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Jazz drummer Allison Miller on improvisation, vinyl and keeping it old school
Allison Miller is glad her latest album is coming out on vinyl. The format, the jazz drummer says, offers respite from today’s hurried-up culture.
“I’m old school; I listen to vinyl records at the end of the day when I’m trying to relax—it’s nice to just put an album on and leave my phone in the other room,” says Miller, talking from her Brooklyn home. “After 20 minutes, you have to get up and flip the record over—it’s like a recalibration of focus.”
So what’s the musician spinning these days?
“I listen to a lot of the classic jazz-singer standards—Anita O’Day, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald—wait a second, let me go look,” she says, carrying the phone over to the turntable so that she may answer the question more precisely.
Destination reached, she lets out a laugh.
Currently in rotation? Chuck Brown’s rendition of “Da Butt.” You know how it goes: “Hey pretty, pretty / When you get that notion, put your backfield in motion, hey / Doin’ the butt.”
Yes, Miller, whose latest album, No Morphine, No Lilies, pushes jazz with a satisfyingly unpredictable improvisation, fancies herself some classic booty-shaking jams.
“I grew up outside of Washington, D.C., and was really into the D.C. go-go sound,” Miller says, flipping through a pile of vinyl that’s stacked presumably near her record player. “I also have Rare Essence here, and Stevie Wonder and Aretha [Franklin] and Donny Hathaway—a lot of hip-hop, a lot of funk.”
Not surprisingly, Miller’s wide taste manifests in her music—sweeping numbers that alternately snap and crackle at a brisk pace, or more languorously snake through beats and measures. Her love of music runs deep; Miller says she started playing music before she could even comprehend what it meant.
“I think I came out of my mother’s womb wanting to play drums,” she says. “From the time I could move my hands, I was beating to the radio, I was kicking to the beat.”
Miller’s mother, a choir director, insisted her daughter learn piano before taking on any other instruments.
“She wanted me to be able to read music and have a melodic sensibility,” she says. “As a result, I’ve been able to work with a lot of people in different genres of music [because] I’m thinking about the music and the melody first before the rhythm and bass.”
Certainly, Miller’s well-regarded as both a studio and touring drummer, working extensively with the likes of Brandi Carlile, Ani DiFranco and Natalie Merchant.
Now, with her new album, a follow-up to 2004’s 5am Stroll, Miller finds herself once again exploring music as a bandleader.
“When I play with singers, I’m taking on a supportive role—as a drummer I just try to support the music and not get in the way of the lyrics,” she explains.
“But when I’m leading the band, I take on more of an improv role—[on tour] one song might be played one way one night and completely different on another night.”
No Morphine, she says, reflects months spent on the road. And unlike her first solo album, Miller adds, it was a collaborative effort.
“The first record, I wrote a bunch of stuff and presented it to them,” she says of fellow musicians Myra Melford (piano), Jenny Scheinman (violin) and Todd Sickafoose (bass). “[We’re] more of a band now, and the writing and the performing and the recording really highlight that.”
Conceptually, she adds, No Morphine fits her musical aesthetic. Here, each track is meant to flow into the next—no breaks, no pausing for breath.
“It’s very cohesive and reflects what I was going through [personally] at the time—it gets introspective very quickly, and then it gets less heavy and more lively,” she says.
The record, for sale as a download and CD, is also available on vinyl.
“This is not meant to be taken one track at a time,” she says. “I’m desperately holding on to the idea that you’ll listen to this the old-fashioned way, that you’ll listen to the whole thing at one time.”