For all the progress made by women instrumentalists in jazz, you still don’t see so many female drummers. If I asked you to name three – and I took Teri Lynne Carrington and Cindy Blackman Santana off the table – could you? And if you did, was Allison Miler among the three?
She certainly should be, and not merely due to the rarity of her gender in the percussionist section. Miller (who brings her quartet, Boom Tic Boom, to Evanston SPACE on Thursday night) has carved a solid niche for herself in the New York jazz scene, and it has nothing to do with gender politics. Indeed, when bandleaders like organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, guitarist Mike Stern, and bassist Ben Allison (on his recent Green Mill visit) bring her on board, they need no lure other than Miller’s champagne-crisp kit sound, sanguine aesthetic, and gift for lyricism; it transforms her timekeeping into separate through-composed melodies that infuse the music with added depth.
Jazz bandleaders have to pick their spots for Miller, however. Her main gigs find her in the company of modern indie rockers, particularly Ani Difranco, Natalie Merchant, and Brandi Carlile. I have to think that the less complicated demands of these singers’ music has helped Miller simplify her own approach; even in her jazz work, and even in passages of thunder and lightning, she plays with a distinct lack of bombast and a gorgeous use of space.
Miller’s 2010 album “Boom Tic Boom” displayed all of this, with the help of the band she brings to Evanston. Among my favored albums of the last several years, it features Todd Sickafoose on bass, indie darling Jenny Scheinman on violin, and most important (without diminishing those two), Myra Melford, one of modern music’s most consistently challenging and satisfying pianists. Melford grew up in Chicago and doesn’t get back nearly enough, so her appearance here carries a dual charge: the chance to hear her dynamic and exacting pianism, and something of a homecoming as well.
“Boom Tic Boom” (only the second and still the most recent album under Miller’s name) revealed another aspect of her skill set: a formidable range and intelligence as a composer. She wrote all eight pieces on the disc, from the dark and slightly sinister “Intermission,” to “Be Melting Snow” – a restless, rubato theme with plenty of space for improvised interaction – to the jaunty second-line “Big Lovely,” and the quietly luminous ballad “Night.”
I imagine she’s added to that repertoire over the last couple years; at least I hope so. Even among jazz composers I admire, it’s rare to find one who makes you anxious to hear what she writes next.
Allison Miller and Boom Tic Boom perform one show at SPACE (1245 Chicago Ave. in Evanston), at 8 PM, Thursday, November 29. The quartet will also conduct a two-hour adult workshop at the Old Town School of Folk Music (4544 N. Lincoln), Saturday, December 1, at 1 PM, before heading to Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor (MI) the following night.