Pianist Carmen Staaf isn’t new to the scene—she is the music director for jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, has played with a heap of big names in New York and around the world, was educated at the New England Conservatory, and teaches at Berklee. But Science Fair may be our first chance to hear her out front and in charge. She co-leads this group with drummer Allison Miller, in whose quirky/swinging band Boom Tic Boom Staaf also plays. Science Fair features four tunes each by Staaf and Miller, along with Matt Penman’s bass and either Dayna Stephen’s tenor saxophone or Stephens plus trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire on four of the tracks. The result is a set of varied and appealing modern jazz—complex but mainstream in approach, with the simply gorgeous playing by everyone.
Staaf sounds like an utterly complete contemporary mainstream player, capable of generating great ideas at any moment. The trio plays with glorious freedom on Miller’s “Ready Steady”, and it is Staaf’s solo that winds the band up and gets them flying. The theme, a simple, wistful line that has a jagged bridge, suggests a solo full of contrasts, and Staaf delivers, but with great coherence. She plays lines that leap and rip, each one utterly assured so that Miller knows to be with her at each step. Staaf’s writing is equally assured and directed. “Nobody’s Human” contrasts a toggling bass line (shared by Penman and Staaf’s left hand) with a gentle melody. Stephen joins on the theme as Miller settles into a funky backbeat feeling that still swings. Staaf is first out the gate improvising and plays a very orchestral improvisation with both hands building motifs—and it flows into the whole band lifting the performance higher as Stephens improvises and Staaf just keep gathering more momentum beneath the tenor.
The two tunes featuring Akinmusire as well as Stephens are particular treats. “What?!” Is the opener, an Allison Miller tune with a flipped out fanfare opening that then grooves into stuttered rhythmic feeling with six beats syncopated inside four as the horns float over the top. Akinmusire and Miller simultaneously solo over a clever stop-time feeling, with the bass line syncopated and as prominent as the improvising. The trumpeter is fluid and inventive, giving way to Stephens, who gets a different bass line at first and then a whole new groove with slicker chords and a sensual mood. The tune keeps surprising you. Miller also penned “Weightless”, which also uses contrasting sections, tempos, and moods to keep the listener on toes and heels. Particularly lovely is a middle section set as a gentle ballad, during which Staaf plays with a lyrical delicacy that slowly, sloooooowly gives way to an Akinmusire solo that is even more slow and gentle, which fades to nothing as the tune ends. How many drummers compose into silence?
The trio, alone, is capable of highlights. Staaf’s “West of the Moon” is a craggy theme that punches and prowls all over the place, with the pianist’s left-hand jabbing and crashing chords with the ferocity of mid-career McCoy Tyner. Miller, in contrast, is fleet on her ride cymbal, finding every way to keep pushing, accenting, and driving the tune forward, like a tap dancer moving amidst cannons. Her tune “Symmetry” is quite the opposite, all slow and deliberate movements with Stephens tracing a yearning melody that is nevertheless almost geometrical in its balance. She also composed the Latin-driven “MLW” with its playful Miller hand percussion driving a boppish bass line and blues-tinged melody that is impish to the end.
Despite the abundance of complex composition and cleverness on Science Fair, there are also some tunes that come straight down the middle, right over the plate. Staaf’s “Nobody’s Human” is over-clever in title only, with a surging rhythm build a cool pattern built on pairs of notes—first repeated four times, then three. If that sounds mathematical, well, the execution is elegant and clear, with a gorgeous melody for piano and then a complimentary one for Stephens’s tenor sax. The solos flow like an easy, slow river from the popping rhythm. Miller’s “Skyway” sounds like a folk song, stated first all alone by Penman’s acoustic bass, then by the bass with rhythm, then finally by the piano. The song is deep, reverent, moving. It sounds just a bit like sacred music.
What Miller and Staaf have here is not always coherent—the band and its mood shift from tune to tune, perhaps—but the work is always compelling. Much of this is the band built around them. Each of the leaders is in command but not always out front. Miller can crack the snare or whisper with brushes. Staaf uses the piano as a drum set and a watercolor paintbrush. In Penman and Stephens, they have sidemen both stellar and solid. And the two tracks with Akinmusire and lit up by a player whose capacity for melodic invention is unique.
That these compositions, various as they are, provide the fuel for a band like this says enough about Allison Miller and Carmen Staaf. They have what it takes.