by MITCH RITTER
Last Saturday night at No’Po’s Alberta Street Pub in a roomful of Blue Cranes and Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom, a flock of musical explorers valved into the cramped yet acoustically balanced back-room cabaret like a dusky late summer sky turned dark with Vaux Swifts whirl-pooling wave upon individualized swallow-diving wave into the Chapman School chimney and drawing forth nearly the same volume of boisterous cheer at the scale and finesse of such a graceful feat.
Call it a bi-Polar program as NYC-based session drummer Allison Miller took her break from TV band and recording session work across a wide range of pop music to pursue her own compositional muses and record a new album with her musical collective of choice at Berkeley’s Fantasy Studios. Po’Town’s own pioneering free-form combo Blue Cranes built their focused opening set around their own recently recorded and collectively improvised piece “Polarnatt” (Polar Night in Swedish) released nationally on blue vinyl and CD by Cuneiform Records/Discs. That dynamic album’s title, Swim, resolves any question about this improvising group of composers’ ability to navigate air and sea or outside jazz and indie rock currents.
Like Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom, Blue Cranes’ opening set also featured a refreshingly colorful and composing drummer in Ji Tanzer. Starting off with a ruminative new piece by alto saxophonist Reed Wallsmith and currently titled “Lonely Coyote,” Blue Cranes took flight by improvising anew some pieces from SWIM, flying intuitively through some heavy Northwestern skies, shores and mournful interior landscapes on “Polarnatt.” Guest bassist Sam Howard drew lone pulsing tones like sensations of pointillistic communion through its theme, suggesting the icy flickering of stars just beyond a soft snowy night.
The Blue Cranes’ all-too-brief set also featured familiar local set pieces like Ji Tanzer’s surging composition “These Are My People” that retained its grooving organ-double bass-reedy dual sax melody line while venturing off into more concise and clipped solo-ing and sparring eddies of a wet and warming spring flow.
Front line horns in Wallsmith’s playful if probing alto and Joe Cunningham’s sly yet forceful tenor contrasted well from piece to piece and from inventive arrangement to fresh spontaneous improvisational breakdowns into duet, trio, quartet and eventually rejoining themes as a lithe and limber quintet.
Keyboardist Rebecca Sanborn sent some vintage organ sustains spiraling surprisingly through the room (no big bulky Hammond B2 in sight), creating a new older texture for these forward looking frequent flyers and most companionably finding Howard’s fulsome harvest of timbres and tones on double bass. Smiles of secret NW hand-shake recognition could be seen spreading around the packed standing room audience faces as local cult rock songwriter David (of Pedro the Lion band dates) Bazan’s “Harmless Sparks” came into focus despite its jazzy paradigm shift.
I hadn’t been aware that Allison Miller was going to be dropping by KBOO (90.7 FM Community Radio) a few hours before her band Boom Tic Boom took the stage at Alberta Street Pub. The interview with local radio arts producer-host Yugen Kelsaw on his always surprising Saturday afternoon free-form jazz, r&b, soul, experimental-world aural collage show The Motif followed an opening hour of nearly continuous and uninterrupted multi-source musical flow. (Audio archive remains posted for two weeks at KBOO web site.)
By the start of the second hour, Yugen and visiting composer-bandleader Allison Miller proved themselves to be artists capable and comfortable improvising conversationally with whatever unscripted questions and spontaneous passions could be called forth by comparing Miller’s formative drumming influences citing bookend recording artists not primarily appreciated as drummers, Prince and Stevie Wonder, along with Miles Davis’s introduction of young jazz fusion pioneering drummer Tony Williams.
This is not any kind of paint-by-numbers standard celebrity walk-on commercial TV or radio spot. Awkward, like sponsors don’t usually appreciate, but listener-sponsored KBOO specializes in, intimate being the missing ingredient from cookie-cutter formatted radio, engaged listeners got to hear two edgy if centered in their own way improvising artists enthusiastically talking about common muses that emerged from their parallel musical paths. Interviewer Yugen noted the many and varied stops coast to coast coming up on Allison Miller & Boom Tic Boom’s Otis Was A Polar Bear Tour tour, a rarity for any musical project playing such challenging material (moreover, barely a year and a half after bringing Miller’s top priority creative work into being, her daughter!), then got off the best line I’ve heard asked of any musical road warrior during this terminal Presidential election circus season: “How’s your delegate count coming along?”
For her Portland concert, Miller’s delegates included new Boom Tic Boom members Kirk Knuffke on trumpet looking like he just stepped out of a Tolstoy or Dosty novel and Ben Goldberg on clarinet(s) with Israeli double bassist Haggai Cohen Milo standing in for founding Boom Tic Boom member of previous Po’Town appearances, Todd Sickafoose.
Elbows akimbo pianist (and member of Oakland, CA’s Mills College faculty of experimental new music composers and improvisers) Myra Melford offers deep and widely-established new music explorations. An oasis for listeners of far-ranging tastes, each time Melford comes to town she seems to reveal different if always passionate inspirations. Just check out the series of YouTube clips from her residency last year at John Zorn’s East Village experimental wood shed The Stone with an astonishing range of collaborators on different March 2015 evenings and spotlighting so many far-flung regional and stylistic collaborations and compositions brought to life by the improvising composers, including her Boom Tic Boom collaborator Ben Goldberg and Chicago flutist/composer Nicole Mitchell.
Back during our Waters of March rain season, in my anticipation of this evening’s line-up and previous Boom Tic Boom visits, I got carried off by Melford’s Spindrift project honoring the undersung Chicago AACM member Leroy Jenkins, who brought his ‘outside’ violin into the Chamber Psychedelic Jazz of the so-called Enlightened R&B-Soul-Jazz early ’70s era through groups such as the Revolutionary Ensemble or the more radio-friendly marketing niches sometimes associated with pioneering Chicago arranger-producer Charles Stepney. Jenkins, who passed away in 2007, then toured mostly solo on some of the world’s more outside gallery/loft jazz circuits while also being invited inside to Canada, Latin America and Europe’s finer concert halls and state-run television studios to share his unique violin-led research and new music compositions.
As it happened, in Portland, Melford did get to meld with another jazz violin explorer not too far afield from Leroy Jenkins in spirit, yet bringing her own landing gear in a perhaps rootsier acolyte of Leroy Jenkins’ peripatetic chamber jazz/loner violin in Jenny Scheinman. Some of Miller’s pieces gave rootsy Scheinman (a regular in Bill Frisell’s bands featuring the 858 String Quartet) the chance to pick, pluck and strum her fiddle to marvelous effect, complementing Miller’s often percolating beats.
Ben Goldberg added unexpected expressionistic tones and textures like a Mediterranean Eric Dolphy from his clarinet and big bass clarinet, while Knuffke spiraled in and out with grace and restraint on trumpet. Miller’s arrangements don’t leave Knuffke nearly enough room to spread his wings or fins. Melford’s Cuban clave touches emerged just as unexpectedly in pieces like “Fuster” that may have listed towards avant klez but wound up in Allison Miller’s quick drum kit hands traversing the Caribbean island abetted by laid-back double bassist Haggai Cohen Milo leaning, more than merely standing in for Boom Tic Boom’s studio and previous road warrior Todd Sickafoose. What an unpredictable yet swinging rhythm section!
From behind Allison Miller’s drum kit, percussion trees, xylophone and vibes, one could make out the composer/bandleader’s bobbing head and cat-quick hands. Miller’s compositions flashed the first flourishes of spring time, even if the new album with this unique line-up does open in humidity redolent of Cuba and is titled counter-intuitively Otis Was A Polar Bear. One hopes that Polar Bear (actually Miller’s fluffy family dog) kept his head above water cuz the sound of this ensemble was flowing. Tempos kept shifting poly-rhythmically with a tricky sense of swing. Melford can go from jagged keyboard time to deconstructed melodic extrapolation and segue telepathically back into Miller’s swinging cadences in the tilt of her expressive face.
Boom Tic Boom’s set ended pensively, however, on a lovely piece dedicated to a friend of Miller’s whose unexpected passing evokes the melancholy in her composition, titled “The Listener (For Josh Cantor).” While the crowd was willing, the meditative depth of that transporting last sketch, a musical memoir of memorable moment made any kind of follow-on encore unnecessary.
Mitch Ritter is a former Bay Area journalist for SF Weekly and The Bay Guardian. More recently he has covered the live music scene in Northern California and the Northwest for the international World Culture & Music newsstand magazine Dirty Linen, which was succeeded by an online incarnation, and an irregular contributor to The Outside World, airing over KBOO (listener-sponsored community radio 90.7 FM terrestrial in Po’Town streaming online sidereal to the wider world) beginning at midnight on Friday/Saturday morning.