I’ve written in the past about the humble, ensemble-oriented approach of drummer Allison Miller, who first earned her bread working with folk-pop artists such as Ani DiFranco, Natalie Merchant, and Brandi Carlile. Her band Boom Tic Boom has always been good, with a terrific collaborative lineup and arrangements that privilege a smart, composerly flow over grandstanding solos. But Miller’s skill as composer has never been more apparent than on her terrific new album, Otis Was a Polar Bear (Royal Potato Family), whose ten ingratiating pieces she wrote for her new daughter, Josie (this also helps explain the title, which certainly sounds like it belongs to a children’s story).
Previously Miller has written exclusively on piano, but this time she moved among various instruments, including bass, vibes, keyboard, and her usual drums. The bigger shift is in mind-set, though, not in method. In the press materials for the record, she notes that parenthood has brought her new patience and “the beauty that comes after a storm.” The music is richly melodic, with a sense of purpose that never hurries or overextends itself. It helps that she’s got such a killer band, all group leaders on their own: pianist Myra Melford, violinist Jenny Scheinman, trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, and bassist Todd Sickafoose.
As usual, Miller doesn’t draw attention to herself, even though her drumming is crucial to the group. She infuses spot-on Jamaican grooves into the opening track, “Fuster,” whose melody comes from a spontaneous song she sang to her infant daughter during her first few weeks; on the album’s closer, “Lullaby for Cookie,” written for her daughter while she was still in the womb, she coaxes subtle pings, surging sizzles, and abrupt crashes out of her cymbals, helping the beautiful melody along.
The album isn’t all about baby love, though: Miller wrote the visceral, episodic “Staten Island” as a response to the killing of Eric Garner. Goldberg blows turbulent feints and jabs over Melford’s dark, masterful left-hand rumble, while Sickafoose plucks violent, tangled notes against Miller’s tightly coiled, halting phrases, and then the entire song breaks into a galloping explosion of piano and drums—the waves of anger and frustration keep coming, with no clear resolution even at the end of the piece. Below you can check out the album’s playful title track, which also uses a reggae groove; Scheinman’s sharp pizzicato punctuates a lovely, dancing melody played by Knuffke and Goldberg, before Melford adds a magisterial line and the song takes on a swirling swing.
Han Bennink and Uri Caine, Sonic Boom (816 Music)
Matching Mole, Matching Mole (Esoteric/CBS)
The Feldman Soloists, Morton Feldman: Crippled Symmetry: At June in Buffalo (Frozen Reeds)
Various artists, The Kings and Queens of Township Jive (Earthworks)
Flatt & Scruggs, The Complete Mercury Recordings (Mercury)