Musician profile | Allison Miller: Full spectrum

D.C. native Allison Miller performs with the Honey Ear Trio at Bossa Bistro this weekend. Courtesy Fully Altered Media

by John Cook
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Drummer Allison Miller – one third of the Honey Ear Trio, which plays at Bossa Bistro this weekend – has deep ties to the D.C. area.

Walter Salb, who taught many local professional drummers over the years, was Miller’s first teacher when she was growing up in the Washington area. He quickly started introducing her to seasoned musicians – and to jazz. “The first time I played at Blues Alley, I was 14 or 15 and sat in with Charlie Byrd,” she said. By high school Miller was subbing for Salb and playing most of the local clubs of the time, including the One Step Down, Twins Lounge in Takoma Park, The Officers Club at Andrews Air Force Base, The Zoo Bar and many more. “I really owe D.C.,” she said. “Every time I meet someone from D.C. playing in New York I feel like we have the same feel.”

CapitalBop’s John Cook interviews Allison Miller (full audio) [audio:https://www.capitalbop.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Allison-Miller-interview-edit.mp3|titles=Allison Miller interview]

Miller’s versatility and ambition led in many musical directions. After moving to New York City 15 years ago to pursue straight-ahead jazz she got the opportunity to join with Natalie Merchant, and then other adventurous singer-songwriters and pop and rock acts. “That opened me up to a whole new world and broadened my scope,” she says, helping her develop her personal combination of straight-ahead and other creative improvised elements as she pursued her voice in jazz.

Miller clearly has a gift for composition, favoring well-constructed melodies that she first develops on piano: “I just want my songs to be a launching pad for the players… I play exactly what comes from my heart… I’m not very good at playing the same thing twice, so it’s always very spontaneous and creative.”

The Honey Ear Trio's debut

Her memorable themes, wide range of experiences, and relentless exploration come together in her own band, Boom Tic Boom, which Miller says is “the first project that I feel truly represents myself as I want to be represented,” as well as in collective efforts like the Honey Ear Trio. The band – which also includes saxophonist Erik Lawrence and bassist Rene Hart – just released its debut CD, and stops through D.C. on Sunday night at Bossa Bistro in Adams Morgan.

Miller believes very strongly that continuity of band members is the basis for the conversation from which the music develops. “Creative improvisational music,” she says, “is a visceral music. Everybody’s gotta be in the same room and feel the vibrations of the instruments and music and personalities. It’s such a communicative type of music. That’s why I’m so particular about having bands with only these members in them. I don’t have a sub.”

As an educator she stresses the importance of both preserving and developing tradition. Another of her teachers, Michael Carvin, said to her: “The only way to become a master drummer is to pass it on,” and Miller carries that spirit with her.

“The way to keep the music alive and keep the community is to pass along the knowledge,” she said. She laments that the state of music today prevents most musicians from being able to woodshed and work together as a regular unit. “There was a time when bands played six nights a week for two-month stints at one club that allowed people in the band to flourish. Now you’re extremely lucky to have five or six nights in a row with the same band … for improvisational music,” she said.

Miller had a rare opportunity like that with the Honey Ear Trio. Though the members had been playing together for a long time in many contexts, the havoc the Icelandic volcano wreaked on her schedule last year gave the group “a chance … three or four nights a week over two months … to rehearse and get the music together.”

Listeners will be able to savor the fruits of that collaboration on their new CD, or here in D.C. this Sunday night. Miller says this “extremely dynamic” trio plays its music in “completely different ways every time, always improvising and changing things up … We’re all about spontaneity.” Though “very acoustic,” the group uses a sax-bass-drums format that’s also leavened with an adventuresome use of effects on the bass (simultaneously processed through a laptop), gently fusing the timbres of the traditional saxophone trio with modern electronica.

Allison Miller and the Honey Ear Trio perform this Sunday at Bossa Bistro. The music starts at 8 p.m., and there is a $5 cover. Find more information on the gig here.

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