BY J. POET | FROM THE SUMMER 2019 ISSUE OF DRUM!
“My mother says I was tapping out perfect time to the music on the radio, even before I could talk,” says Allison Miller, speaking from her West Village apartment in New York City. “I started on piano when I was six, and by the time I was in the junior high band I was composing percussion duets on the snare to play with my friends.”
Today, Miller is one of the Big Apple’s most in-demand drummers, flowing easily between free jazz, world music, folk songs and pop standards. She’s also a recording artist, bandleader, composer, mother, and teacher. As a young drummer in Washington, DC., she was playing in jazz clubs by age 14 before going on to study music at West Virginia University. “In school, Walter Salb taught me how to swing,” she says. “He was a great teacher and told me to play live as much as possible. Doing gigs taught me more than going to school.”
After graduation, she moved to New York City and took every gig she could find—be it free jazz, swing, sitting in with the 8G Band on Late Night With Seth Meyers, or backing up pop singers like Brandi Carlile.
“‘Play what the music calls for’ is my motto,” Miller says. “There’s a different technique and mindset to each situation. With singer-songwriters, I’m serving the songs and the lyrics and making sure the time stays steady. With free jazz and avant-garde situations, my ears get bigger. It’s more of a musical conversation between the players, and it calls for different techniques.”
Miller currently puts most of her energy into her free jazz project, Boom Tic Boom. The band includes violinist Jenny Scheinman, cornet player Kirk Knuffke, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, upright bassist Todd Sickafoose, and pianist Myra Melford. They just finished recording their fifth studio effort, Glitter Wolf, at the jazz haven Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California. “The music on this album is more integrated,” she says. “The flow is better and I took a big step in my compositional growth. We have strong melodies, solid grooves—even when we’re playing in 13/8. As I’m composing, I’m thinking about what each person can offer, probably because I’ve listened to a lot of African music. The sum is always greater than the parts.”
The tunes on Glitter Wolf have an international flavor, with every instrument placed carefully in the mix. “I’m a drummer, but I don’t play to show off. I like to highlight my compositions and my band, which I treat as a collective. I like having unity, equality, and democracy in my music. I write to the strengths of the band.
“I used a lot of different drums on this record and it brought out a different side of my playing. I melded all my styles, a bit more than usual. I borrowed a kit from David Flores. He had the drums tuned lower than I normally tune, and with different heads,” says Miller. “It was really great playing them—the most fun I’ve had on one of my own sessions. It made me play different. He had all these cowbells in his cases too. So, since the music has a hybrid Latin flavor, I set up the cowbells—in no particular way—and just did it and had a blast.”