Drummer Allison Miller animates her ambitious jazz with crowd-pleasing groove | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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Drummer Allison Miller animates her ambitious jazz with crowd-pleasing groove

Her sextet Boom Tic Boom reached new heights last year on Otis Was a Polar Bear.

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Allison Miller - SHERVIN LAINEZ
  • Shervin Lainez
  • Allison Miller

Drummer Allison Miller has paid her dues—after years on tour with popular singer-­songwriters such as Ani DiFranco, Brandi Carlile, Erin Mc­Keown, and Natalie Merchant, she's comfortable calling herself a road dog. Those experiences inspired her to follow her instincts in her own music—what she admires most about artists like DiFranco, she says, is their realness. "The person onstage is the same as they are offstage," she explains. "They didn't change. They were true to themselves, and there's a fine line of being yourself and being an entertainer."


Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom
Sat 9/2, 7:10 PM, Pritzker Pavilion


Miller is a jazz drummer at heart, and she infuses her technically rigorous music with a bold compositional ethos that keeps listeners on the edge of their seats. But she also understands how important it is to make an audience happy­—and her excellent New York-based sextet, Boom Tic Boom, has no problem doing that. When I caught the band last fall at the Green Mill, I saw smiles all over the club—not to mention the big one on my own mug. "This is serious music and I take it very seriously," Miller says, "but I also want to have a good time."

Last year Boom Tic Boom released Otis Was a Polar Bear (Royal Potato Family), its most impressive, buoyant, and coherent album yet. It's packed with shape-shifting melodies and emotionally charged improvisation, all shaped by an engaging group dynamic and a crowd-pleasing focus on infectious rhythms. "I wanted to get back to why I started drumming, which is groove, whether it's in an odd meter or not—I just love it when music feels good," Miller says. "I went off on another path for a while, which is fine—it was great—but I wanted to get back to what can be creatively possible within the foundation of a strong groove." The beats on Otis touch on traditions from Cuba, Jamaica, and New York, so that her band's creative and intellectual heft goes hand in hand with an invitation to move.

Boom Tic Boom started out more than a decade ago as a trio, with Miller joined by pianist Myra Melford and bassist Todd Sickafoose. The three additional members in the current lineup are all distinctive bandleaders in their own right: violinist Jenny Scheinman, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, and trumpeter Kirk Knuffke. "Jenny hopped on board when she was available, but then she became a full member. For the last two records I started writing for a larger group, which is when Ben and Kirk came in," Miller says. "I was hearing new ideas in my head that required a larger group, and a lot of it came from wanting to hear parts being doubled—or I wanted this harmony, but I couldn't do it without another person. Everybody in the band has such a unique sound, and I really try to utilize all of those qualities that I love in each player. I want each song to sound like an adventure—the last thing I want to do is hear a head, a bunch of solos, and then a head out."

The ten tunes on the album take inspiration from a wide range of sources—"Staten Island" responds to the police killing of Eric Garner, while "Fuster" began as a nonsense melody Miller sang to her infant daughter—and they're all densely multipartite, shifting seamlessly in tempo, timbre, and feel. "I want the compositions to almost sound through-composed, but I still want there to be space for people to express themselves and for true improvisation to happen," Miller says. "I don't think it's an easy task, but I feel like on Otis I got closer to that. The thing that grabs me about improvisational music is that it's all communication, and I want to communicate on a really deep level with the musicians in my band."  v

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