Drummer roundtable: Allison Miller & Carl Allen

Last February, as part of our annual 3-concert young artist series Monk in Motion: The next face of jazz, Tribeca Performing Arts Center presented the three finalists in the 2012 Thelonious Monk Competition. The medium was the drum and we presented bands led by young drummers Jamison Ross (2012 winner), Colin Stranahan, and Justin Brown on successive Saturdays. Each concert was preceded by our customary pre-concert humanities program and for the February 2 series kickoff concert, featuring Ross, I had a sort of roundtable dialogue with two vastly experienced drummers (Dianne Reeves once cautioned me once that you should never refer to a woman as a “veteran”), Carl Allen and Allison Miller.

To spark our dialogue I chose several tracks to spin, most featuring drummer-bandleaders, to get these two exceptional and versatile drummers’ sense of some of the classic drum masters as well as a few of their peer drummers. This wasn’t a Blindfold Test or a Before & After session per se, just an opportunity to listen to some great drummers’ ideas and get these two contemporary drummers’ impressions of what they heard. What transpired was a fascinating dialogue, and this is the first of two parts that will run in The Independent Ear.

Carl Allen’s most recent recorded effort is as a member of bassist Christian McBride’s band Inside Straight (“People Music”, Mack Avenue). Allison Miller’s latest recording with her band Boom Tic Boom is “No Morphine, No Lillies” (The Royal Potato Family).
Drum dialogue

Cozy Cole “Concerto for Cozy”
Cozy Cole
Carl Allen: I enjoyed it, it had a bounce to it and to me that’s one of the things that if I had my druthers in terms of what I’m going to listen to, that would be it; not necessarily this idiom per se, although I do love that… but just the whole feeling of the bounce; its happy, its got a forward motion to it. It reminded me of Zutty Singleton and Papa Jo, I enjoyed it; the call & response was very creative.

Allison Miller: I agree with Carl about the bounce; immediately it was like “yes”… To me if it feels good that’s pretty much the key thing. The other thing I loved is that you could really hear the drummer’s bass drum in this recording, you could hear him feathering the bass drum and with a lot of old recordings you can’t hear that, so I enjoyed that. I think because you can’t hear the bass drum a lot in older recordings a lot of young drummers go into university or college and no one has told them about feathering the bass drum, at least that’s my experience. They come into big band and they’re not playing the bass drum, and then when they do play the bass drum its just really loud. So I think that’s a special art form that’s kinda being lost.
Allison Miller

Jo Jones & Milt Hinton “The Walls Fall”
Jo Jones & Milt Hinton
Allison: That was amazing; I was not expecting the brushes to come in like that. I don’t even know what to say, that’s what I strive for, with brush playing, right there.

WJ: You mentioned feathering the bass drum being somewhat of a lost art; is it the same with brush work?

Allison: I think, yeah; I hate to admit it but I think it is. [Turns to ask Carl] Do you agree?

Carl: Absolutely.

WJ: So what did you think of that track?

Carl: I loved it, and whoever it was – if it wasn’t Papa Jo…
Carl Allen

WJ: It was Papa Jo Jones; it’s a very special recording, a duo recording with Milt Hinton.

Carl: Yeah, “Percussion & Bass.” I’m a little biased but I think that’s the most important relationship in the band, between the bass and the drums. Because, as my good friend Christian McBride says, it’s the foundation and you don’t start building the house from the roof. It’s the bass and the drums that create the dance and allows for the rest of the band to float on top. And if you just check out the history of jazz recording its no accident that you will see the same bass and drums as a team on a lot of different recordings. We can do word association and say – Elvin [Jones] & Jimmy Garrison, Tony [Williams] & Ron [Carter], Paul Chambers & Philly Joe [Jones]; we could go on down the list for the next six hours…

It’s no accident because, Allison, I’m sure you’ve experienced this, quite often when people call you they’ll say “so and so (a bass player) asked me to call you, I’ve got this record date. Or they’ll say ‘what bass player do you want to play with’, it happens all the time.

Allison: Exactly.

Carl: But technical mastery… I love that [“Percussion & Bass’] recording. You got a collection there… that’s out of print, you don’t hear that too often!

Max Roach & Dizzy Gillespie “Georges Cinq”
Max & Dizzy
WJ: Another duo; in that case Max Roach & Dizzy Gillespie. What’d you hear there?

Carl: Creativity. The thing that always amazes me about Max , for my personal taste. he is one of the few drummers who can keep an audience’s attention just by playing solo, for a long time. When I first moved to New York in 1981 (New Jersey at the time), Max would do solo concerts from time to time, and would play duo concerts with rappers and poets.

WJ: …And he could take the hi hat and entertain you for fifteen minutes with just that.

Carl: Absolutely. And if you think about his career, its very fascinating in terms of all of the different things that he’s done – not only from being a pioneering bebop drummer, but if you look at what he did with M’Boom, that was really incredible.

I remember talking with Dizzy after a concert we had in Japan, it was really a moment that helped to cement my mantra; it was August 16, 1987 and I said to Dizzy – you know Dizzy was always the kinda person who was laughing and joking, and he’s backstage sweating and laughing about something. I said “Diz, I really wish I was around in the 40s and 50s…” He stopped and said “Carl, why would you say such a thing” – as if it was offensive. I said “just to be there when you guys were creating bebop.” He said “that was an important time, but the way that all great art is created is that there’s a foot in the past and a foot in the future and that you’re moving forward with a sense of tradition.”

That reminds me very much of Max because he was very much a traditionalist, but always moving forward, always trying to create something different And that to me was the epitome of what the bebop musicians were; that’s what bebop was, it was a revolt from what was going on previously.

Allison: Max was always such a great composer and drummers are underrated for their composition and he’s always been a big inspiration for me with composition, same with Jack DeJohnette. The way Max tied social change and political change to his music… Everybody was doing that during the Civil Rights movement, but he was just very literal about it, which I really appreciated that statement when I started listening to Max. The way he would combine a gospel choir and drums – “Motherless Child” is amazing – and the way he combined string quartet and drums. He was constantly thinking out of the box.

I was listening to that track and I loved that looseness of it; sometimes I think that looseness is being lost, the way each beat breathes. He was keeping that ostinato pattern going with his feet. The other drummer who does that, who my whole life I’ve just obsessed over, is Edward Blackwell. He’s the other guy to me who could just hold an audience with a solo.

Roy Haynes “In The Afternoon”
Roy Haynes
WJ: What can you say about Roy Haynes?

Allison: [Laughs] How long do we have?

Carl: I’m glad you’re first [laughs]…

Allison: He’s the definition of modern jazz, even in that recording he still sounds younger than any drummer I know! He’s had that sound… It’s just incredible to me that he has that tight, crisp sound and he’s so musical. You probably know him personally; I think Carl should talk because I don’t know [Roy] personally…

Carl: Yeah, but you know what you felt [laughs].

Allison: Talk about forward motion! That felt so good.

Carl: Roy is an interesting case study, on many levels. One, he defies age. But the thing that’s amazing to me about Roy – and you can go back and check him out with Bird, or with Chick Corea, the list goes on and on… But conceptually speaking his style never really changed much, but it always sounds fresh! I remember mentioning that to him once, and he said “I hadn’t thought about that before, but you’re right.” I mean it always sounds fresh.

In a strange kinda way it reminds me of Louis Armstrong; you could listen to records of his and he always sounds like he’s about 20-30 years ahead of the rest of the band conceptually. But [Roy’s] ride cymbal just floats; the way he’s able to play across the bar line and have conversations between the limbs is just amazing.

I remember once we were playing with Freddie [Hubbard] at the Blue Note and [Roy] was in the dressing room, he and Stanley Turrentine, just kinda hanging out. So Freddie wants to show off because there’s some guests in the dressing room. He says “Roy, get in here with your little short, funny dressing self. You know I never could play with you, you’ve got a funny beat.” So Turrentine said, “you gonna take that?” They were sitting there drinking. So he said “Yeah, ok…”, he just let Freddie talk. He said “yeah, you got a funny beat, you dress funny and you’re short…” Of course Stanley’s saying “I wouldn’t take that…” So Roy says, “Funny beat, huh Hub? That’s funny man, ‘cause Bird didn’t have no problems, Pres didn’t have no problems, Mary Lou Williams didn’t have no problems…” And he went on and on until finally Freddie said “get out, get outta my dressing room…” Roy is really something special…

Allison: To me Roy’s ride [cymbal] sounds like what ice skating sounds like; like the feeling of ice skating on a pond, whenever I hear Roy’s ride cymbal. If I’m having a down day and just don’t feel like I’m locking in with my beat, I just play along to “After Hours” from We Three [Haynes with Phineas Newborn and Paul Chambers] and then life is good again.

Carl: The thing that’s interesting to me about Roy, his playing goes against what we’re taught as drummers. Like when you’re young just about everyone tells you when you’re playing the crash cymbal, hit the bass drum to give it some weight. Roy doesn’t play the bass drum with the crash cymbal! I mentioned that to him and he was like “yeah, OK, so what?” [laughs]. He just said “that’s how I hear it.” So much of what he does goes against conventional wisdom. He’s amazing…

Tony Williams “There Comes a Time”
Tony Williams
WJ: Kind of a mantra like quality there…

Carl: Not sure who it was, but I dug it…

Allison: Tony [Williams], right? Lifetime.

WJ: Yeah, the Ego record.

Allison: [Sings] “There comes a time…” he sings on that record, I love his singing. I love that record, and that song particularly. I really obsessed over that song when I first bought that album. I bought the vinyl and just listened to that song over and over.

WJ: Had the same effect on me.

Allison: Tony was the reason I started playing drums, from Miles Smiles. I remember I was little playing drums – I grew up in Maryland – and I was listening to early hip hop and stuff my parents listened to, like Earth, Wind & Fire, the Meters, Prince, Michael Jackson and all that stuff.

Then I started taking drum lessons and somebody gave me a Buddy Rich record and now I’d be into it, but at that point I wasn’t into it. And then somebody gave me Miles Smiles and I was totally taken the second I heard Tony Williams play. I said “oh, that’s what I want to do!” The way he was interacting with the band… Big band at the time, the Buddy Rich big band, I just couldn’t connect at the time. But Miles, whew… Tony’s the reason I started drumming; I saw him play a lot but I never really hung a lot. I studied with Lenny White, which was pretty close!

One of my favorite drummer-led records was [Tony Williams Blue Note date] Spring…

WJ: …With Sam Rivers

Allison: Which I think was [Tony’s] first record; I love that record!

Carl: [Tony] was very young then…

Allison: Yeah, he was very young.

Carl: The interesting thing about this particular track [“There Comes a Time”] is how the role of the drums changes; its not so much that he’s a timekeeper, but he’s playing a lot of colors and creating a lot of moods, which is really hip. Tony to me was a genius. I asked Alan Dawson, who had Tony as a student at 12, about the hi hat thing that he used to do with Miles, playing quarter notes. And [Dawson] said when he came in for his first lesson he was doing that and he hadn’t seen anyone do that. So he said [to Tony] “what is that, why are you doing that?” Tony said “that’s what I hear.” [Dawson] says he was always grateful that he never asked [Tony] to change that; he just said “if that’s what you hear, that’s what it is.”

[Tony] had a concept at 12! He started playing with Jackie McLean at 16, before he played with Miles. Tony was unbelievable.


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