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  • Glenn Siegel

Allison Miller Wows SRO Crowd at IMA

Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom, expanded to a sextet for a six-week tour, stopped at June Millington and Ann Hackler’s magical oasis known as the Institute for the Musical Arts in Goshen for a transcendent Mother’s Day evening of music. It was a Jazz Shares joint.

The material, all written and wonderfully introduced by Miller during the concert, had a pop music knack for simple declarative melody. Her heads became stuck in our heads. It occurred to me that Boom Tic Boom shares that quality with Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth, who wowed us last month in Greenfield. After both shows, a number of folks who do not listen to a lot of jazz told me how much they enjoyed both bands, and bought the record. Of course, both bands employ the music’s best improvisers, who imbue the written material with the mystery that comes from mastery.

Miller has long had a foot in what we call the music industry. Years of essential service with Ani DiFranco, Natalie Merchant, Brandi Carlile, Toshi Reagon, the Meredith Vieira Show and Late Night with Seth Meyers, have given her a good idea of best practices. She has a professional tour manager, and a real tour. These things are rare in the jazz world I inhabit. It’s cool. It’s the difference between selling CDs and having a merch table. There was flair everywhere: in Miller’s look, in the ease of engagement with the standing room only audience, in the music.

What an evening of music. The musicianship was through the barn’s roof. Kirk Knuffke, cornet, Ben Goldberg, clarinet and the exotic, serpentine contra alto clarinet, Jenny Scheinman, violin, Myra Melford, piano, Todd Sickafoose, bass and the leader on drums, formed a formidable ensemble. At this point in the tour (21 down, 3 to go), they were a well-oiled machine, down with the material and in sync. They drew from their new record, Otis Was a Polar Bear (Royal Potato Family.)

That Miller was at IMA, one of the premier women centered spaces in western Massachusetts, with her partner Rachel and their almost two year old daughter, Josie, on Mother’s Day, felt right. The band dinner, lovingly prepared by Priscilla Page, (“our first home cooked meal on the tour,” Miller told the assembled), left us satisfied and in a happy frame of mind. The energy in the room was high, and the band responded.

Half the band stayed over night in Goshen, half at our place. After Myra went to bed, Priscilla and I sipped our way into the wee hours with Ben and Kirk. Ben told us that the person who first put a clarinet in his hand was Willie Hill, who taught in the Denver public schools in the late 1960’s and 1970s. Goldberg called him the most influential person in his musical life. (Ben also mentioned a thrown music stand, and Hill’s insistence on learning to read music.) Dr. Hill, now Director of the UMass Fine Arts Center, was in attendance, making Ben more than a little nervous before the gig.

Knuffke, 20 years Ben’s junior, is also from Colorado and moved to Denver as a 20 year old. They did not meet in Colorado, but have become fast musical friends. Kirk also had a demanding and pivotal public school music teacher, Mike Smith from Ft. Collins High School, who yelled at him to improve until his senior year, when he would call him into his office and hand him records like John Zorn’s Naked City and Henry Threadgill’s Where’s Your Cup. Knuffke also told an amazing story about Denver guru Ron Miles. If you are a promising trumpeter in the Denver area, you study with Ron Miles (who has long associations with Myra Melford and Bill Frissell.) After it became clear that the limitations of his instrument was holding him back, Miles gave Knuffke his $14,000, custom-made Monette cornet, on condition that he play it and not have it collect dust. He’s used it non-stop since.

Thanks to Ann and June, who cut short a trip to Hawaii, for hosting. The great vibe and rustic charm of IMA, combined with the superb musicianship in egoless service of dynamic compositions, made for a special evening of music and fellowship.

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