Renowned jazz drummer, composer, teacher and bandleader Allison Miller is back with a new album, the first since 2013’s acclaimed No Morphine, No Lilies. Alongside a top notch band in Boom Tic Boom, Otis Was a Polar Bear catches Miller at a watershed moment in her life, not just as a growing musician, but now as a parent. Drawing great inspiration from her daughter Josie, Miller explains the departure from her last album to this most recent studio effort. “The last record was about such intense hardship and pain. This record is the other side of all that—it’s the beauty that comes after a storm.”
The album opens with the bright, sultry Latin flair of Ben Goldberg’s charming clarinet play on “Fuster.” Inspired by Cuban artist José Rodríguez Fuster, the composition has its origins rooted in everyday life, this particular track, an unshakable melody Miller had sung to Josie in the first weeks of her life. Likewise, “Hoarding the Pod” comes from an over-caffeinated state during a recording session with Natalie Merchant. Its frantic, supercharged intro takes a backseat to a mellow groove supplied by Miller, finally giving way to the controlled chaos of Jenny Scheinman’s violin boiling over, Kirk Knuffke’s cornet beaming and Myra Melford making it rain piano keys.
With a beautiful and thoughtful pairing of “The Listener” and “Lullaby For Cookie,” Miller delicately bridges the gap between life and death, the former written for a music-obsessed friend who died suddenly, while the latter was written for Miller’s daughter Josie before her birth. Miller’s relatively minimalist approach on these arrangements packs a significant punch.
The album’s title track, “Otis Was a Polar Bear” evokes great imagery, not unlike the Melford-lead “Pig In A Sidecar” or “Shimmer.” Scheinman’s playful strokes and plucks on “Otis” are accented by Knuffke’s and Goldberg’s summit of brass and woodwinds while Miller and upright bassist Todd Sickafoose fill out a highly active and invigorated rhythm section.
“Slow Jam” certainly lives up to its name. Miller’s simple, elegant groove is guided through the slow burner by a steady bass line and fantastic interplay with Melford and Knuffke. Miller’s final selection,”Staten Island,” was written after the tragic killing of Eric Garner by Staten Island police. “I sat down at the piano feeling hopeless and filled with rage. This is what came out,” Miller says. As in the case of Garner, there are a lot of moving parts to this track. Scattered flurries from Goldberg’s clarinet are mirrored by Milford’s frenzied piano before Miller is finally set off like a stick of dynamite into a righteous rock groove. When the groove begins its descent it’s left with only the sombre notes of Knuffke’s waning cornet.
From traditional rock and jazz themes to the avant-garde variety, Allison Miller’s Otis Was a Polar Bear will present something of significance for the ear of any listener, whether the casual jazz fan or the most hardcore fan of fusion. Her chops are undeniable as is her ability to compose and elevate the separate links of her band in a way that reflects a focused and unrestrained sound.
Otis Was a Polar Bear is set for release April 8 on Royal Potato Family. You can watch a behind the scenes video on the making of the album below, and don’t forget to check out Miller’s upcoming tour dates, as she and Boom Tic Boom will be out on the road this coming spring.
Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom Spring 2016 Tour
4/8 Seattle, WA @ Royal Room
4/9 Portland, OR @ Alberta St. Pub
4/10 Arcata, CA @ Kate Buchanan Room HSU
4/14 Santa Cruz, CA @ Kuumbwa
4/15 Los Angeles, CA @ The Blue Whale
4/16 Berekely, CA @ Freight and Salvage
4/17 Half Moon Bay, CA @ Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society
4/27 Bloomsburg, PA @ Bloomsburg University
4/28 Erie, PA @ Mercyhurst Institute for Arts and Culture: Walker Recital Hall
4/29 Lewisburg, WV @ Carnegie Hall
4/30 Roanoke, VA @ Jazz Club at Jefferson Center
5/1 Baltimore, MD @ Creative Alliance
5/3 Charlottesville, VA @ Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church
5/5 New York, NY @ Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola
5/6 New Haven, CT @ Firehouse 12
5/7 North Adams, MA @ MASS MoCA
5/8 Goshen, MA @ Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares: Institute for the Musical Arts
5/13 Philadelphia, PA @ Ars Nova Workshop: Philadelphia Art Alliance
5/14 Washington, DC @ Kennedy Center: 21st Annual Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival
7/1 Iowa City, IA @ Iowa City Jazz Festival