The most poignant music is often inspired by watershed events in an artist’s life, and few occasions are more transformative than the arrival of one’s first child. For Allison Miller, the extraordinary drummer, composer and leader of her band Boom Tic Boom, that life-affirming experience provided the seed that led to the creation of her new full-length studio album, Otis Was a Polar Bear (The Royal Potato Family: April 8, 2016). The album, with violinist Jenny Scheinman, cornet player Kirk Knuffke, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, upright bassist Todd Sickafoose, pianist Myra Melford, and Miller on drums and mallet percussion, is Miller’s latest collection of 10 original compositions following her 2013 critically acclaimed No Morphine, No Lilies, which Downbeat Magazine said “reveals her exemplary chops and stylistic breadth.” The birth of Miller’s (and partner Rachel’s) daughter Josie found the NYC-based drummer reordering her priorities and the very way in which she approached her art.
As Miller settled into the parenting groove, as she resumed playing and composing she quickly realized that her art was naturally evolving to reflect the path her life had taken. Josie is the muse for her latest works, and Miller’s compositions chart an inspirited soundtrack to the beginnings of a new life chapter. “I have so much patience now,” Miller says. “There’s something very humbling about being a parent. I feel joyful and grateful and I’m writing and playing with this fresh perspective, this new world of creativity has just been hatched. It’s like I’m doing it all for the first time.” That joy and revived enthusiasm is truly evident on Otis Was a Polar Bear, the title of which owes itself to an imagined dream of Miller’s dog, a tiny, 12-pound Havanese. “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.”
Miller, praised by the All Music Guide as “one of the finest drummers on the scene, but also one of the most innovative compositional voices,” began writing Otis Was a Polar Bear during the summer of 2014 while touring with lauded singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant. Over the past few years, she has also been involved with Toshi Reagon and Dorrance Dance’s “The Blues Project,” which features many of the world’s finest tap dancers. “The Blues Project” reinvigorated her approach to the drum kit to be more akin with the movements of a dancer and renewed her connection to danceable grooves. Following the recording sessions for Otis Was A Polar Bear at Fantasy Studios (Berkeley, California) with producer Hans Wendl (Tin Hat Trio), she returned to New York City to work as the drummer for the national TV program, The Meredith Vieira Show.
Miller’s approach to composing Otis Was a Polar Bear deviated from her previous work. Instead of exclusively composing on the piano, which is how she’s always written, she utilized the bass (electric, upright), vibes, drums, guitar, and mini-keyboard (enabling her to write just about anywhere). On these various instruments, she discovered an entirely new sphere of exploration that matured her arrangements, allowing her to scribe specifically for each idiosyncratic band member.
Winning a 2014 “Presenter Consortium for Jazz Grant” from Chamber Music America enabled her to fully realize her latest works through repeated performances and workshops prior to the recording sessions. Once in the studio, with guidance from producer Hans Wendl, Miller allowed the compositions to come alive with each musician’s intuitive feel and improvisational mastery at the forefront. “Each member of Boom Tic Boom is an incredible bandleader in their own right. They’ve all influenced me tremendously. While recording, I began asking myself what special qualities do they bring? Why am I so drawn to them? I really wanted the band to come away from the recording and say, ‘Wow! We really just made something special.’ I wanted them to feel like each of their unique styles were fully represented.”
Miller breaks it down, “Boom Tic Boom is really a group of friends and we’ve been playing as a band for eight years.” She continues, “We love each other, trust each other and are true collaborators. It’s been such a time of crazy change and deeply letting go, so I intentionally decided to have that approach in the studio too. I wanted it to be playful, with lots of experimentation, and to approach it with a beginner’s mind.”
Every track on Otis Was a Polar Bear tells a compelling story. The opener “Fuster” was written for Miller’s daughter, Josie, and influenced by the Cuban artist José Fuster. It started as a silly made-up melody sung to Josie in the first weeks of her life, but coalesced into a full-fledged piece after a few months of not being able to shake it from the drummer’s head. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, “Staten Island” was inspired by the senseless and tragic killing of Eric Garner by the hands of the Staten Island police. “I sat down at the piano feeling hopeless and filled with rage. This is what came out,” Miller says. “There are a lot of quick changes and energetic shifts, and the song never resolves.”
Among the other highlights, “Shimmer” was penned in the Philippines, as was “Pig In a Sidecar” – a song whose melody never repeats and builds to a crescendo. “The Listener” was written for a music-obsessed friend of Miller’s who died suddenly, while “Hoarding the Pod” came about while Miller – in what she describes as an over-caffeinated state – was recording with Natalie Merchant. The album’s closer “Lullaby For Cookie” is a lullaby written before Josie was born (she was nicknamed Cookie while still in the womb).
Come April & May 2016, Miller’s exuberant fanbase will be able to experience Otis Was a Polar Bear live at venerable music venues across the country, including at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola – Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, MASS MoCA, and many others. Tour dates will be announced in early 2016, please stay up-to-date on allisonmiller.com