Allison Miller Wows SRO Crowd at IMA

by Glenn Siegel

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.









Jane Ira Bloom Enters Emily’s World

by Glenn Siegel

To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, on Wednesday and Thursday I tasted life. It was a vast morsel. It wasn’t the circus that rolled past, it was Jane Ira Bloom and her ensemble that came to Amherst to interact with the enduring legacy of the great poet. Bloom, the remarkable soprano saxophonist and composer, was at the center of three events culminating in the April 28th world premiere of Wild Lines: Jane Ira Bloom Plays Emily Dickinson, performed at Bezanson Recital Hall at UMass. It was the concluding concert of this year’s Magic Triangle Jazz Series, produced by the Fine Arts Center.

The day before Thursday’s spellbinding performance, Bloom, actor Deborah Rush and pianist Dawn Clement spent the afternoon at the Dickinson Museum and Homestead, soaking in the spirit of the Belle of Amherst. Along with Bloom’s husband, the celebrated actor and director Joe Grifasi (The Deer Hunter, Ironweed, The Bronx is Burning) and Rush’s husband Chip Cronkite, a videographer of note, our entourage was given an exclusive tour by Executive Director Jane Wald. A lovely reception was followed by a short musical performance in The Evergreens, Austin Dickinson’s home. With Clement playing the family piano, Bloom on saxophone and Rush speaking Emily’s words, 35 invited guests were transported on this “bright Wednesday afternoon.” It was clear Bloom and company understood the profound poetics of visiting and performing in Emily’s space.

The next morning at Amherst Media, Bloom, Rush and Wald joined me for an engaging conversation about Dickinson and her deep effect on generations of readers. The discussion will be available on channel 12 in Amherst and on line, at Bloom’s aha! moment concerning the poet came during a New York Public Library presentation by scholar George Boziwick, Chief of the Music Division of the Library’s Performing Arts branch, who was at the UMass concert. When Bloom learned Dickinson liked to make things up on the piano, it confirmed for her the felt improvisatory nature of Dickinson’s poetry and started her to writing Wild Lines.

A Chamber Music America New Works grant allowed Bloom to bring Clement from Seattle, where she teaches along side Tom Varner and Wayne Horvitz at Cornish College of the Arts, and hire Rush, whose extensive credits include Broadway productions of Noel Coward and Wendy Wasserstein, films of John Schlesinger, Woody Allen and Sidney Lumet, and the TV shows The Good Wife, Law and Order and Orange is the New Black.

Grifasi, an extremely affable and focused guy, “directed” the concert, setting up the stage with a hanging lace curtain, much like the one that hung on Dickinson’s famous window. On the opposite side of the stage were a vintage table, rug, hurricane lamp and chair. Rush, dressed in a flowing white dress much like the one Emily often wore, moved through the space, even sitting at the piano next to Clement. Rush was such a professional, so convincing with every gesture, expression and utterance. That professionalism was tested when the lavalier mic she wore came loose about half way through the program. While behind the curtain, she discreetly removed it from her dress and held the unit in her hand the rest of the way.

The pace of the 80-minute performance was brilliant, with just the right amount of words and music. Having long-time collaborators Mark Helias on bass and Bobby Previte on drums must have been of enormous comfort to the composer. Not only blessed with rock solid time and temperament, both are extremely compelling soloists and possess gorgeous tone variety on their instruments.

Jane Ira Bloom is one of the top saxophonists in jazz and the premiere soprano saxophonist of our time. Constantly moving as she played, making large arcs with her instrument to provide dynamic range, her vitality on stage was a thing to behold. The writing was gorgeous, full of slowly spooling, deeply grooved lines.

As if there was not enough star power in the room, Meryl Streep was in the house. A friend of Bloom and Grifasi from their days at Yale University, Streep made the trip from her home in Salisbury, Connecticut. While news of her siting prompted about 30 young people to congregate outside the Hall, my partner Priscilla Page was as impressed with the presence of Anne Catteneo, dramaturg at the Lincoln Center Theater and an authority in the field. I was equally excited to meet Steve Elman, the veteran WBUR jazz host, who in the late 1970s, gave me my first taste of what jazz really sounded like.

Wild Lines will next be performed at The Kennedy Center in October and then at the NY Library’s Lincoln Center space. We were thrilled that the premiere of this work took place in Amherst and that we could play a role in making it happen.