Allison Miller: A Life Soaked in Music

by Troy Collins


Allison Miller                                                                                                                  ©2016 Mara Rubin

New York-based drummer Allison Miller is a burgeoning presence in the contemporary music scene, having twice been named “Rising Star Drummer” in DownBeat magazine’s annual poll. After graduating from West Virginia University in 1996, Miller moved to New York City to begin her career as a freelance musician, studying with veteran drummer Michael Carvin. Miller has since performed and recorded with mainstream singer-songwriter’s like Natalie Merchant, Ani DiFranco and Brandi Carlile, as well as jazz luminaries like Dr. Lonnie Smith, Kenny Barron and Marty Ehrlich, among others.

Miller’s primary working group is Boom Tic Boom, which features pianist Myra Melford, violinist Jenny Scheinman, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, cornet player Kirk Knuffke and bassist Todd Sickafoose. Otis Was a Polar Bear, the unit’s fourth release and first for Royal Potato Family, follows in the footsteps of previous efforts for Foxhaven Records, including No Morphine No Lilies (2013), Live at Willisau (2012), and Boom Tic Boom (2010). Miller also leads several of her own projects, including Holler and Bam (with singer Toshi Reagon), Honey Ear Trio (with saxophonist Jeff Lederer and bassist Rene Hart), and JunKtion Percussion Duo (with Dr. Julie Strom).

Miller holds an adjunct teaching position at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in NYC and gives lessons and master classes at universities and high schools throughout the United States. In addition, she was chosen by the US State Department to tour East Africa, Eurasia and Southeast Asia as a Jazz Ambassador. Her drumming and composing have also been featured on the Showtime hit series, The L Word.

This fall the Honey Ear Trio will release their second album, and a collective trio consisting of Miller, saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh and bassist Simon Jermyn, recently released their self-titled debut, Lean. I interviewed Miller about these efforts and other topics over the summer of 2016.

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Troy Collins: Some biographical information might be beneficial for readers unfamiliar with your background. You moved from the Washington D.C. area to New York in 1996. How did you first get your start playing in the Big Apple?

Allison Miller: I was fortunate enough to get called for a few gigs in NYC before I moved to New York. Pianist Rachel Z hired me to play an in-store showcase at J&R Music (Downtown) and Kit McClure hired me to play a weekend of weddings in Long Island. Rachel and Kit took me under their wings along with many of the other stellar musicians I met on those first 3 gigs ... Kim Clarke, Sheryl Bailey, Lisa Parrott, Nicki Parrott, Jami Dauber, Roberta Picket ... to name a few. I was an extremely energetic 21 year-old with a desperate thirst for all that the NYC jazz scene had to offer. Sheryl and Lisa would take me from club to club on a nightly basis. We would stay up all night sitting in at jam sessions, hearing the masters at The Village Vanguard, Smalls, The Blue Note, 55 Bar, meeting tons of other musicians. These were pre-cell phone and internet days. Well, not really, but nobody that I hung with used cell phones or the internet. The only way to get your name out there and meet other musicians was to hang, and jam sessions were the place to be. The more I hung and played the more I got called to play gigs and sessions.

I loved those early days in NYC. The jazz community was thriving! Living was cheap, my living standards were low, I could exist off of bagels and falafels, my back could still handle carrying my kit up and down subway station stairs, the jazz clubs were packed most nights, all of the big clubs let young jazz musicians in for next to nothing, and daytime sessions in apartments were a daily routine. NYC still felt like the mecca of all things creative.

After some time I met Virginia Mayhew. She invited me to one of her apartment jam sessions. Eventually I started playing in her band, touring, and recording with masters like Ingrid Jensen, Harvie S, Leon Parker, Kenny Barron, Kenny Wessel, Cliff Korman, Ray Drummond, Steve Wilson, and Lindsey Horner.

And about 2 years later Lindsey Horner introduced me to Marty Ehrlich. I eventually joined his band. He introduced me to the Downtown Scene ... which has become home. And, strangely enough it was through Marty and Palmetto records that I met Dr. Lonnie Smith and started touring and recording with him.

It’s like one big extended jazz family.

TC: How did you arrive at your particular sound? Were there any influential teachers, mentors or musicians that inspired you?

AM: I think of this question in two parts: My sound behind the kit and my sound as a composer. As a drummer, I come from a long line of traditional jazz drumming studies: a focus on technique, clarity, pulling a warm sound out of the drum, a strong upstroke, dexterity, a deep pocket, dynamic balance, and producing a “big beat” with lots of air. I owe everything to my teachers. They have been inspiring in all ways. Walter Salb, Al Rublesky, Dion Parsons, Michael Carvin, and Lenny White.

Walter, my first teacher, emphasized the traditional snare drum rudiments using Charles Wilcoxin’s The All American Drummer and Modern Rudimental Swing Solos to learn the rudiments. He also focused on 4-way independence using Ted Reed’s Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer as a vehicle for this development. Walter insisted that I learn on the bandstand. I started playing in his big band at age 14 and became a regular sub in his small group at age 16 ... when I finally got my driver’s license. Later, while studying with Michael Carvin, I used these same books as a vehicle to discover my “dance” on the ride cymbal, my solo voice, and allow my sound to blossom. Carvin opened the gateway to discovering my creative spirit. When Michael was a master drummer in the making he studied rudimental technique with Philly Joe Jones. And Philly Joe Jones studied rudimental technique from, the one and only, Charles Wilcoxin. So, you can see, I come from a long line of tradition.

Dion Parsons studied with Michael. Actually, Dion is the one who decided I was ready for Carvin’s teachings. Dion also introduced me to Alan Dawson’s “Rudimental Ritual.” This exercise changed my drumming – improving my speed, dexterity, and clarity.

Lenny White helped deepen my ride cymbal “dance” and furthered my 4-way independence, teaching me exercises that he learned directly from Tony Williams. Studying with Lenny changed my entire rhythmic outlook. He introduced me to the concept of developing layers of duple and triple metered rhythms at the same time. He also taught me how to listen deeply.

Besides my teachers, I’d say my biggest drumming inspirations are Ed Blackwell, Roy Haynes, Max Roach, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Billy Higgins, Hamid Drake, Prince, and Leon Parker.

My journey as a composer is only just beginning. I have been developing my voice as a drummer for 34 years, and as a composer for only 15 years. I am, yet again, inspired by tradition with my favorite composers being Mingus, Ellington, Monk, and Shorter. But, I am only starting to understand the genius of each of these masters. It is a thrilling and slow process for me because I don’t get a chance to play piano on a daily basis. But I am very passionate about improving my composing and arranging skills. And I love composing for my band, Boom Tic Boom. I feel as though, with my new album and band configuration, I have finally started to discover my true composition style and sound. As far as modern composers go I am honestly most inspired by my bandmates. They are all masters of composition and orchestration: Todd Sickafoose, Myra Melford, Ben Goldberg, and Jenny Scheinman. I am also inspired by Marty Ehrlich, William Parker, Henry Threadgill, Ben Allison, and my ultimate inspiration ... Prince.

There are some common threads between my favorite players and composers. They all possess that magical ability to convey powerful energy and feelings through their music. They openly welcome multi-genre inspiration. And they all embrace simplicity in its most beautiful form.

TC: OK, I have to ask, since you mentioned him more than once. Where does Prince fit in with the rest of your idols, insofar as an inspiration for drumming and composing?

AM: Prince was the soundtrack to my childhood. My first CD was Around the World in a Day. My first cassette tape (bought from a boy at lunch in 7th grade) was Sign o’ the Times. The second song I learned on the drums, after Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean,” was “Tamborine” from Around the World in a Day. At the time I thought it was Sheila E laying down that quirky but nasty groove. Later I found out it was Prince! I’m also deeply influenced by Prince’s unconventional use of harmony on “Tamborine.” “Condition of the Heart” is my anthem. “The Ladder” is my Church. “Temptation” is my subconscious. Later, as a teenager, “Adore” became the soundtrack to my first love. Prince, Dirty Mind, Controversy, 1999, Purple Rain, Around the World In a Day, Parade, Sign o’ the Times, Lovesexy, Diamonds and Pearls, Love Symbol Album, and The Gold Experience are ALL masterpieces. While bringing my own albums to life, I routinely listen to my favorite Prince albums with hopes of soaking up, even a sliver of, his artistic prowess. I’m directly inspired by his ability to craft a cohesive album from beginning to end – sound scape, song order, thematic content, story line, and production values.

Prince is also, hands down, the best performer I have ever seen. He was a master of many instruments, a virtuosic singer, a creative innovator, a genius producer, a poignant lyricist and songwriter, a natural bandleader, a social icon, a fashion icon, and a perfectionist. I could go on and on about my allegiance to Prince. His musical contributions to the world have inspired millions of music lovers. He is immortal in my eyes and I will always return home to my Prince collection when I want to remind myself of why I have chosen to live a life soaked in music.

TC: Considering your ability to navigate multiple genres and styles, what specific aspects of the jazz tradition do you currently find inspiring and what established practices do you find constraining?

AM: I am always inspired by the language of jazz and the infinite ways in which we jazz musicians can engage in musical conversation. We share a secret vocabulary and I feel honored to be one of the sacred members of improvisational music. I also feel blessed to spend my life surrounded by other jazz musicians. I think we are some of the most interesting, intelligent and creative people. There is never a dull moment. Jazz is a community, not an industry.

I am also inspired by the forward motion of jazz and the constant search to discover new uncharted territory, while still honoring tradition. I feel like each time I sit behind my kit I’m buckling into a jazz spacecraft whose journey, to the far reaches of audio euphoria, could possibly discover a new galaxy. In fact, it is the anticipation of new discovery that keeps me going. This is why I know I will play jazz my entire life ... because I am never satiated. I’m always in search of that next moment of cosmic aural euphoria.

And in jazz, individuality, expression, and honoring one’s own voice are encouraged. This is very inspiring. I have never been able to sound like anyone but myself.

There are some current practices in jazz that I do find constraining. I feel as though too much emphasis is being put on virtuosity and perfection. Sometimes, young players feel like jazz HD. They can play all the shiny notes, meters, and changes but are lacking the soul, grit, nastiness and space between the notes. Everyone seems to praise filling up all the spaces. I prefer air in the music. It gives the music soul and vibe. I also prefer imperfection. All of my favorite albums thrive through their imperfections.

The other constraining trait of jazz is EGO. It has always been there and I know my EGO is the most constraining element in my music making. My EGO blocks the muse and makes it impossible for me to just let the music guide me.

I’m pretty sure EGO and its relative, FEAR, are to blame for all things constraining and lacking creativity.

TC: Your point about not wanting to fill up all the space and leaving some air in the music seems very pertinent. One of the elements I often find lacking in new jazz and creative improvised music is a sense of approachable melody or harmony – elements your writing has an abundance of, which is especially notable on the latest release by Boom Tic Boom, Otis Was A Polar Bear. Cuts like “The Listener” and “Lullaby For Cookie” are key examples of sing-song melody with rich harmonies, while tunes such as “Hoarding The Pod” and “Staten Island” are far more angular, but no less memorable. As a drummer and composer, can you talk about how you compose, especially in relation to melody and harmony, since they are such an obviously important aspect of your work?

AM: Melody is number one for me and space is a necessity to let the melody shine. My ultimate goal as a composer is to write memorable melodies that trigger an emotional response. Most of my compositions have a direct muse. Either a person, life event or emotional response. I write melodies that, I hope, will reflect its inspiration. And, once a melody is birthed my next exciting challenge is to allow my ears to discover the perfect pillow of harmony for that melody to rest upon. It is the marriage of melody and harmony that deepen the emotional content of a composition.

I am always working to improve my piano skills so I can deepen my understanding of melody and harmony. It is not easy because I spend most of my time behind a kit, which is most definitely melodic but not harmonic.

As I said before, three of my favorite jazz composers are Duke Ellington, Wayne Shorter and Thelonious Monk. All are masters of melody and harmony. I am inspired by their compositions but I am equally inspired by the melodic quality of their improvised solos – Wayne Shorter’s solo on “Speak No Evil,” – I transcribed it, learned to sing it and have referenced it compositionally. The same with Ellington’s solos from Money Jungle and Monk’s solos on just about everything he recorded.

Most of my tunes start with a melody sung into my voice memo. Sometimes I’m not sure where each melody will land. It could end up as the primary melody or might find its home in a bass line or harmony line. Or a melody might scream one of my band members’ names. “The Listener” was like that. I wrote it for my dear friend Josh Cantor who unexpectedly passed away. This song is very emotional for me and once I wrote the melody I immediately knew that Kirk would play it with Myra picking it up for the second half. There was no question in my mind. I really write with each player in mind. And each member of Boom Tic Boom is unique, so it is easy to hear a personality attached to an emotion and melody.

And, I’d have to say I am attracted to both diatonic and chromatic melodies. Angular and flowing. Each concept triggers a different emotional response. In “Staten Island” I wanted the angular melody and asymmetrical phrasing to leave the listener feeling agitated and incomplete. I wrote this song in response to the killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island. Racism is a festering epidemic in this country that is getting more insidious and dangerous. Garner’s story is incomplete and justice was not served.

TC: Racism isn’t the only problem facing this country – homophobia and sexism are still rampant as well. Speaking of which, have you ever encountered any obstacles as a female drummer in a male-dominated field?

AM: I will always be seen before I am heard.

Sexism and homophobia are still rampant in this country. And, yes I have encountered obstacles as a female drummer in a male-dominated field. My first thought is, “Of course! All women experience sexism in all career fields. That is a given. It has gotten better but we, as a whole, have a long way to go!”

As I think deeper about your question, two scenarios keep popping into my head. The first one is so frustrating because it is, in my book, the true school of jazz ... The Jam Session. This is where all jazz musicians really learn how to engage in musical conversation with others. This is where we learn jazz etiquette. It is necessary to cut your teeth at jam sessions when first trying to make your way as a young jazz musician in NYC. When I was younger I would experience extreme anxiety whenever going to jam sessions. I loved sitting in but hated all the social bs surrounding a session. I’d have to deal with men hitting on me instead of taking me seriously. And I would have to prove myself, night after night, even if I had been to that session dozens of times. I’m not saying that “sexual relations” should be forbidden in a jazz session environment. But I do think that most men at sessions will always “see” first, “hear” second, when it comes to women musicians. If they perceive a woman musician as conventionally unattractive they will, most likely, disregard her musicianship ... even if she plays her ass off. If they see an attractive woman playing her ass off, they will often ask for her number using the angle of “let’s get together and play a session sometime.” But there is often a hidden agenda to get to know her intimately as well. What men don’t realize in that moment is that we, as women, have worked just as hard as they have to become great musicians and we take our craft very seriously. When “let’s get together to play” is used as a come on line it basically feels like the guy is saying “I don’t respect you and your musicianship. And I don’t consider you my colleague.” And, let me say this. I am not the only one who has experienced this. Many of my women colleagues have experienced this behavior more than once. We all go to sessions to hone our craft and network professionally. If it were just about the music and there was a true feeling of gender equality then it would be super fun ... but, alas, it is not.

I’m not generalizing here. Not all men display these chauvinistic behaviors. But some men do ... in my experience. And, like I said before, I do think it is getting better, but we have lots of work to do.

The other tape that keeps rerunning in my head is a simple compliment that I have heard at least 100 times. “Wow, you can really hit those drums. You don’t play like a girl.” I simply reply. “Well, I do play like a woman. This is how we play and I am proud to be a woman.” What I want to add to that statement is “... and will people stop calling women GIRLS?!” Adult women are not GIRLS. We are women and it is demeaning to call a woman a girl. Nobody would call a 40 year-old man a BOY. I hate the term “All Girl Band.” This phrase is embraced by men and women and insinuates cuteness and easiness. This is insulting to all women who take their craft seriously and have dedicated their lives to jazz. Words are powerful and historically instigate change. So let’s all stop misusing the term GIRL.

It is not just men perpetuating sexism. Women factor in as well. Women have been conditioned to believe the patriarchy ... To believe that women aren’t as strong and confident as men. To believe that true acceptance can only be attained when attached to a man’s success. “She can play ‘cause HE hired her.” Or expressing skepticism when an all women band walks onto stage. I’ve heard women say they don’t want to play in all women bands because it is demeaning, gimmicky and sexist. There are 100s of all male bands. What’s wrong with an all women band if the music is killing?

I’ve also heard women vocalists say they will not hire women instrumentalists because they don’t want any feminine competition on stage. This kind of thinking is exactly what the patriarchy wants us to think.

I’ve even caught myself thinking sexist thoughts. There have been times I have internally questioned women musicians that I don’t know before I hear them play. I’m embarrassed to admit this but it is important for me to publicly acknowledge my judgements so I can work through them and help others as well.

Unfortunately, a woman’s mistake will always be magnified. A man’s mistake will most likely be glorified. And confidence is something that is slowly peeled away from young girls like the layers of an onion. Our traditional society sees confidence as unladylike, too aggressive for a young girl. Confidence is yet another trait that is glorified and encouraged for boys. So, young women jazz musicians might have been stripped of those protective layers of confidence by the time they hit the stage on a professional level. It is not their fault. And, of course, that insecurity is seen first.

I work with a lot of younger students and really enjoy teaching. When the subject of sexism arises I choose to focus on the positive and pass on problem solving tools to help manage a patriarchal environment. I pass along these 3 tools:

1. Master your craft. Practice hard and when you think you have practiced enough, practice more. Because a woman will always have to be more qualified.

2. Find a mentor! A mentor will help guide you in your early years as a professional musician. My mentors helped me navigate through all kinds of adversaries. I owe so much to Walter Salb, Michael Carvin and Lenny White.

3. “Each one, teach one.” – Michael Carvin. The only way to become a true master is to pass it on. I enjoy teaching as much as I enjoy performing. And, every time I teach young boys, I have the opportunity to transform their perception of “the drummer.” They will, from that moment on, understand that drumming is for all genders. And they might even go home that day idolizing a woman drummer.

Men and women need to work together to attain true equality. The work cannot be one-sided.

TC: You mentioned before that you often compose with different players in mind. So how do personal and stylistic dynamics end up shaping the inner workings of your various groups?

AM: I feel very lucky. I have found the perfect combination of musicians for my music. And the hang is fantabulous! Attaining this combination is a rarity and I feel blessed that I, as a bandleader, have gotten out of my own way and let the band flourish ... let the music happen.

Boom Tic Boom is my band, but when forming the band, I knew I wanted to bring onboard artists who would approach my music with uniqueness and a true collective spirit. Essentially I put together a band of bandleaders ... a band comprised of strong personalities. I also knew I did not want BTB to be a platform for drum solo after drum solo. I wanted BTB to push me as a composer and bandleader so each member would feel equally showcased, while still keeping my compositions the centerpiece. I wanted BTB to have a long shelf life, blossoming at a slow and steady pace. My aspirations are coming true.

Boom Tic Boom is a family – Jenny, Todd, Myra, Kirk, and Ben. Of course, with everyone’s busy schedule, I must sometimes bring in other players, but that list is very short and each person on the list is like a close 1st cousin: Gary Versace, Carmen Staaf, Brad Jones, Haggai Cohen Milo, Chris Lightcap, Jeff Lederer, Ron Miles, and Shane Endsley.

Personalities off the band stand are as important as the music each member contributes on the bandstand. We spend a lot of time together and I want to have a good time. That is not to say we never have hiccups, but our communication is wide open and none of us have interest in stirring up drama. We have all moved past the drama phases of our lives. Well, at least we like to think so. Ha. We also share similar political and social values, a priority for family, adventurous spirit, a deep love of cuisine, and similar hang paces.

On the bandstand we share the following values, which have become the BTB sound:

A collective spirit, sense of humor, appreciation of full range dynamics, ego-less expression, freedom to move between genres, openness to stay in the moment allowing the music to take us to new places, pacing, patience, love of space, and most importantly, a willingness to jump off the cliff together.

Each member serves a specific purpose. Todd is my partner. He advises me, directs me and keeps me on track ... especially when my flamboyant personality takes over. And, he and I don’t always agree, which can fire start some great musical tension. Jenny is the dreamer. She makes sure we are always reaching for the stars, never resting on our laurels. She demands that we respect dynamics, that we slow down, take our time and enjoy the slow build. Jenny lays fairy dust on the bandstand while still keeping us rooted to a true folk tradition. Myra maintains a beautiful balance between consistency and spontaneity. She has a deep respect for the composition and keeps the music on track, but when I least expect it, she is able to let go of all boundaries and propel the music forward with wild abandon. She is the heartbeat of BTB.

Kirk and Ben’s sounds work perfectly together. When combined, whether in unison or harmony, they become one and the discrepancies and tonal rubs create a new and soulful sound. They also play off of each other like two kids passing a soccer ball back and forth. And they know just when to support other soloists by bringing in interesting and often spontaneous background parts. As soloists, both of them always surprise! They are masters of juxtaposition, and harmonic, rhythmic, and phrasing tension.

When it comes down to it, I don’t want players who will sight-read my music perfectly, play as if they are a metronome, and display flourishes of virtuosity every solo. I want players who will breathe new life into my music. Players who will lift my notes off the page, respect them but also crumple them up, stretch them out, flip them over, multiply them, break them apart, and throw them back on the page, sometimes landing on completely different ledger lines. I want players who will eagerly engage in a musical dialogue. I want players who will challenge me, defy me, frustrate me, make me laugh, make me holler, and make me excited to do it all over again on the next stage. Sounds like family, right?!

I want us to tumble into the dressing room after each show as if we just landed from a mind-blowing trip to outer space ... laughing and shouting “What the fuck just happened?! That was awesome!”

We’ve played over thirty shows, celebrating the music from Otis Was a Polar Bear, in the past three months. No two shows have been alike. Boom Tic Boom is organized chaos within the context of chamber jazz and I plan on being together thirty years from now.

TC: In a similar vein, compared to Boom Tic Boom, how do you approach composing for and performing with smaller ensembles, like Honey Ear Trio or Lean?

AM: Honey Ear Trio and Lean present completely different sonic palettes than Boom Tic Boom. Both are based off the traditional saxophone trio, but in different ways, catapult the tradition ahead to current times by mixing in elements of digital electronics and looping. There is more room to play with harmony, time, rhythm, dynamics and form since there are fewer players involved and no chord based instruments (guitar, piano). But, Honey Ear Trio and Lean’s similarities stop there. Rene, Jeff, Jerome, and Simon have unique personalities and each personality shines making HET and Lean very different from each other.

Honey Ear Trio is a true collective. It is a muscular trio. We rehearse frequently and each potential composition is work-shopped, sometimes painstakingly, until it and its arrangement fits our band vibe. We never bring sheet music to stage. Everything is memorized. There is a lot of motion in HET and we thrive on dramatic use of dynamics, space, and juxtaposition. For HET, I write music that will serve as a strong vehicle for motion and collaborative improvisation. I steer clear of complex arrangements. I focus on a strong melody, or rhythmic idea that will highlight the elasticity of HET and our long history of making music together. The arrangements happen spontaneously on the band stand. Jeff, Rene, and I also come from a straight-ahead jazz tradition so I like to bring in music that swings. I like the way Rene and I thump together ... walk the dog.

“Arby” was specifically written for HET. It is in honor of the masterful singer from Mali, Khaia Arby, and pulls inspiration from her music. But it is also rocking like a Black Sabbath song that has been flipped upside down. Rene’s gritty distortion aggressively commits to the rock and Jeff matches Rene’s presence by passionately committing to the Mali-esc melody with vigor and heart like Khaia Arber herself. I bridge the gap vacillating between the rock and 6/8. The bridge highlights our extreme use of dynamics and time play (duple and triple layering). And the beginning of the improvisation section draws on our band chemistry and deep listening skills. Rene and Jeff follow my lead in a series of hits that are out of time and randomly cued.

“Speak Eddie,” “Lullaby,” and “New Work” have also been recorded with Boom Tic Boom. “New Work” was actually first penned for HET but later, with BTB, morphed into what has now become “Otis Was a Polar Bear.” “Speak Eddie” is very open and serves as a perfect platform for HET’s love of spontaneous improvisation and free walking. “Lullaby” brings out HET’s sensitive side, allowing Rene’s bowed looping to flourish.

Lean started as a completely free trio. Eventually we organically started falling into tunes. Our sets would be one long song weaving in between free and melodic moments. But, we have always respected groove and it is an essential element of Lean. I didn’t write any new music for Lean. Instead I brought in tunes I had written over the years that I thought would serve the Lean approach to improvisation, commitment to the slow build, and deep listening. I brought in “Olney 60/30” because I felt it was meant for electric bass. Simon killed it!

My playing does differ in the trio setting. Especially with the use of electronics. Rene and Simon use electronics in very different ways. Simon is an electric player and is a looping expert. His looping and effects feel like a fully integrated part of his primary instrument and sound. He lays down a sonic bed of fluffy goodness for me to jump on. Rene is an upright master who chooses to mix in his electronics and looping in addition to his upright sound. He treats his electronics more like another instrument ... an added element to the trio. Both produce a full sound making the trio seem more like a quartet or quintet. As the drummer, I like to play the role of opposites. I like juxtaposition. Sometimes I imagine myself as randomly popping corn kernels in a cast iron frying pan. Or little minnows zipping around in a zig-zag motion. If Rene creates a loop based off of bowed long notes I might play random tiny staccato sounds around the kit using only metallic materials. Or I might choose to play long drawn out tom rolls while Simon pounds out a virtuosic and splendidly dense bass line.

I am always striving to let the music guide me. I am always myself but each musical conversation brings out different parts of my personality. It is a dialogue that is always shifting and deepening. Both trios are best when we stay completely in the moment and let the music take us for a ride.

TC: In reference to performance, how do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?

AM: There is nothing more special and energetic than a live performance. It is impossible to replicate the vibe of a live performance in the studio ... even when you bring in a “live” audience. There are many obstacles.

First of all, to achieve absolute isolation each instrument has to be in a separate soundproof room. This is Handicap No. 1! Music is meant to be performed by a group of musicians playing together in one room, not separated by walls, glass windows and doors. Not all current recordings are recorded with isolation but it is becoming less and less frequent for musicians, engineers, and producers to set everyone up in one room together.

Why are most folks leaning towards isolation? Well, this leads me to Handicap No. 2: Recordings require more editing these days and with pro-tools it is quick and easy to make edits. Bands come into the studio unrehearsed and unseasoned. It is not our fault. We don’t have as many gigs as the masters did back in the day. They were playing 6 or 7 nights a week. And would often play after-hours gigs as well. They could head over to Rudy Van Gelder’s or Columbia Records on an afternoon, set up quickly – in one room, and record an entire album in 5 or 6 hours ... first takes! It was just like another gig and they were so well rehearsed because they played together every night. The jazz community was thriving and, from what the masters have told me, recording was just a like a gig. It was a fun hang. No pressure.

Handicap No. 3: Our ears are changing. The digital age is slowing affecting the way we hear music. Young musicians, who could not avoid current pop radio growing up, have been raised on metronomic music that is over-compressed to make you feel like your head is being repeatedly conked on by the bass drum beater ... or you are being held captive inside the piano. Instruments are recorded too well or manipulated to sound too polished. The sound slaps you in the face, lacking any depth of field. I never hear anyone complain about the recording quality of classics like Brilliant Corners, Night Dreamer, or The Shape of Jazz to Come. So, why do we care so much now? I’m not saying the recording industry and technology shouldn’t have progressed and improved. I just think we have taken it too far. It is just too easy to change a sound with a plug-in or auto-tune program like Melodyne. Or change a rhythm by snapping it to a visual grid. These studio moves don’t make the music any better. I’d rather hear a singer hit a note flat but with energy, grit and soul. I’d rather feel the forward momentum of a band rushing than have a band playing to a click track. Sadly, time, pitch, and harmonic discrepancies, which were the elements that made my favorite classic albums magical, are now considered unacceptable in the studio. Everyone has come down with a bad case of “Perfectidus.”

Handicap No. 4: Too much pressure. Some projects require multiple days in the studio. But, unfortunately, most jazz projects don’t have a decent budget. Many projects can’t afford more than two days in the studio. This puts pressure on the artist to play well “on the clock.” And we all know that most musicians don’t perform at their best when the pressure is on with a time crunch. Musicians need to feel free to let the music take them on a ride.

Handicap No. 5: Headphones! This handicap circles back to Handicap No. 1. Because of isolation, musicians are required to wear headphones. Now, this is confusing and very awkward. We are supposed to be brilliant and creative but we can’t hear ourselves directly. We are hearing ourselves filtered through multiple mics, cables, pre-amps, effects, a console, more effects, more cables, mixer, and then headphones. We often choose to take one headphone off to achieve some kind of natural mix but this can make the music feel even more foreign. It is a constant battle. I have recorded 100’s of albums in my career and feel like I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with headphones. But, even now, I will sometimes get tripped up by a headphone mix and will find myself changing headphone positioning multiple times in the span of one recorded performance.

Handicap No. 6: It can be difficult to achieve the same energy as a live performance because the studio acts like a microscope. Most musicians are extremely hard on themselves. The control room is the microscope that highlights every flaw. You can’t get away with anything in the studio. And, of course, most musicians will hear flaws in their own playing that nobody else will even notice. But, this doesn’t matter because, hearing those flaws can still affect the confidence of the player ... especially if the musician is inexperienced in the studio. And, often times, the engineer’s rough playback mix will sound very different than the headphone mix. This can be very disconcerting. I will often opt to not go into the control room for play back.

Now, ironically, after all of my complaining, I have to admit ... I love working in the studio! I really do. I feel like a painter being presented with a blank canvas and all the paint in the world. I love putting on my “studio hat” and going to work. As a side-musician my job is to lift the music, make it feel good, make the artist feel like their work is being fully realized, while still keeping my integrity, creativity and being true to myself. It is a challenge that I eagerly accept. Every project is important and I always give 110%.

Even more than a side-musician, I love working in the studio as the artist, bandleader, composer, or producer. The studio can be such a creative space. I love the process of working with the engineer to find the perfect mic placement, mic choice, drum tuning, effects send, instrument placement, and control room rough mix. I love discovering new organic sounds in the studio. And I love learning from my mistakes. I always learn something new.

At the end of the day, I have learned to LET GO in the studio. I embrace its difficulties and welcome its challenges. I always make sure to have a good time and stick close to my buddies ... meaning I record with my longtime musical compadres. And, if nobody I know is on an upcoming session, I try my hardest to get one of my rhythm section partners on the session. I’ve realized that recording an album is like capturing a moment in time. It is like an audio photo album. And recorded music hasn’t even been around for that long ... maybe 110 years? But live music has been around for 1,000’s of years. Wow!

To me, music is meant to be performed live. I will never forget the first time I performed in front of an audience. It was exhilarating and I felt SO at home. The audience is just as important to the music as the musicians performing. The energy is being passed back and forth and every single person in the room is essential. Performing live is, honestly, the only time in my life I feel completely fulfilled.

I have so much respect for the masters who, repeatedly, crafted masterful studio albums. It is a true miracle to be able to convey energy as powerful as a live performance through the needle hitting the grooves of a vinyl record.

TC: In the same line of thought, what are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially in regards to archival copies (CDs, vinyl) versus more ephemeral formats (downloads, streaming)?

AM: The recording industry is in a shambles. Younger generations no longer value music as a tangible product. They don’t purchase recorded music. I’ve met millennials who have never bought a CD, vinyl LP, or MP3 in their life. They assume that music is this thing on a cloud somewhere that is FREE. And, they look perplexed when I ask, “What about the artist? How is your favorite artist supposed to make a living if you don’t pay for their recorded music?!” It is a complete disconnect. They hardly even understand the question.

My generation still remembers waiting in line outside a record store, sometimes overnight, just to get Prince’s new album the day it dropped. We would talk about it in school for months “What’s the single gonna’ be like?” “Who did the artwork?” “What does the artwork mean?” “Who wrote the liner notes?” The younger generations didn’t get to experience this. There is little excitement about a new release because it just appears online and you don’t even have to leave your bedroom to hear it. And, it has probably leaked, previous to the release date, because most labels are desperate for any social media traction. YouTube has become the place to make money and become famous.

I’m not blaming the youth for this mess. I’m blaming the recording industry, the publishing companies, the government, and even us artists for not establishing and fighting for fair laws regulating the streaming of music and video on the internet.

I am, obviously, against streaming. I am all for vinyl. I think CD’s were a fad and the only folks holding onto the CD ideal are record labels and radio stations because CD’s are easy to maintain, store, see, and spin. They are cheaper to manufacture and ship than vinyl. Shoot ... most folks don’t even have CD players at home and newer cars are manufactured without CD players. MP3’s sound like crap but proved to be instrumental in gaining exposure for obscure artists and listeners looking for the obscure. This was before it was so easy to download MP3’s for FREE and before companies like Spotify and Apple Music.

Streaming companies only benefit themselves. They don’t even benefit the consumer. The consumer pays a pitiful monthly fee receiving unlimited access to thousands of songs. But, how does this possibly benefit the consumer? It is a big scam ... poor sound quality, no artwork, no design, no liner notes, and most importantly...THE BIGGEST SCAM OF ALL – “UNLIMITED ACCESS!” This “Unlimited Access” actually shortens the consumer’s attention span making it nearly impossible to patiently sit through one album. Listening to and absorbing every note and lyric of an album used to feel like getting to know a new girlfriend or boyfriend. It was an exciting, slow, respected process and, with each listen, you would discover a new melody, lyric, or instrumental part. It was a precious process. Streaming companies and record labels have stolen this listening ceremony from us. Listeners are becoming more and more impatient. I’m curious to know the percentage of streaming subscribers who have actually listened to an entire album, from beginning to end, while streaming.

Streaming is basically dumbing down the average listener, hence dumbing down the music and making it nearly impossible for quality artists to secure recordings budgets from labels. That is why so many artists are resorting to “go fund me” and “Kickstarter” campaigns. And, honestly, anyone with a mind for business, an email address and a YouTube channel can raise the money to record an album and promote it. It is often the brilliant artists, who lack the mind for business, that get left by the wayside.

The big labels are barely hanging on. They are still trying to expand on an archaic business formula that doesn’t work with this modern streaming problem. Years ago, they should have fought for more stringent internet streaming regulations so as to protect their artists and subsidiaries. Now labels are folding left and right. And the ones that are holding on have little interest in discovering the next brilliant artist. They are just trying to stay afoot and are only interested in releasing HITS. Thus the success of song-writing houses. If one song hits it big then why not release 15 more songs that are written with the same formula ... guaranteed money makers. As I said, the music is getting dumbed down. What ever happened to a pop song with a good bridge?!

So where does this leave jazz? Jazz requires patience. It requires the listener’s full attention. Luckily, jazz listeners are a strong lot. They respect the music and the artist and understand the value of purchasing high-quality sounding music and supporting the community. Jazz is still a community. It is not an industry ... no matter how much the big labels have tried to make it so. Jazz is visceral and is always best when listened to and felt live. Jazz is living and breathing. It is best in small jazz clubs filled with musicians and listeners. It is best when the audience is so close to the stage that they could reach out and touch the musicians. Jazz is personal. It is about humanity. It is a social movement. It is impossible to disconnect the music from the musician/artist. And, jazz musicians will always record their music. We are creative folks who have to express our creativity. We will perish otherwise. It doesn’t matter if nobody buys it. We will always figure out a way to record again. We didn’t chose jazz ... It chose us!

Almost all of my vinyl and CD sales are generated on tour. The audience feels the energy of the music when heard live. The night feels personal and there is a strong connection between the music, the musicians and the audience members. People want to bring that energy home and buying a vinyl LP or CD is the perfect way to do so. The purchase becomes a memento of the evening.

Jazz has always been a grassroots movement. It will survive no matter what happens with the recording industry. It is the underdog who never gives up and always prevails.

The music business will survive only if streaming regulations are amended. I’m no expert but I would think imposing a “time limit” would force listeners to buy a complete song or album. And the streaming companies would need to devise a program that could keep track of how many times a listener has played a song. There should be a playback limit and then purchasing is required.

Podcasts are one positive product of the Internet. Many listeners learn about new music via podcasts and they are a safe way for artists to get exposure.

The best way to end this madness would be to organize a universal boycott of the streaming business. I would think even a one week boycott would send a strong message and quite possibly put streaming companies out of business. Shall we?

TC: What projects do you have planned for the immediate future?

AM: I’ve always got my hands in a few cookie jars. I love the whole process of creating a new project. I’ve got two albums coming out in September and October with my collaborative bands: Honey Ear Trio’s Swivel and Lean w/ Jerome Sabbagh and Simon Jermyn.

I am also musical director and composer for “And Still You Must Swing.” – a new tap dance show led by Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards, featuring Derrick K. Grant, Jason Samuel Smith, and Camille A. Brown.

I have a duo with Toshi Reagon: Holler & Bam. Our album, Big Light, is just about cooked and ready to serve.

And, I’m scheduled to record two new projects in the beginning of 2017 – a new piano trio with Carmen Staaf on piano and Matt Penman on bass. We will also have two very special guests joining us on horns. I’m keeping it a secret for now. Carmen is my new favorite pianist. She is so damn swinging and modern at the same time. And she has such a big sound. I can’t wait to record this album with her.

The other project is a dream project. I want to make a Shelly Manne tribute album. That is all I’m going to say for now.

Oh, wow ... I forgot to mention Boom Tic Boom. I am always writing for Boom Tic Boom. That band is my baby. I plan on recording our next album in the Fall of 2017.

See, I definitely have an appetite for cookies! Ha.

© 2016 Troy Collins

 

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