You aren’t going to categorize drummer Allison Miller, who is free and superb in moving from funk to folk to jazz to rock to freely improvised music and then to a thousand stations in between them all. Her grounding and training may have been in jazz more than any other style, but she earned early experience broadly as well. Miller’s mature career—as a supporting player and as a leader—has been just as diverse.
Lately, she has been playing and recording with pianist Carmen Staff, whose instrument and inclination tends to push Miller a bit more toward jazz convention and classic song forms. Their Science Fair from 2018 was varied and complex but also always tuneful and engaging. Miller’s percussion seems to give Staaf’s Keith Jarrett/Chick Corea gleam a neat little kick in the behind, a bit of launch velocity. And Staaf (and that sense of Miller goading her) is present on this new recording, Parlour Game.
The leaders on the date, however, are Miller and violinist Jenny Scheinman, another player who has defied categories for decades. Scheinman has played extensively with guitarist Bill Frisell, has recorded her own album of vocal tunes (The Littlest Prisoner, 2014) and the brilliant instrumental 12 Songs from 2005, not to mention playing in Miller’s off-kilter band Boom Tic Boom along with Staaf. Scheinman has also played in bands for Ani DiFranco, Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams, Bruce Cockburn, and others who are looking for her tuneful compromise between jazz sophistication and American roots music.
Parlour Game, then, is both something very comfortable for three frequent bandmates and a riveting corralling of the disparate impulses of several truly creative musicians into a wonderfully consistent voice for a new, strong-as-the-wind quartet. (The fourth member is bassist Tony Scherr, also gorgeously varied in his styles and influences—also a sideman for DiFranco, Frisell, Scheinman and a member of bands such as Sex Mob with Steven Bernstein.) The magic of the band is that it sounds like a single personality that, sure, has several different modes of expression but is always speaking one coherent language. And that language is vibrant and communicates with joy.
Nine of the 11 compositions are by Scheinman, and they are both tuneful and grooving. “116th & Congress”, for example, is built on a busy fiddle line that sits atop a complex Latin rhythm, both spinning in tight circles that feed each other. Miller plays a 16th-note syncopated groove on high-hat, and Scherr lays in a slow triplet bass line, the two pieces locking in the dance impulse. Staaf is in every gap, pulsing her piano like it was a tap dancer. All of which sets the stage for a volcanic solo from Scheinman to lead things off. She begins with staccato jabs, builds up into tricky snaking lines that bend with blue notes, and finally uses a set of repeating patterns or notes that rise up into a climax. Whew.
The groove on “Fake Weather” is very different but just as compelling. It’s a medium tempo funk-shuffle from Miller that anchors an impossibly catchy Scherr baseline, played exactly as a set of repeating phrases built around two-note repetitions that move in a circle. Staaf adds searching harmonies that might suit Herbie Hancock before the violin melody enters—descending lines separated by comfortable spots for breathing. It modulates up like a blues for a bit, then comes back down again—simple and sinuous. Staaf wisely plays an exceedingly subtle solo that is largely a set of elliptical, whispered chords that break out into hinted melody. The groove reigns supreme, and Miller adds some tiny shades of variation that tug the sound just slightly toward hip-hop.
“Miss Battle’s Cannonball” is similar but more traditionally grounded in 1960s jazz-funk like “Watermelon Man” and “The Sidewinder”, a blues-adjacent form that opens up to a harmonic ray of sunlight where the five chord normally sits. Staaf, Scherr, and Miller sit tight in the pocket while Scheinman uses the violin’s ability to play the notes between the chromatic scale, bending blue as ably and expressively as any saxophone or trumpet player.
To these ears, this is the element that makes Parlour Game shine brightest. That Miller will be a propulsive and creative accompanist is a given. Staaf will inevitably channel her Hancock/Tyner/etc. influences in an individual direction. Scherr will provide a bottom of eclectic modernity. But Scheinman, here, sounds freer and featured than ever before. For a “jazz” violinist, she has always had a different sound—less horn-like, less pure-toned, and more influenced by fiddle music. With Scheinman, you really hear the strings and their edge, the way the bow scrapes a bit against them and gives the instrument bite. That strength is represented here but, at the same time, she sounds more effortless and fluid with this band. On her “The Right Fit”, she plays with effortless swing over a gospel groove, sounding just slightly more like a bell-toned Jean-Luc Ponty than like Allison Krauss.
Miller is represented by a few compositions on Parlour Game. “Beans & Rice” is a puckish tune that might have been imagined by Thelonious Monk in the late 1940s. Staaf plays a playful stride introduction, and the band then sets about swinging with both a two-feel and in walking four-four. Scheinman’s “Meanwhile” also swings, faster and with a slightly classical tinge, for 45 seconds, bridging the listener to Miller’s other contribution, “Top Shelf”. This is a more modern tune set to a stuttering 6/8 polyrhythmic time. Staaf and Scheinman share melodic duties on the serpentine written theme, one that includes at least two sections that demonstrate other Monk-ian tendencies. Staaf uses the first solo spot to command the sonic space with both her hands flying.
As a composer, Scheinman may be at her best in striking a tender tone. “Lead with Love” is a simple, minor melody finds a graceful swaying place in this quartet’s book. Scheinman handles the melody on her own, with Staaf coloring the accompaniment in pastels that find a middle ground between jazz and smart pop. “Play Money” is playful more than tender, but it exploits the same strength in Scheinman’s pen: a knack for finding a theme that lifts your spirit without seeming sappy. Even better, though, is the closing theme, “Sleep Rider”, a quiet ballad that is still lifted by an earthy, rising three-note bass lick from Scherr. Miller and Staaf leave the band plenty of open space, even during a piano solo that sounds like a spare, charcoal sketch. Scheinman states and restates the theme with her haunting tone, this cool American sound that draws from folk and country roots and jazz phrasing.
Parlour Game convenes a band that is supremely at home in each other’s company. They lift each other up in a program that is incredibly appealing while simultaneously not breaking new ground and not seeming derivative. No violinist sounds quite like Jenny Scheinman and, wow, no drummer can match Allison Miller’s combination of power, gut-wrenching groove, and masterful subtlety. The band levitates and feels grounded both, making the argument that each of its leaders has found an ideal format for expression. Or, in the case of these leaders, one of many ideal formats for such diverse talent.