Allison Miller grew up near Washington DC and has spent most of her adult life living in Brooklyn, but the Bay Area is increasingly making itself felt in her music. A prodigiously gifted drummer, composer and bandleader, Miller returns to the region for several gigs with her talent-packed sextet Boom Tic Boom, including Freight & Salvage Wednesday and Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center on Oct. 25.
The band brings together some of jazz’s most vivid improvisers and bandleaders, starting with Berkeley residents Ben Goldberg on clarinets and Myra Melford on piano, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, bassist Todd Sickafoose and violinist Jenny Scheinman. A stripped down trio version of the band with Goldberg and Knuffke also plays Palo Alto’s Mitchell Park Center on Thursday, Oct. 18. The shows mark the band’s 10th anniversary with early copies of their fifth album, Glitter Wolf (Royal Potato Family), which won’t be officially released until February.
Recorded at Berkeley’s recently shuttered Fantasy Studios, the album captures Miller’s ever-deepening Bay Area ties, with guest appearances by percussionist John Santos and drummer David Flores. During a family trip to the Bay Area this summer, “my wife and I were looking at real estate and asking each other if we should move,” Miller says. “We didn’t buy anything, but I think in this new record I’ve been really influenced by the music there.”
“There are some definite elements from different regions of Latin music, which is not me at all,” she continues. “I’ve always loved Brazilian and Afro-Cuban rhythms, but I’ve been so reluctant to say I play that music. I haven’t lived there and I’m not Latina. I love playing it, but it always feel like I’m not doing it right. On this record I let go of that self-inflicted limitation.”
Miller’s Bay Area ties extend far beyond her tentative embrace of clave, her bandmates, and love of Fantasy Studios. She’s also an influential educator who took over as artistic director of Jazz Camp West this summer. Produced by Living Jazz, the nonprofit founded and directed by Berkeley therapist Stacey Hoffman, the immersive eight-day program brings together dozens of instrumentalists, vocalists and dancers in La Honda’s redwood-shaded YMCA Camp Jones Gulch every June to study and perform with an array of world-class artists.
Over the years countless creative connections forged at JCW have gone on to manifest back home in various performances and recordings. It’s where Miller got to know Santos, Flores and Brazilian pianist/composer Jovino Santos Neto, a longtime JCW faculty member.
For Glitter Wolf, Miller teamed up with Berkeley producer Julie Wolf, who served as an exacting foil for the rough-and-ready bandleader. “We’re like sisters,” Miller says. “She’s a refined producer. And I’m not. We meet in the middle. Don’t fix it too much! What I love is that Boom Tic Boom sounds more than ever like a band. A lot of this music I wrote six months before the recording date. We didn’t tour the music a lot. And I have a new kid. There’s a raw sense of urgency.”
Part of that intensity stems from the way that Miller’s arrangements encourage the extraordinary instrumental voices to blend and diverge. A piece might move from a chamber jazz sensibility featuring violin and clarinet to sinewy funk pairing bass and cornet. Whatever the combinations of players, sparks fly.
“You get all those people in a room together, something is going to happen,” says Goldberg, who introduces a new project Archimedes Lullaby at the JCC East Bay on Nov. 17. “Boom Tic Boom is made out of some very strong personalities, and it’s guided and shaped by the strongest personality of all. Then you add Myra, a force of nature, and Kirk with his beautiful sound and effortless melodic ability. Jenny brings so much strength, such an amazing array of dimensions.”
Like Goldberg, who seems to perform or record with a new all-star aggregation every week, Miller juggles numerous ensembles. Last month she released Science Fair (Sunnyside), an album co-led with pianist Carmen Staaf featuring bassist Matt Penman, late of the SFJAZZ Collective, and the Berkeley High alumni horn tandem of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens. The project came first came together when they were all on faculty at the Stanford Jazz Workshop a few years ago. “When we had a chance to play we had great chemistry,” Miller says, hence the name of the album.
Recommended gigs: Myra Melford / Kalil Wilson
Myra Melford has been performing more out of town than at home recently, but in addition to next week’s Boom Tic Boom show she plays a Berkeley house concert Saturday with the remarkable French bassist Joëlle Léandre (together they make up two thirds of the Tiger Trio with flutist Nicole Mitchell). Email Harry Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations. Speaking of duos, vocalist Roberta Donnay joins Sam Rudin (aka Hurrican Sam) Friday at his intimate venue The Back Room as part of his monthly feature Sam’s Corner.
Kalil Wilson, a silky vocalist who is as comfortable crooning R&B as improvising over the chord changes of a standard, celebrates the release of his new album Time Stops (double0one0) Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory with his excellent trio featuring pianist Dan Marschak, bassist Chris Bastian, and drummer Genius Wesley (full disclosure: this reporter wrote the album’s brief liner notes). Meanwhile, over at Ashkenaz, his father, the great Nigerian bassist, vocalist, and bandleader Baba Ken Okulolo leads the West African Highlife Band. Going to be a busy night for the family!