Allison Miller: Breaking Ground
AM: When I moved back to DC after finishing school I was living with [my parents] and gigging in DC. I got a call from a pianist friend in New York to go up there, and then I started going pretty frequently and just loved it. In my mind I had told myself that I wanted to stay in DC and work on my art for five more years before moving to New York. But then when I started gigging in NY I couldn't get enough of it; I moved there within two months of graduating college. I had made no plans, but it just worked out. A friend of a friend had an apartment available in the city. Back in the mid-nineties you could do that for pretty cheap. It kind of just fell in my lap and I just went for it.
I had saved up some money and moved. And somehow it just worked out. I played in subways, any session I could get. Whenever my phone rang, I took the gig no matter what it was. That got me a lot of playing experience and threw me into being an adult making a living playing. It wasn't easy at all. I probably could not go back to my lifestyle then and how I was living.
But it was fun. I was 21 and I loved the city and the '90s were a really good time in NY. A good time to hang out, to hear music every night. There were a lot of good jam sessions back then where you could just go and play. I would go and play and get my butt kicked. I would learn everyday about the history of the music, how to play with other people.
New York was a really great place for me when I was young. It humbled me. I threw myself into a city with two thousand drummers who were better than meor at least different from me musically. It was really humbling. When I finished college I definitely had a sense that I had learned it all. Then I moved to New York and realized, 'Oh, wait I haven't learned anything yet!"
AAJ: Let's talk a little about your playing style. You've had great success in the jazz world, but clearly also parallel success in other genres, particularly singer/songwriter. Comparing those two, what keeps you focused on jazz drumming?
AM: Those two genres fulfill two very different things for me. Jazzor I like to say creative, improvised musicthat is my first love. That is why I fell in love with the drums. I love the ergonomics of jazz drumming. I love the music. I love listening to the music. When I am home that is the type of music I usually listen to. It fulfills the need for interplay and musical communication with other musicians on stage which is to me why music is music.
Just last night I played a completely free jazz, avant-garde gig. We'd never rehearsed. We don't have any music. We just get up there and play. To me that is the epitome of music. When three people can get on stage and communicate musically, talk to one another back and forth, with their instruments. That is the epitome of music.
Jazz music really fulfills that side of me. I love the feel of jazz. I love the Count Basie Orchestra. I love Duke Ellington. I love Sunny Murray. Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell duos. I love the whole gamut of the musicwhether swinging or straight or free to me it is just all beautiful and it hits me in the soul.
Singer/songwriter music fulfills the side of me that was before I got into jazz. I did listen to a lot of singer/songwriters when I was younger and I do now as well because I [also] play that kind of music. My first love of any kind of music was Prince, Michael Jackson, Joni Mitchell,Jimi Hendrix. I loved all those artists so much. For me, it fulfils that other side of me that likes a really well written song, with good lyrics, with a good groove that is danceable.
The other thing I love about singer/songwriter music is when a singer makes an album that is really well produced. I produce as well [and] I love being in the studio and finding the right guitar line to go under a lyric, the perfect drum part to fit the lyrics. I love finding the right sound for a song. The beauty of singer/songwriter music to me is that when you are playing the drumsand often the drum parts are fairly simple and sparse, I actually love space in drummingI love finding the right timbre for a song. I could put a two and four-backbeat groove under a handful of songs, but each one I treat with a different snare drum sound or a different cymbal sound, or make the snare sound rattley. These little intricacies that you can do to change the timbre and the feel. I think my OCD side really enjoys the process of finding the right part.
AAJ: I did notice that you pay a lot of attention to the sound. It was interesting to hear you within one song slightly shifting the snare sound. One thing I also noticed is your brushwork. It seemed to me that you use your brushes differently than many others and in different contexts. Often it's like here's the ballad and out comes the brushes. But you seem to use them more frequently and more forcefully. It was a real pleasure to listen to.
AM: I get what you're saying that the brushes are always pulled out with ballads. But I love the sound of brushes on a drum head. I've always resonated to that sound and I do choose to use them more forcefully. It is not something I actually think about that much. Right in that moment I hear brushes and pick them up. I remember that night actually, it was our first show. I think I took a solo on brushes that night. I hadn't planned on it, but the brushes were in my hand at that time and instead of switching I thought, "Why not?" and it felt really good for me.
When it comes down to it playing brushes is more difficult than using sticks. It takes more muscle control. So I have all my students practice their drum rudiments with brushes. There is a particular exercise that I do that I teach my students as well. "Alan Dawson Rudimental Rituals." It is about a twenty minute exercise that Alan Dawson the great drummer wrote. Dawson taught Tony Williams, Terri Lyn Carrington, so many great drummers. And I studied with a drummer that studied with him. We all learned this rudimentary ritual which is a great exercise. And I have all my students do it with brushes. That really improves brush playing.