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Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom: Otis Was a Polar Bear

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The cutesy title of Otis Was a Polar Bear, the third album by drummer-composer Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom sextet, is not an anomaly. Inspired by the birth of Miller’s first child, the album exudes preciousness throughout. It seems to want to capture the spirit of children’s music-and unfortunately it’s all too successful.

It starts off splendidly. The opening “Fuster” sets a delightfully complex melody and playful solos by clarinetist Ben Goldberg and violinist Jenny Scheinman atop pianist Myra Melford’s Cuban guajeo line and Miller and bassist Todd Sickafoose’s clave. But by the next tune, “High T,” trouble is afoot: Its stuttering 6/4 and cornetist Kirk Knuffke’s counterpoint, against Goldberg, Scheinman (pizzicato) and Melford, suggests multiple music boxes playing out of sync. It’s clever but cloying, the latter more than the former.

There are other promising moments scattered through Otis Was a Polar Bear-essentially the moments where the players skip being childlike and just let loose, as in Melford’s gnarled freeform solo work on “Hoarding the Pod” and a genuinely tender feature on “Shimmer.” But these are reprieves. “Lullaby for Cookie” presses its sweetness too hard; “Slow Jam” keeps dipping into sentimentality. The back-to-back “Otis Was a Polar Bear” and “Pig in a Sidecar” represent a nadir, both dependent on tick-tock Scheinman pizzicato, singsong melodies carried by Goldberg and a twee sensibility that recalls Wes Anderson at his cringeworthiest.

This is a group of some of the boldest and most progressive jazz players on the planet. They’ve made excellent music in the past and will surely do so again. Still, Otis Was a Polar Bear finds Miller-albeit with a good cause-indulging sentiment.

Originally Published