Allison Miller: Explosive Material

Drummer-composer Allison Miller and band perfect an inside-outside approach with Boom Tic Boom

Rarely a month goes by in which Allison Miller doesn’t have some musical commitment, ranging from tours with singer-songwriters Ani DiFranco and Brandi Carlile to gigs with Marty Ehrlich or her Agrazing Maze band with Ingrid Jensen. So when a 30-day stretch of free time came along in the summer of 2008, the drummer used it wisely. She headed straight for the piano each morning, fleshing out ideas that would become a follow-up to her 2004 debut as a leader, 5 a.m. Stroll.

Having recently attended the annual Michigan Womyn’s Festival-a now 35-year-old gathering open only to the sisterhood-her female friends were heavy on her mind as she wrote. A night of listening to records with singer-guitarist Toshi Reagon inspired the sly, funky “Big Lovely”; reuniting with a fellow drummer in Wyoming led to “Cheyenne,” a minor vamp that finds a way to groove in 11/4. Along the way, she transcribed Mary Lou Williams’ “Intermission” from her Zoning record, writing a full arrangement-also in 11-for what originally was a two-minute sketch. The resulting album, Boom Tic Boom (Foxhaven), wasn’t intended to focus on women, but the subject acts as an undercurrent to most of the tracks.

What comes across most blatantly on the recording is Miller’s presence as a leader and her rapport with her bandmates. Bassist Todd Sickafoose has crossed genres like Miller, playing with her in DiFranco’s band. The drummer had only played with Myra Melford once, but that was enough to know the inquisitive pianist would bring a great deal to the compositions. “I never feel like she’s playing licks or is on autopilot,” Miller, 35, says of Melford. “I feel like she’s bringing full creativity, and I also like her sound. It’s very percussive; it’s fiery and light. To me it’s very buoyant and joyful and kind of bouncy. She was able to take these seemingly straightahead songs and completely put a Myra Melford twist to them. And make them seem buoyant and free, which I really enjoy.”

After the trio premiered the music in a September 2008 concert at the Jazzschool in Berkeley, a studio session was inevitable. Violinist Jenny Scheinman joined them on one track, and the band branched out into new territory that Miller eagerly accepts. “Since 5 a.m. Stroll, I’ve really gone into a more avant-garde world, but with a straightahead background,” Miller says, adding that Melford helped because she “is the combination of both.” “Be Melting Snow,” one of Melford’s two contributions to the session, starts with an out-of-tempo theme in which everyone seems to play the melody, Miller included. The drummer gets continually more restless as the track progresses, pushing the band into a frenzy.

This contrasts perfectly with the previous tune, Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair,” which sounds a bit more pastoral than the Louis Armstrong version that intrigued Miller. “What I did was straighten it out and elongate the harmonic form,” Miller explains. “For every measure the melody took up before, it now takes up two measures. On the original there are a lot of dominant-seventh chords, and a lot of the time, I took out a colored tone of the chord and was pretty specific about having mainly the root and the fifth.”

Miller has wanted to use the title Boom Tic Boom since her teacher, drummer Michael Carvin, used it to describe her approach over 10 years ago. “He said it’s very apropos of my playing. The ‘boom’ is loud and the ‘tic’ is quiet, and [it’s] dynamic and melodic. It’s also a little playful and silly, which is very much my personality,” she says, laughing. “I don’t want to take myself too seriously. Life is too short for that.”

Never one to squander any of her time, Miller was able to balance the busy schedules of Melford, Sickafoose and Scheinman to book a weeklong tour in March of this year. The album and the band-which has more material in progress-reflect a new outlook that has given Miller confidence about the finished release, a feeling she didn’t quite have with previous output. “Maybe in general now, I’m just a happier person,” she says. “As Ani DiFranco says in one of her new songs, ‘If you’re getting older and you’re not getting happier, you’re fucking up.'”