New York crew plays music with intention
Jazz isn’t everyone’s favorite. (It’s mine, but that’s another story.) To many, it seems too abstract, too dense, with too many noisy obstacles to navigate. Drummer Sammy Miller doesn’t see it that way, and he’s made it his mission to spread the good word that jazz can be an easy, lovable experience for the masses. He’s dubbed his approach “joyful jazz.”
“It’s a distinction in our intention,” Miller said during a recent interview. “We’re playing jazz, but the intention is to make people feel better, to have a medicinal quality; that’s why we added the ‘joyful’ to it.”
Miller has been a percussionist since the ripe age of 5, playing with his siblings throughout his childhood. “I always loved the visceral nature of drums,” Miller said. “It has sort of a universal appeal; it’s just so natural.”
At the end of 2014, Miller was wrapping up a master’s program at the prestigious musical haven Juilliard, in New York City, and in the midst of forming his band The Congregation.
As a well-educated lifelong percussionist, fresh from one of the top music conservatories in the world, one might imagine Miller’s new band was creating a repertoire of mind-bending sonic equations, but it was quite the opposite. From the start, Miller and his crew wanted to play the sorts of sounds that would draw new listeners to the world of jazz through the most accessible means possible.
“We wanted to bridge the gap between jazz music that was high art, but also art that could be entertaining, accessible, and fun—also funny,” Miller said.
The band’s recent self-titled debut is a perfect example of its approach. It’s filled with larger-than-life classics such as “What A Wonderful World” and “Maple Leaf Rag,” done in peppy, whip-quick fashion, with fluttering horns, rich keys and trilling percussion. About two seconds in, it becomes unquestionable how well-versed the members of this ensemble are in their instruments. The album even has a few pop-inclined originals laced in.
The live show follows the same recipe, alternating their own tunes with crowd-pleasers for any generation.
“I try to be really specific about the repertoire we play, drawing from the larger American canon,” Miller said. “I think, within a night, it’s about songs that collectively will take us through a journey where we feel more hopeful than when we started.”
The group hasn’t limited that experience to a straightforward live music show. Over the summer, Miller and The Congregation premiered their two-night performance of “The Great Awakening,” an original theater production created by the group.
“We take the music really seriously, but also try to create something that has more access points for people,” Miller said. “In a lot of our songs, we’re doing theatrical things—telling love stories, dying onstage—so we sort of put it in the framework of a story of a jazz band that’s banned from jazz, and it’s their story of rebranding as a theater troupe.”
Miller and his band are delving further into theater with a few new collaborations on the horizon. In the meantime, they’ve been moving at a roadrunner pace: constantly touring, playing everywhere from Lincoln Center to the White House, and writing new material. All the while trying to stay true the band’s joyful mission.