Much of drummer Allison Miller’s life is about juxtapositions these days. She’s the creative force behind two related but different bands. She’s managing an active musical career while co-parenting her two preschoolers. And she gives voice to her activism through her art. All of this creative tension finds an outlet in Miller’s new album, Glitter Wolf (Royal Potato Family), the fifth album with her experimental jazz sextet, Boom Tic Boom.
The provenance of the album’s title reveals how these personal and professional dialectics inspire Miller: Her young son, whose middle name is Wolf, had been playing with his older sister’s costume fairy wings and ended up covered in glitter. This mishap earned him the nickname “Glitter Wolf,” a household joke that took on added dimensions the more Miller thought about it.
“The phrase is about celebrating all of who we are,” Miller explained in the airy living room of the 19th century brownstone in Brooklyn that she shares with her wife Rachel and their children. “It speaks to the acceptance of all types—the fierce and the fabulous, the feminine and the masculine, and everything in between.” Juxtapositions again.
Musically, Miller is more than willing to explore everything in between. In her writing for Boom Tic Boom, she’ll move comfortably through a bashing boogaloo, maybe, into a quiet classical space, or from a go-go vibe into the impressionistic avant garde. These grooves all recall different phases of her artistic development, which include time spent variously as a college student in classical percussion, on the D.C. club scene, in jazz big bands, and touring globally with pop star singer/songwriters like Ani DiFranco and Natalie Merchant. Listening to her output, it soon becomes clear that Miller is nothing if not an acquisitive learner in the musical environments in which she finds herself.
As a child growing up in the D.C. area, Miller didn’t have to go far to find the supportive training grounds that fostered her talent. Her mother, a pianist and conductor from a long line of classical and liturgical musicians, noted her daughter’s early interest in percussion but made sure that she learned to play the piano—a skill that serves her compositional work today—before she let Miller pick up the sticks. Once Miller did so, however, at age eight, it was “all drums, all the time,” she recalled.
In addition, her father, a sound engineer, often worked with jazz heavyweights from the D.C. area like tenor saxophonist Houston Person, bassist Keeter Betts, and singer Etta Jones. When they recorded in her father’s home studio Miller would listen in, and sometimes he would have her play for them. “I didn’t know at the time that they were famous musicians,” she said.
Later, she studied privately with D.C. jazz drummer and educator Walter Salb, whose admittedly gruff manner stands in contrast with the care and attention he showed the young drummer. Salb was the first to push Miller beyond her comfort zone and into professional gigs when she was just a teenager. “I wouldn’t have pursued them if he hadn’t,” she said.
Salb, too, was the one who urged her to sit in at the famed D.C. jazz club Blues Alley with guitarist Charlie Byrd—a formative experience. “I did a brush solo with Charlie Byrd when I was 14,” she marvels. “Not many people can say that.” (Today, Salb’s grand piano sits in Miller’s living room. He died in 2006 at age 79, and his will stipulated that Miller would receive all of his instruments.)
Until she moved to New York City in the mid-90s, though, just two months after graduating from West Virginia University, the only jazz that Miller had played was the straight-ahead kind that she’d learned from Salb. “I don’t know if I was completely ready for New York when I moved here,” she admits. “But I was super-driven. I worked hard and started studying with some really key people once I realized what my drumming handicaps were.”
It was through her studies with drummer Michael Carvin that Miller began to tighten her playing technique, paying meticulous attention to form, melody, and time. “To have the right technique you need to learn the classical snare pieces,” she explains. “Michael [Carvin] had studied with Philly Jo Jones, who’d studied with Charley Wilcoxon, the percussionist who wrote the classic snare textbook for drummers. So I’m a part of that lineage,” she says.
Drummer Lenny White, too, mentored the recent New York transplant, giving her vital lessons in the craft, like the graceful use of the ride cymbal. “He taught me to treat every beat equally on the ride—one, two, three, four,” Miller demonstrates. “That quarter note pulse produces what swing is—that feel. Just a fluid beat, where every beat is one.”
These private sessions with Carvin and White weren’t limited to musical mechanics, though. Both of these jazz masters counseled Miller in how to develop an authentic style of playing, one that remains her hallmark today. “Michael and Lenny took me from being a good technician to really discovering my personality as a musician,” Miller states.
Their affirmation not only of her skill but of the person she was behind the kit went a long way to boosting Miller’s confidence in her playing and alleviating self-doubts about her career. “When I was young I worried about making a living as a musician, and because I was a diverse player I’d say yes to everything. I learned that I didn’t have to do that. I didn’t have to play all of those gigs,” Miller says.
Miller—who teaches at The New School and is artistic director of Jazz Camp West in La Honda, California—shares with her students what Salb, Carvin, and White shared with her, from the classical snare pieces to the ride cymbal to discovering one’s own sound. “Michael told me that the only way to become a master musician is to pass it on. I follow this motto in my teaching today,” she adds.
Miller released her first album as a leader and composer, 5am Stroll (Foxhaven Records), co-produced with Lenny White, in 2004. On the album, a post-bop mélange of driving swing, Latin, and blues tunes, Miller used a standard rhythm section and two saxophones—a traditional jazz set-up, expertly rendered. The album contains only a hint of where Miller’s composing would later travel.
That same year, Miller first met pianist Myra Melford on the Jazz Standard stage when the two played there with avant-garde saxophonist Marty Ehrlich. Edgy and viscerally dynamic, Melford’s playing captivated Miller, and she set the intention then to work with Melford again. That opportunity came in 2008, when Melford agreed to be one-third of Miller’s newly hatched modern jazz trio, Boom Tic Boom. “I started Boom Tic Boom because of Myra,” says Miller. “I knew I had to play more with her.”
The new ensemble provided Miller a vehicle through which to express her more experimental compositional leanings. Her bandmates—Melford and bassist Todd Sickafoose—brought their own ideas to the effort, helping Miller to shape the group’s emerging sound.
“Back then, my writing was just simple stuff,” Miller asserts. “I’d say to Myra, ‘here are the notes and here’s the head.’ But Myra isn’t capable of just playing the notes on the page. She’s going to bring her own personality into whatever she does, and she really brought the music to life.”
As the band developed, Miller also came to call more and more frequently on another eclectic, individualistic player—violinist Jenny Scheinman, who appeared as a guest artist on the group’s eponymous debut release on Royal Potato Family Records in 2010. By then Miller’s compositional shift toward the avant garde had solidified: On Boom Tic Boom the sense of time is freer, the harmonic changes more disjunct, and the improvisations decidedly inventive.
Over the decade that Boom Tic Boom has existed, the ensemble’s sound has continued to develop, particularly in its instrumentation. Scheinman became a full member of the band by the time of its second and third releases, Boom Tic Boom Live at Willisau in 2012 and No Morphine, No Lilies in 2013. And by the time of its fourth release for the label, Otis Was A Polar Bear, the group had grown to include cornet player Kirk Knuffke and clarinetist Ben Goldberg.
“The reason Boom Tic Boom became a sextet is because I started hearing more voices in my composing,” Miller explains. “It took me some time to get to this particular instrumentation. But I love this instrumentation.”
Before settling on the clarinet and cornet in her compositions, Miller had tried adding a tenor sax and a trumpet to the group’s mix . But something felt off, she said. Then “by accident” she used a clarinet when her usual horn player couldn’t make a gig and the sound fell into place. “The clarinet is the lost jazz instrument—it’s the secret weapon,” she claims. “It’s beautiful, and it blends so well with the cornet.”
Melford, who’s watched Miller’s emergence as a composer from the front row, points out the increased sophistication that Miller now brings to her writing, evident on the band’s latest release. “It was a big, wonderful, challenging process to learn the music for Glitter Wolf,” Melford says. “In terms of moving parts and orchestrations, Allison’s compositions are becoming longer and more complex. Even so, there’s still plenty of improvised sections—largely through solos, but not exclusively so—and there are places for collective improv on the album, too.”
Melford noted that whether in the rehearsal room or on the bandstand, Miller values and encourages her fellow players’ suggestions and critiques. And while she does retain the final say on all aspects of the group’s work together, the band’s creative ethos start to finish is an inclusive one. “This process really makes us feel that these pieces are ours, too,” Melford observes. “It’s rewarding that [Allison] is so open to that.”
Miller does make sure that all of the players’ voices are included in her compositions, even if she needs to sacrifice her own playing to the group dynamic. “Sometimes the last thing I think about is the drum solo,” Miller remarks, going on to explain her philosophy as a bandleader. “It’s important to treat other musicians with respect. It’s important for people to feel good about what they’re doing.”
Such receptivity to others’ self-expression has earned Miller the loyalty of her bandmates, a loyalty that no doubt contributes to the band’s longevity. “I don’t do much side person work,” Melford says, adding that Boom Tic Boom is the only such gig she’s agreed to since starting out as a jazz musician in New York in the late 1980s. “To feel so committed to being a side person in her band is a big thing for me, not something that I take lightly. It’s a testament to how much I respect her and her music.”
For her part, Miller returns the appreciation. “I really think of Boom Tic Boom as a collective. If it weren’t for the musicians in Boom Tic Boom, my music wouldn’t be so sizzling and bubbly,” she says.
The new album—recorded at the fabled Fantasy Studios in Berkley, California—benefited from the tactical expertise and objective ear of producer Julie Wolf, a multi-instrumentalist who produced the project with Miller. Wolf brought to the project years of audio experience and a keen appreciation for Miller’s talents as a bandleader, player, and composer.
“What allows her to move in and out of those roles so easily is an over-arching service to the song. If you’re serving the song, you’re going to get out of the way of any ego investment in it,” Wolf noted. “That’s how I feel about producing, too. So I knew we’d work as an artist-producer team. There was a lot of give and take between us, and she let me play to my strengths—which was to lead the flow of the recording.”
Glitter Wolf is the first album that Wolf has produced for Miller, though the two musicians have known each other for more than a decade. For Wolf, though, the album came with some heartbreak: Her base of operations, Fantasy Studios, closed on September 15, 2018, after almost five decades of service to jazz legends and rock stars. Glitter Wolf was the penultimate album she produced there.
Following a tour in support of the album, Miller will be taking a step back into the straight-ahead. “When the Glitter Wolf cycle is done, Parlour Game is going to be the focus for a while,” reports Scheinman, referring to the roots-based quartet that she and Miller co-lead. “We’re really enjoying and exploring this collaborative relationship that came out of Boom Tic Boom, and now we have an entire band based around it.”
The ensemble Parlour Game—which also includes pianist Carmen Staaf, with whom Miller recorded the enchanting Science Fair (Sunnyside) and bassist Tony Scherr—arose from another serrendipitous tour date. Staaf was subbing for Melford and Scherr for Sickafoose at the same Boom Tic Boom show, altering the group chemistry somewhat and taking the original Boom Tic Boom sound in a slightly different direction. The four players liked their synergy and wanted to explore it further.
“Allie really comes out of old school jazz. She really likes to swing in those old entertainment grooves. Tony and I do as well,” Scheinman maintains. “Parlour Game goes after them in a direct way, and it’s really satisfying because we’ve been in more of an avant garde scene for a number of years.”
Responsibility for the group’s repertoire falls equally on Scheinman and Miller’s shoulders, facilitated by voice memos of song ideas relayed between the two composers. In contrast with the Boom Tic Boom, the new band focuses more intently on singable melodies and danceable rhythms, most often led by Scheinman’s infectious violin work.
What stays the same, though, is Miller’s commitment to building group cohesion among her players. “Allison...has a very clear idea of a band growing over time and producing a certain type of music that is very bonded,” Scheinman explains. “She believes that if you keep a group of musicians with their various eccentricities together for a long time, something will happen.”
With Miller at the helm, if past proves prologue, that something is likely be innovative and exciting—and an exemplar of creative synergy.
(Reprinted from the March issue of Downbeat magazine.)