Allison Miller and Carmen Staaf Make First Album as Co-Leaders

The drummer and pianist discuss the new science of sharing roles

Carmen Staaf and Allison Miller

Allison Miller and Carmen Staaf met serendipitously. Miller, drummer and leader of the quartet Boom Tic Boom, had booked her band at the 2014 Reykjavik Jazz Festival but then discovered that its pianist, Myra Melford, couldn’t make it. “I called Todd Sickafoose, the bassist in the band, and said, ‘Hey, do you know anybody who’s exciting you right now on piano?’” Miller recalls. “He said, ‘Oh, I was just at a Monk Institute performance in L.A., and this young pianist was by far the most amazing thing happening onstage.’”

“She sent me a message, saying ‘Hey, I have this gig in Iceland and I need a piano player. Do you want to do it?’” Staaf says. “I had been a fan of her music, and I said, ‘Yeah, I totally want to do that!’”

That sound-unheard hire began a fruitful collaboration. Staaf, 37, became the first-call substitute for Boom Tic Boom; Miller, 43, also involved her in other projects; and they regularly look for reasons to work together. That continues today, as documented on Science Fair (Sunnyside). It’s a postbop quintet session featuring a front line of Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet and Dana Stephens on tenor saxophone (with whom Miller and Staaf had worked at Stanford Jazz Workshop in Palo Alto), along with Matt Penman on bass. Miller and Staaf co-led the recording (produced by clarinetist Ben Goldberg), composing and arranging all of the tunes. Miller wrote five to Staaf’s four; one of those five, however, is the introduction to her closing tune “Skyway,” making it really a four-and-four combination.

“We came up with the concept of both of us contributing equal amounts of composition, and then we spent probably six months rehearsing in New York,” Miller says. “We would try to get together once a week, even if it was just duo, and develop the music in a way that would make our different composition styles flow together.”

Miller and Staaf readily agree on their stylistic common ground: They share rhythm as their top priority, and both players try to leave their music open to experimentation. The differences they needed to mesh, however, are a bit harder to pinpoint.

“That’s a really good question,” Staaf says thoughtfully. “I’m thinking that the tunes of mine that are on the record are less through-composed than hers. She’s very narrative-oriented, has some long, epic-type tunes that are really like a journey. So there was an element of her looking at my tunes and saying, ‘Oh, what if this part were the intro?’ Or, ‘What if another line came in here and took it to another place?’ It brought them into a longer story that connected to her more through-composed tunes.”

“I’m very type-A and like to move fast, and Carmen is very thoughtful and moves slower,” Miller adds. “We had this interesting chemistry: Sometimes I’d want to move too quickly, and her slower, more intellectual approach would help pull me back a little bit. And then sometimes my fast type-A approach would pull her back to the side of reality too.”

It was that mix of approaches, says Miller, that made their work together feel like “a science project.” Hence the title Science Fair.

The weekly rehearsal sessions that long nourished Miller and Staaf’s collaboration are no more. Staaf, in particular, is on the road more often than not these days, playing behind singer Thana Alexa, hanging with saxophonist John Ellis’ Double Wide, and holding down piano and musical-director duties for vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater. Miller also tours regularly, both at the helm of Boom Tic Boom and in various freelance situations. “Both of us have pretty much been out of town all summer,” the drummer says.

That said, they do gig together increasingly often. Staaf has performed many times with Boom Tic Boom, and both musicians play with a tap dance company of which Miller is musical director and for which one of Science Fair’s tunes, the 5/4 opener “What?!,” was originally written. “Then there’s this new band we have,” the pianist says. “It’s Allison and me with Jenny Scheinman on violin and Tony Scherr on bass; that’s called Parlour Game. We did a couple of tours this year, and now we’re going into the studio.” (Parlour Game’s recording date was scheduled for September, with a planned 2019 release.)

Last but not least, Miller has recorded a duo session with Staaf as part of a tribute to Shelly Manne’s seminal West Coast album “The Three” & “The Two.” It’s clearly a musical relationship that both artists value. “I feel like that’s just how it is in jazz,” Miller says. “You have to find some other spirits that you like playing with to do the music.”