Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Allison Miller/Carmen Staaf: Nearness (Sunnyside)

A review of the second album from the drummer and pianist

JazzTimes may earn a small commission if you buy something using one of the retail links in our articles. JazzTimes does not accept money for any editorial recommendations. Read more about our policy here. Thanks for supporting JazzTimes.
Allison Miller/Carmen Staaf: Nearness (Sunnyside)
The cover of Nearness by Allison Miller/Carmen Staaf

Nearness is the follow-up to 2018’s Science Fair, the first dedicated pairing of pianist Carmen Staaf and drummer/percussionist Allison Miller. That set was a trio project, including bassist Matt Penman, with augmentation on select tracks by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and saxophonist Dayna Stephens. Nearness, by necessity and design (read: it was made during the pandemic), disposes of all but the two principals. That it feels no less full, and fulfilling, is a testament to the skill and inventiveness of Miller and Staaf, who have also worked together on violinist Jenny Scheinman’s Parlour Game and in other contexts.

Nearness gets its title from Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You,” one of two covers on the 10-track set (the other is Monk’s “Ask Me Now”). The duo approaches the Carmichael track gingerly at first, Staaf laying out sprightly rhythmic patterns while Miller confines herself to a subdued click-clacking, nearly imperceptible at times. The listener’s preconceptions might lead one to expect her to open up at some later point in the song, as Staaf does. But Miller never takes the bait; only after the fact do you realize that she played it exactly how it needed to be played.

That level of intuition characterizes all of their arrangements. Of the five Staaf and three Miller compositions, none are misfires. Staaf’s melodicism and Miller’s sense of control make for an exciting, unexpected conversation. “Dan Dan,” the Miller-written opener, is of a more experimental, freeform nature, but again the two are in sync even at the trickiest twists and turns, and on tracks like Staaf’s “MLW” and “Birds,” the seeming randomness of some of their individual choices proves to be anything but, the pianist and drummer navigating their way through one passage after another as a single-minded unit.

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

Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin on social media

Jeff Tamarkin is the former editor of Goldmine, CMJ, Relix, and Global Rhythm. As a writer he has contributed to the New York Daily News, JazzTimes, Boston Phoenix, Harp, Mojo, Newsday, Billboard, and many other publications. He is the author of the book Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane and has contributed to The Guinness Companion to Popular Music, All Music Guide, and several other encyclopedias. He has also served as a consultant to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, NARAS, National Geographic Online, and Music Club Records.