Women Of The Drum: Allison Miller and Sofia Goodman
I’ve written here in the past about the close but mostly unexplored ties between Americana and jazz, because I love both and I like to encourage fans of the song-centered styles of roots music to spend time with its multifaceted instrumental side. I’m especially fascinated by artists who’ve made their lives straddling those worlds, as with this String from 2021 with violinist/songwriter Jenny Scheinman. And recently, I caught up with a close colleague and friend of Scheinman for another conversation about roots and branches - drummer and composer Allison Miller.
Miller is a star in today’s New York scene as leader of her own band Boom Tic Boom and as part of the Blue Note Records supergroup Artemis. The jazz press loves her and Paste magazine has called her “powerful, creative and assertive.” I’ve been a devoted fan since I discovered her 2016 album Otis Was A Polar Bear, because her rhythmic improvising is enthralling and her music strikes a balance between the delicious and the challenging. And at some point I learned that Miller also has an extensive history with folk and roots artists, including tours or records with Brandi Carlile, Ani DiFranco, and Toshi Reagon. So what explains that?
Miller grew up in the DC area and played the drums from age 10. Even before she graduated from West Virginia University and moved to New York, she was spotted as an up and comer by jazz observers. Yet her first years in the scene led to a surprising turn in her journey.
“When I first moved to New York, I was maybe 21 or so, and I had the bebop jazz hat on. And I was like, this is what I do. This is all I do. And then next thing you know, I'm touring with Natalie Merchant,” she says in Episode 270 of The String. Merchant, pursuing a neo-folk direction after her run with 10,000 Maniacs, was looking for a flexible and musically skilled band, and Miller made a good fit. While Miller gigged around New York playing straight jazz and some pretty avant-garde stuff as well, the world of songwriters kept pulling her in. She still tours with Merchant 25 years later, and word spread that she was good at and interested in backing up singers.
I ask her if she thinks the two worlds are very different from the drum kit?
“I don't think I approach it that much differently. I try to play what the music calls for,” she says. “In fact, I think that probably the singer-songwriter work I've done over my career has influenced me more than anything else as far as how I approach jazz.” She describes how Natalie Merchant especially helped coach her in dialing back her instinct as a jazz player to be heard at all times and to serve the song, something she takes to her instrumental work today. “I was 23. I needed it. I appreciated it,” she says.
Miller’s newest project and the core of this conversation is an instrumental song cycle she composed called Rivers In Our Veins. Commissioned and supported by a grant from the Mid Atlantic Arts Organization and Lake Placid Center for the Arts, the work for jazz ensemble and tap dancers (yes, that’s right) is inspired by specific river ecosystems that Miller visited and researched. She tells me about letting natural sounds and cycles inspire motifs in the music and about her desire to evoke the spirit of Pete Seeger due to his pivotal work in river restoration around the Hudson River. The work is presented on tour with eleven musicians and dancers. And we hear several of its rich and varied tunes in the hour.
“Of Two Rivers” is a two-part longer work that opens the album. In Part 2, we hear a solo tap dancer’s intricate rhythmic discourse give way to a fat, cyclical groove held down by bass player Todd Sickafoose (a long-time colleague of Miller), over which the brass instruments state a theme and establish the solo section of the piece. “Fierce” has more of a rock backbeat with juicy, oddball riffs and some gorgeous low-register soloing by Ben Goldberg on the bass clarinet and Scheinman on the violin. “Riparian Love” shows Miller’s deftness at pure composing, in that it’s a moving ballad for piano that’s entirely written out and played by pianist Carmen Staaf. There’s no drum parts here at all, but when Miller does play on the other tracks, she’s always speaking through the instrument in a way that is unobtrusive yet unignorable.
The album provokes conversation about integrating the drums with the tap dancers, about the nature of composing while playing a non-harmonic instrument, and the sadly anemic conversation about jazz among younger people in the media.
Also in the hour, a nationally up-and-coming drummer/composer - and a devotee of Miller - who lives and works right here in Nashville. Sofia Goodman is a Massachusetts native, a Berklee and Belmont music school graduate, and a ten-year resident of the city. In 2022 and 23, her Sofia Goodman Group has been ever-more visible at local venues and regional gigs. I learned about her as the pandemic was winding down in 2021 and investigated her debut album of 2018, Myriad of Flowers. It was solid and showed promise as a new voice in contemporary jazz, but her follow-up, 2023’s Secrets of the Shoreis a quantum leap. It received a four-star review in Downbeat magazine and was named Best Jazz Album of the year by the Nashville Scene.
By coincidence Goodman also had water on her mind as she conceived this music for a nine-piece ensemble. Oceanic swells and rushing surf seem to pervade the music at harmonic and textural levels, but so does a satisfying helping of fusion funk. “Skipping Stones” opens with washes of azure color before settling into a semi-calypso groove where a phalanx of horns establish a jaunty theme. The first solo comes from electric bass player Leland Nelson, which is a refreshingly unorthodox plan. Goodman lets us really hear her sophisticated voice on the kit at the opening of “In Barbara’s Mist.” My favorite cut I think is “Coast To Coast” with its contrasting passages and rich, close harmonies.
In a town where songwriters are often asked where their songs come from, it is really something to try to get one’s head around where such layered, challenging musical conceptions come from. Goodman says it may be more like songwriting than people suspect. “When I'm writing, a lot of times I'm singing,” she says. “And so it's more about me connecting with my inner voice and just being open to where the sounds are going. And that's my composition process most of the time.”
That even applies to her rhythmic ideas; she’ll sing beats as part of the process. “And I think that's starting to even shape the music more and it’s just helped me even get deeper into the pocket when I'm composing. I'll sing a melody, and then I'll play it back on the piano. And then I'll try to sing the drum part or do something rhythmic along with what's being written.”
It’s a mysterious process, but the results are indisputable. Find her upcoming shows at Rudy’s, City Winery and elsewhere here.