When Downbeat Magazine wrote that “Allison Miller’s sponge-like love of all things musical could only mean she was destined to play it all,” the venerable jazz publication had not yet even heard the drummer and composer’s sophomore release with her Boom Tic Boom band, No Morphine, No Lilies (The Royal Potato Family, Release Date: April 16, 2013). But they were right on the money: this leading-edge quartet’s new music—featuring Myra Melford on piano, Jenny Scheinman on violin, Todd Sickafoose on bass and Miller on drums—is at turns challenging and accessible, teasing and tough, virtuosic but never overbearing. It thrives on surprises and projects a vast array of tonal colors, rhythmic and harmonic shape-shifts and rich emotions.Featuring 11 compelling and far-reaching compositions, No Morphine, No Lilies—co-produced by Miller and Sickafoose—confirms that Allison Miller is not only, as the L.A. Times put it, “one of the most promising drummers in the game,” but one of the most forward-thinking jazz artists of today.
Recorded last year at Berkeley’s Fantasy Studios, No Morphine, No Lilies—which also features specials guests Steven Bernstein (trumpet), Ara Anderson (trumpet), Erik Friedlander (cello) and singer Rachel Friedman (on the track “Once”)—delivers on the promise first suggested by Boom Tic Boom’s 2010 self-titled debut. About that release the All Music Guide wrote: “Miller has hit on a winning combination…despite the fact that all of these musicians are leaders in their own right.”
It’s precisely because each of the core players is experienced with taking charge that each contributes so significantly to the music’s direction, at times taking command individually and at others contributing subtle shadings to the broader portrait being crafted by the group.
And make no mistake, No Morphine, No Lilies is intended to be absorbed precisely that way: as one extended, interconnected work. Miller calls it “a journey, meant to be listened to from the beginning to the end. I believe in creating a group of songs that represent a body of work. Not individual tracks that have nothing to do with one another. The order of songs on a record is really important to me.”
The recording begins with the intense “Pork Belly,” which is, says Miller, “kinda like letting a horse out of the gate. It really showcases that we are a real band. A lot of these songs are focused on composition, but a really important element of our ensemble is showcasing our prowess as improvisers, individually and collectively. I also wanted to have more of a fun party track to start it off, so the whole record isn’t just a collection of more introspective tunes.”
Acknowledging that “there are so many different types of genres on the album,” Miller and the group glide seamlessly from their own brand of forceful postbop into luxuriant balladry and off into idiosyncratic improvisational parts unknown. A good part of the reason No Morphine, No Lilies leaves such a lasting impression is that it rarely stays in one place for long—the restless imaginations behind these jams would never stand for that, and the music is more irresistible for it.
That diversity of spirit becomes apparent with the second track, “Early Bird,” which features Friedlander’s cello. The song represents “moments of peace,” Miller says. “I wrote it on a cold Brooklyn morning, last February. Feeling peaceful, I got out of bed, went directly to the piano, and that’s what came out.”
It’s followed by “Waiting,” which features the trio of Miller, Sickafoose and Melford. “I love this track, it’s my fave tune on the record,” says Miller. “While staying at a friend’s house in Seattle, I spent an afternoon playing his upright piano, and this song just came out. ‘Waiting’ is about dealing with how to move on after a tough time, what it feels like trying to get out of a really dark place without knowing how to.”
The composition “The Itch” comes next in the sequence, which features Anderson’s trumpet. The track, Miller notes, “is my musical representation of having an itch and finally scratching it. Weird junk pieces were used on this track,” she adds, explaining the curious bed of percussion that underlies the recording.
“Speak Eddie,” with Bernstein on slide trumpet, is a tribute to Eddie Marshall, the great West Coast drummer who died in September 2011. “I wrote this song the day after he died,” Miller explains. “The melody is based on a five-note pattern he used to play. It definitely gets a little chaotic. The only song I wrote on the drums is this one. I always write at the piano, but this one I wrote on the drums.”
That Miller is a furiously inventive player “whose parts are plain sick,” as Drum Magazine said lovingly, becomes apparent from the first moments of No Morphine, No Lilies, and if there are some old-schoolers out there who still cling to the fallacy that drumming is by nature a male domain, a track like “Six Nettes”—which Scheinman sits out, leaving the piano-bass-drums trio to its own devices—quickly lays waste to that dinosaur of an idea. Written by Lisa Parrott as a tribute to Ornette Coleman, the tour de force number has served as a Boom Tic Boom encore pick for the past couple of years. “At live shows I speed up the tempo during the drum breaks so the band has to guess what tempo I’m gonna come back in with. It’s so fun!” says Miller.
Switching gears and moods again, “Spotswood Drive” was penned for the late Walter Salb, Miller’s first drum teacher, whom she considers an important mentor. “His house was a mecca for the suburban kids—where we would go to listen to records,” she says. “It was the place to go to get cultured, take lessons and hang. He had a huge influence on me, musically and personally. His sudden death just a week before his 80th Birthday really rocked me. Even now, years later, I still miss Walt’s weekly phone call.”
In honor of the teacher—who played with vocal great Carmen McRae, among others—five years ago Miller started the Walter Salb Memorial Musical Scholarship Foundation, which gives money annually to a senior high school student from Montgomery County High School in Maryland.
“Once” was written by Jessica Lurie and features a vocal by Rachel Friedman. The lyrics, says Lurie, “are about a lot of things, somehow all connected in layers. It was inspired by being in the Midwest, feeling a sense of nostalgia for a simpler lifestyle and being homesick. It is in part about the impermanence in life, and not taking things for granted.”
“The Kitchen,” written by Melford, expounds upon the vital role that each member of the ensemble plays—that it fits like a glove among Miller’s own compositions says volumes about the simpatico relationship that these four inspired musicians enjoy together.
“Sun Comes Up the Reservoir” is the last of three tributes on the album to drummers who have passed away—this one written for the legendary Paul Motian the day after he died in late 2011. Says Miller, “I called it this because the first time I met Paul was while running around the Central Park reservoir at 8am. He was running too. Of course I stopped him and showered him with praises. I was maybe 21 and meeting one of my heroes was such a huge deal to me. All these really important people in your life die, and what do you do with that? I had to write music for them.”
Lastly, the curiously titled “Nuh-Uh, No Sir,” featuring Bernstein again with the quartet, “was written 15 minutes after I got the most ridiculous parking ticket, totally unjust,” notes Miller. “It then took me forever to find parking. I thought, when I finally get out of this car and get to a piano, I’m gonna write a song that lets me get out all of my anger and frustration.”
By now you are almost surely wondering what exactly the album’s intriguing title—No Morphine, No Lilies—is all about. Miller explains: “One night, as my girlfriend was falling asleep, I heard her say, ‘No morphine, no lilies.’ Those words kept swirling around my head, haunting me for days. When the words finally landed, I felt clarity about what these words meant to me. No morphine, no lilies: Don’t numb the pain, don’t hide it with beauty. Just step right in.”
Just step right in: That is exactly what Allison Miller, Todd Sickafoose, Myra Melford and Jenny Scheinman—Boom Tic Boom—do on this multi-layered, multi-faceted, unified collection of radiant and energizing songs. Just as Allison was haunted for days by the phrase that gave rise to the title, it’s difficult to envision that No Morphine, No Lilies won’t have a similar impact on anyone who comes into contact with the world these creative artists have produced.