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

Alison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom-Otis Was a Polar Bear (Royal Potato Family)Allison Miller cover-art-1

For those of you who have to skip to the last page of a book so as not to be surprised, let’s cut to the chase…this is my FAVORITE record of the year (and I get a ridiculous amount of music in vinyl, CD, and downloads). This record has it all; engaging compositions, top-caliber musicians, interesting, varied arrangements, and great sound. I purchased the LP, which includes a digital download, with extra tracks (that are on the CD). In a just world this band would be considered a “supergroup”: Miller on drums, Myra Melford, piano, Jenny Scheinman, violin and octave violin, Kirk Knuffke, cornet, Ben Goldberg, clarinet and contra alto clarinet, Todd Sickafoose, bass. The rarely heard clarinet/violin/cornet front line makes for unusual and captivating tonal combinations.

The opening track, “Fuster”, starts with a klezmer clarinet/violin introduction, which quickly picks up tempo with a bass vamp driving a lovely melody, then has a kaleidoscopic, odd 2 on 3 rhythm section that reminds me of spin art, with rich musical color being sprayed onto a richly chromatic canvas. A languid clarinet solo builds to the odd tempo section, after which the violin scrapes out a dancing solo. “High T” gives the cornet the melody, with the others engaging in a swinging baroque-like counterpoint. Knuffke solos in a more free time vein, over the pulse but around the bar lines, then it morphs into a  minor blues/Latin feel, where Melford plays a very tasteful solo that would have fit on a 60’s Blue Note disc (there’s a clever reference to Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” in the changes, and even a nod to Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father”). Miller steps out, with a tasty, melodic drum solo (how often do these words go together?). “Hoarding the Pod” melds dissonant jazz to an Island feel, with convulsing piano comping under pretty melodies. “The Listener” has a heart wrenchingly lovely theme, contra alto clarinet underneath giving it an earthy, grounded feel, while Miller adds tumult and chaos under the pretty tones. Bass and piano introduce “Lullaby for Cookie”, a ballad filled with longing, which features warm, pleading cornet over a background that washes out like ocean waves. Pizzacato violin introduces the title track, with bass and drums adding a Caribbean flavor (in a tune about a Polar Bear?); the piano enters, gradually building intensity, then Scheinman starts a hoe down over the shuffle. Melford and Sickafoos add more grounding in a tuneful bass solo (words that go together almost as infrequently as tuneful drum solos), and we get some New Orleans style polytonal soloing (but it don’t sound like Dixie), and the tunes universe just expands and expands. “Shimmer” floats, and, well, shimmers, with a theme evocative of rain drops, floaty clarinet/cornet melody over plucked violin and pretty changes, and it feels like the beach again, this time at that quiet time when late afternoon becomes evening. Melford has a lovely piano solo, glissing the notes into a fine statement. “Staten Island” pits Melford’s left hand against Goldberg’s clarinet in an agitated section (maybe some political comment here?), then bass and drums duet with obligatto from the horns, more front line agitation, piano tone clusters over a rock backbeat and long tones from the horns, then a bass/piano vamp brings a round-like theme which slowly lands.

Much of the focus of this album is in Miller’s compositions and arrangements. Jazz is a soloists art, and there’s tons of fine soloing here, but the tight compositions, which are multi-themed and sourced from all different musical genres, add layers of variety and give the soloists more to get their teeth into when they DO solo. Add to that the unusual front line, the multiple combinations of sound and texture further adding to the gumbo, with textural and dynamic shifts, and you have truly engaging music. The historical sources for this would include Charles Mingus, David Murray’s Octet, and Henry Threadgill’s Sextette, with a bit of the Microscopic Septet in there (you can go back further to Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton); groups that bring all genres of music into their pieces, and have compositions and arrangements that can turn on a dime, as these do.

I hadn’t looked at the LP when I took notes, used my Pono download, but, without realizing it, I focused on the tracks that were selected for the LP release. Whoever did the selecting heard the tracks as I did, and those are the cream of the crop. Not that I dislike the four extra tracks, but there is more to the ones that made the LP cut to my ears (I think the two sided, 40 minute LP is still optimal for most recordings). Still I’m happy to have the download with the extra music, as I really can’t get enough of this group.

Now, I mentioned I thought this was a great sounding disc. I’d call it demonstration quality. It has wonderful, wide deep soundstage, great instrumental separation and space between the players, and gets the tonality just right on all the instruments. The music just JUMPS out at you. One of my pet peeves with recordings over the years has been the tendency of engineers to spread the drums and the piano over the entire stage, as if they were of unlimited width. Well, this album, recorded and mixed by Adam Munoz and Jake Lummus, with mastering by Christoph Stickel, manages to have the drums rock, the piano pound, but stay in reasonable proportion. What this does to the illusion of “real players in a real space” cannot be emphasized enough. Especially on the vinyl, the sound of this album absolutely floored me.

Warning: this is not Norah Jones style jazz-lite…if you didn’t get the idea until now, these tunes have meat on the bones, but are spiced and not instantly digested (though I knew it was great on first listen). You won’t walk away immediately humming many tunes. But, engaged listening will be very rewarding. The playing and compositions here deserve your ears, and your hard earned cash.


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