Photo: Shervin Lainez / Courtesy of the artist

Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom Makes a Career Highlight with ‘Glitter Wolf’

This powerful, versatile band makes music across boundaries but with the improvisational daring of jazz. Allison Miller can't help but make music you can't define easily.

Glitter Wolf
Allison Miller's Boom Tic Boom
Royal Potato Family
1 February 2019

Composer and drummer Allison Miller plays every kind of music, and she puts a lot of that variety into her band Boom Tic Boom. It is an all-star band of players who lead their own bands, and perhaps the most remarkable thing about Glitter Wolf is how cohesive it is and the degree to which it presents the wide and varied personality of Miller even though her collaborators are each so individually formidable.

Miller has been an important player for years, and Boom Tic Boom’s last recording, Otis Was a Polar Bear, was her career highlight. Until now.

Glitter Wolf shares an orchestral approach with its predecessor. It is also inherently a dance record: not for the club perhaps but a recording that is endlessly coming up with new ways to shake your hips or get you strutting. It’s not just that the leader is a drummer—though, wow, is she—but it is the way Miller’s composing draws from a deep well of music that has a sense of movement in it. The instrumentation of the band—Myra Melford’s percussive piano, Jenny Scheinman on violin (often sounding very “fiddle”-like), Ben Goldberg’s clarinet, Kirk Knuffke on cornet, and bassist Todd Sickafoose—puts several traditions of American music in play beyond jazz: folk and country forms, slices of funk and hip hop, classical “new music” or so-called minimalism, rock in the vein of Frank Zappa, Latin music, and plenty more.

“The Ride” is a great example of the range that Boom Tic Boom can achieve in a single composition. Miller pulls you up the track of her roller coaster with an off-kilter drum solo that gets extended by a set of polyrhythmic hits by the whole band: fiddle swoops, thumping contra-alto clarinet, glissandi/rumbles on the piano, and ripples of lines by vibes and celeste. The tune develops a positively funky groove that any DJ would have been happy to have created, over which a cornet/piano unison melody unfurls. The clarinet and violin alternate syncopated shouts throughout, but it ends quickly to give way to a gently pulsing and pastoral interlude. Knuffke solos over a modified version of the funk, with Melford comping freely as Scheinman’s violin plays answer lines. As different instruments solo, Miller subtly changes the groove on drums and in the arrangement so that each slice of funk is slightly different: more urgent, double-timed, stuttering, flowing. The cars of the coaster move up, over, and down these different grooves, giving way to the gentle flow again. A “Ride” indeed.

Another mixture, but just as addictive, is in evidence within “Welcome Hotel”. The opening feel, which pushes along a cornet/clarinet melody, sounds like a syncopated reggae pattern, though with a variation on a New Orleans drum groove lurking around the edges. The bridge, however, creates an impressionistic transition into a Latin piano jazz figure.

“Malaga” is based more purely on a syncopated Latin pattern which finds Sickafoose and Melford playing tricky patterns that lock together around Miller’s compelling clatter. The violin loops a set of long tones and the horns bounce over it all. Listening to this one is like watching a burbling brook run over a pile of gorgeous stones, with the light hitting the water and the waves differently at each second. Melford solos first, taking one of her typically rhythmic and unconventional paths through the song’s structure. In every case on Glitter Wolf, Melford seems to find a way to refresh jazz improvising on piano. Here, she plays with a thrusting directness, often playing octaves articulated by both hands together. She starts by sounding almost robotic, playing against Miller’s thwapping groove, and then she evolves the solo such that her two hands are grooving as surely as those of a conga player.

Melford is bracing on “Congratulations and Condolences” too. Her solo begins with a set of wild single-note patterns in the lower register of the piano, but she speeds them up so they become increasingly frantic and atonal, occasionally alternating their mad arpeggios with crashes of chords. Each segment of the solo ups the ante, making the patterns faster and more defiant. But for all the rumble of it, every note feels carefully chosen. And the solo is all the more effective because it comes amidst an anthemic composition. Melford, throughout the recording, is the pepper in the dish—complementary but sharp.

The other X factor in the band is Jenny Scheinman and her violin, morphing her often. Scheinman can form a small string section, playing pizzicato along with Sickafoose’s bass on “Zev – The Phoenix”, only to play long accompanying tones underneath Melford’s lyrical piano solo a moment later. On “White Wolf” she plays a languorous melody in harmony with the clarinet. Her solo on that composition is generous in using blues intervals and double-stops to growl as well as sing. Sheinman is utilized in Miller’s compositions to shift the tone from one genre to another. On “Daughter and Sun”, which starts with the jubilant thrust of a McCoy Tyner composition, her fiddle adds a sunny brightness that suggests a flash of Americana. “Vine and Vein” uses her fiddle tone to move further in that direction, as she plays a country-ish counter-melody around a lovely horn line. On the title track Scheinman mixes it up in a collective improvisation with trumpet and cornet, leading to her finishing out the track playing scratched-out chords in a quick rhythmic pattern like a bluegrass fiddler. Every move is important in making Boom Tic Boom sound like no other band.

Goldberg and Knuffke are given generous room to shine as well, though their roles are more conventionally designed. Knuffke impresses in his lead-off solo on “Welcome Hotel”, squeezing out delicious half-valve blue notes but also rat-a-tatting some funky repeated-note bugle calls. On “The Ride” he is expressive and playful, pushing the boundaries of the harmony more freely. Goldberg is more likely to soar into the stratosphere. His ripe sound is what makes the melody to “Congratulations” feel so urgent, and his solo on that tune takes its time rolling in fluttering patterns. On “Malaga” he is a boxer, jabbing with one hand, upper-cutting with another in a rhythmic style while also playing fluid runs that seems slippery and seductive. “White Wolf” allows Goldberg to play more gently, whereas “Welcome Hotel” pits him against the whole band in counterpoint, over which he rides with acrobatic flair.

Behind every song is Allison Miller as composer and engine. She doesn’t always play like a power drummer, but she can if she should—such as on “Congratulations”, where she has the drive of a mature Tony Williams. Miller rarely seems in the forefront of the band, but it is clear that the dancing quality of so many of these performances comes from how she establishes precise but organic grooves that breath in and out with the rest of the band—such as on “Daughter and Sun”. She adds vibraphone and celeste to several compositions, becoming even more melodic than her beautifully tuned trap set drumming. Miller orchestrates and guides all of the music like a conductor, generating atmospheres that manage to sound specific from tune to tune but that also manage to take in a wide swath of styles.

The music on Glitter Wolf is pan-stylistic in the best way—sounding like “jazz” because only jazz would dare these glorious improvising musicians to engage in such free-flowing dialogue, but otherwise shimmying from Latin grooves to pastoral folk music, to dancing funk, to wherever Allison Miller dares to take you next.

RATING 8 / 10