The eclectic drummer fronts her best jazz band ever, setting up clarinet, cornet, violin, and piano to fly free and have fun. Allison Miller is a force.
Otis Was a Polar BearLabel: Royal Potato Family
US Release Date: 2016-04-08
UK Release Date: 2016-01-22
Drummer and composer Allison Miller plays with joy and fire. She powers bands with a sense of life and momentum that leaps from the bandstand right into your ears and feet. Under her hands, the trap kit dances and talks -- sometimes in a whisper but usually with a blend of shout and laughter. To my ears, she plays in the same line as Art Blakey and Ralph Peterson, Jr. She is a natural bandleader because she is such a superb collaborator.
Her latest recording, Otis Was a Polar Bear, features her Boom Tic Boom jazz group with the killer line-up of clarinetist Ben Goldberg, Kirk Knuffke on cornet, violinist Jenny Scheinman, and rhythm section-mates Todd Sickafoose on bass and Myra Melford on piano. It’s an unusual sextet, but Miller has arranged the ten songs on this collection so that her band seems more like an orchestra... or maybe a circus... of different sounds and combinations. Each song is written as a tiny, coherent suite in which the voices jump forward, come together, fall away and leap back into conversation. As a result, there is a furious fun to Otis that runs directly counter to the classic jazz stereotype of MELODY-SOLOS-MELODY.
Listen to “Hoarding the Pod” and you’ll hear: (1) a unison written melody for cornet and clarinet, accompanied by thrashing-free piano trio, (2) a dancing syncopated figure for piano/bass unison, eventually in counterpoint with another melody for cornet and violin, (3) a violin improvisation over the rhythm (a bit funkier though) and harmonies from section two, (4) a new melody for cornet and clarinet that creeps in beneath the violin solo, (5) which blends into a free-wheeling “free” solo for cornet accompanied by an increasingly frenzied Miller on drums, with atonal interjections by piano and then a two-note figure for clarinet and violin, (6) a return to the melody of section one over even more frenzied work by the trio with violin glissandi around the edges, and (7) a return to the piano figure from section two, this time with clarinet improvising at the same time, soon joined by the cornet/violin melody from before.
Whew! But wow! The music is intricate but logical, fun and free but also structured.
The essential feeling here is one of dance. Even on a tune such as the title track, “Otis Was a Polar Bear”, set in an unusual time signature, Miller leads with a sense of groove, whether she is playing just the rim of her snare and hi-hat or playing the whole kit. And this sense of rhythm extends to the whole band. On “Pig in a Sidecar”, Goldberg starts things off with a pulsing clarinet figure that hints at reggae, quickly locks in with a stuttering pizzicato violin figure, and is soon accompanied by bass, drums, and piano. For pure funkiness, the track is “Slow Jam”, which sets up a swaying minor groove over which Knuffke gets to play a soulful melody. It is, simply put, sexy as hell.
Miller is a relatively new mother, and the songs here were significantly inspired by her child. That inspiration comes out beyond just the song titles. “Shimmer” arguably sounds a bit like funky wind-up toy before it shifts over into several other more glistening and swinging moods. “Lullaby for Cookie” is a wafting sunset of a melody, a cornet line that moves downward as the rest of the band ripples with gorgeous lines, chords, and held tones.
But it seems important to note that, mostly, Otis is a record that expresses femininity in the broadest and truest sense: not just sensitivity but also joy and movement, intelligence and spark. Miller bashes as often as she caresses, but you feel it all as life-giving, as music that nurtures the whole band, the whole listener. Miller, always equal to the most interesting thing that’s being played on any track, inspires her band to fly free. She pushes them out of the nest with fiery groove (I mean, just listen to Melford’s piano solo on “Staten Island”, a garrulous joy that Miller wills into being with her beat).
Should a mother be judged by the success of her offspring? Well, this record is the very best recorded work I’ve heard from Knuffke, who increasingly seems like he is putting together a blend of hard bop bite and impressionistic color. Sheinman’s solo work here is the perfect combination of raw and precise, and it sounds more free and forceful than anything she’s done with, say, Bill Frisell. Goldberg is utterly himself here, particularly on the opening track, “Fuster”, where the klezmer cast of his playing is used wonderfully. And while Melford sounds great in every context, her playing here is the equal of her recent (and superb) Snowy Egret recording, which just isn’t as FUN as what Miller presents. What Miller does here is simple: she lets her soloists excel in their own ways.
There’s one more soloist who is great on Otis Was a Polar Bear and that is Allison Miller herself. It is standard issue praise for critics to write that drummers are good because they choose not to solo on their own records. This allegedly makes them more “musical”, I guess. Well, Miller does take some solos here, and each one is explosive and musical too, powerful and subtle at once. She is a drummer who is, of course, great at laying back into the groove, but there is also something irrepressible about her, something that can’t be held in for long.
Allison Miller is a force. And on this, her most enjoyable and varied jazz record, she pops like a rocket and spins like a top. She makes jazz fun and smart at the same time. She makes you wish she’d accompany every step you take all day.