasure of watching Myra and Ben play duo, and their chemistry can only be described as Olympian. Has that aspect brought a new facet to the group and its sound?

A: The addition of Ben has definitely changed the group sound and I like to feature Myra and Ben in a duo setting. In general I like to break up the sextet so not everyone is playing all the time. I feel this gives the listener a diverse experience and allows each member of the band to shine. Ben brings a comic twist to all of the music, and he and I share a huge love for Monk!  
Q: All the compositions on “Otis” are yours. When you take a piece into the studio, how much of it is set in stone? Is there room to change or expand on the material once you start working on it? 

A: The music is never set in stone and is still morphing. In fact, even last night we changed the arrangement of Otis was a Polar Bear. While rehearsing for the album we changed many parts of the arrangements and I, as a bandleader, welcome input from my band mates. For example, Jenny suggested we remove the last measure of the interlude section on “Pig in a Sidecar.” This created a wonderful spillover effect into the piano solo and clarinet solo.

WHO: Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom
WHERE: MASS MoCA’s Club B-10, North Adams
WHEN: 8pm Saturday (May 7)
HOW MUCH: $16 in advance; $22 at the door; $28 preferred; $10 students

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