LOS ANGELES — Drummer Allison Miller’s album “Boom Tic Boom” with her band of the same name was one of the most memorable debuts of 2010, and marked her as a rising star. It was a bold album marked by a deftly swinging drive, rich ensemble playing and a wealth of styles that included flashes of post-bop, rock and folk.
But as of February, Miller also attracted notice outside the jazz world with her Huffington Post essay titled “You Don’t Play Like a Girl: Queer in the Jazz World.” In the piece Miller wrote about her personal history confronting sexism and her identity as she came up as not only a female drummer, a rarity in jazz, — but also a lesbian.
“I do play like a girl. This is what girls play like,” she wrote. “People hear with their eyes: They see a ‘girl’ and are surprised when they hear the power and prowess that they associate with ‘boys.’ By getting onstage and throwing down while looking the way I do, I am breaking stereotypes. I am a woman. I am a dyke. I am a tomboy. I play jazz.”
Miller says the response was overwhelmingly positive, which left her somewhat taken aback. “I was also a little surprised because some people in the jazz world were saying ‘It’s great you spoke up about this,’” she says. “For me I was thinking, shouldn’t we all speak up about everything?’ It didn’t seem all that radical of me, but for some people it felt that way.”
Still, Miller is leery of her gender, politics or sexual orientation telling her story instead of her music, which deserves plenty notice in its own right as heard on her follow-up in April, “No Morphine, No Lilies.”
In addition to again showcasing an air-tight interplay with bassist Todd Sickafoose (a longtime friend who also teams with Miller as the elastic rhythm section for singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco), her sophomore album again features free-swinging turns from avant garde-leaning pianist Myra Melford and violinist Jenny Scheinman, who along with her own projects has frequently been heard with Bill Frisell.
“I love that they come to my project as bandleaders,” Miller says. “We all come from very different backgrounds and we all play different types of music. When we get onstage we bring all that stuff together.”
“No Morphine, No Lilies” finds Miller expanding her palette to include some new textures in trumpeters Steven Bernstein and Ara Anderson, cellist Erik Friedlander and, on one track, vocalist Rachel Friedman.
But there are some expectations at work when hearing an album led by a jazz drummer. Certainly a granite-solid rhythmic foundation should be heard, along with a few feats of percussive daring to indicate the album’s headliner commanding its pulse. And while Miller’s latest album certainly features those skills along with an increasingly ambitious compositional voice, she didn’t realize until the very end that she was missing what some drummers might consider a key component.
“I don’t take one drum solo,” Miller admits, speaking by phone before heading into the studio in Oakland, Calif. “I didn’t even think about it ... and I had a momentary freakout. Then I just had to be at ease with it because that’s not what this record is about.”
The record includes a number of high-energy passages such as the jaunty opener “Pork Belly” and the manic “Nuh-Uh, No Sir,” which includes a brief, witty nod to “Helter Skelter.” Elsewhere the mood turns more contemplative, such as the feathered drums and plucked strings swirling around “Early Bird,” and the flickering “Waiting.” The songs were partly a response to moving past a dark period in Miller’s life after her partner had fallen ill during the album’s recording.
In addition to the nod toward mortality in the title, “No Morphine, No Lilies” also features three posthumous tributes to musicians close to Miller’s heart, including Paul Motian, West Coast drummer Eddie Marshall and Miller’s first drum teacher, Walter Salb. While such topics could translate to a dark listen, the dominant mood is instead one of transition.
“(Writing from that place) represented catharsis for me during that time, and that’s all I was thinking about,” Miller says. “So even the energy in the studio for me was very intense and very emotional.”
Though drawing from personal experience proved a challenge for writing her album given the circumstances, the process seemed to build a natural bridge for Miller’s first-person essay.
While jazz remains a boys’ club from a numbers standpoint, it’s amid strides by a wealth of next-generation artists such as Esperanza Spalding, Matana Roberts and Terri Lyne Carrington. In addition, Miller has found that the men she encountered are just as much a reflection of changing attitudes.
“That was kind of my point — a few people didn’t see that point — but you know, I play with some of the most incredibly evolved men that I’ve ever met in my life,” she said. “Todd Sickafoose is getting married and he asked me to be his best man. I’m surrounded by those kind of men.”