Allison Miller has been the drummer of choice for musicians from Ani DiFranco and Natalie Merchant on the popular side to organist Lonnie Smith on the jazz side. She has spent years thinking and dreaming every day and every night about drums and grooves, drums and grooves.
Now, after experiencing motherhood (daughter Josie is 2) and other life adventures, all those drum thoughts and dreams are still there. But she’s also thinking more deeply about composing and collaborating than at any time before.
It shows in the freely grooving music of her band, Boom Tic Boom, which she’s bringing to the Blue Room on Thursday. The band includes well-known players in the realm of improvised music: pianist Myra Melford, violinist Jenny Scheinman, clarinetist Ben Goldberg and cornetist Kirk Knuffke. And they seem quite comfortable stretching out on Miller’s compositions, which were written and arranged with their styles in mind.
They’re on the road to promote a new album, “Otis Was a Polar Bear,” titled after a dream involving Miller’s small, very unbearlike dog.
The album and the band’s repertoire are full of new Miller pieces. “The older I get and the more settled into my groove I get,” she says, “I become more passionate about composition. If I have downtime, composing is where I get the most satisfaction, where in the past I was playing drums all the time.”
And as a drummer, she has a composing style that’s a little different. “I love drummer-composers because they already think outside the box,” she says — fresher approaches to harmony and grooves.
“Sometimes I’m so excited to find a new progression it gives me shivers,” she says. She describes a piece she’s working on now: “I’ve had most of the chords for a while. I could not find the last chord to put me over the hump. I finally found it last night. … It’s a slow process, but I’m OK with that.”
And that process of exploring carries over into her role as leader of Boom Tic Boom, a band of strong and diverse musical personalities. “I want to compose a tune where everybody can be featured and be happy with what’s happening. None of my records has been a big, bombastic drum-solo record. I think, ‘What are my favorite things about Myra, what are my favorite things about Ben, and how can we showcase that?’ ”
For all her individuality, Miller is quite the collaborator. She’s currently working with folk musicians, rock musicians and jazz musicians. There are so many collaborators that she’s afraid of leaving somebody important out.
On the jazz side, “I’m in (bassist) Ben Allison’s band. … I still play with Lonnie Smith some, and that’s a blast. He’s the real deal, and every time it feels like, ‘This is why I play jazz.’ I work with singers here and there — I’ve got some things coming up with Kate McGarry. I’m working with (former Kansas Citian) Steve Cardenas — he’s basically my favorite guitar player.”
On the folk and rock fronts, “I’ve been with Natalie Merchant for 20 years, on and off.” There was a long stint with Brandi Carlile. She’s a duet partner with singer/songwriter Toshi Reagon. And Miller recently spent some time on TV, filling in with the band on “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”
And the list of collaborators is ever expanding. One thing that’s very important to her right now is her role in music and dance projects. She’s heavily involved with Michelle Dorrance’s New York dance company, “the premier tap dancers in the world — they’re incredible improvisers.”
“Just hanging out with these tappers and becoming friends with them, seeing how they express themselves and improvise, I’ve learned a lot. It’s deepened my ability to improvise just from checking them out. Sometimes I video them and transcribe what they’re doing. … I’ve gotten so turned on by it that I’ve started taking some of their knowledge and applying it to the drum set.
“They want energy, they want edge.”
They picked the right collaborator. Miller has been supplying energy and edge in abundance all along.
The Boom Tic Boom band performs at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Blue Room, 1600 E. 18th St. Tickets are $10.
▪ The next session to be recorded for the radio series that pianist Tim Whitmer is developing with Green Lady Lounge boss John Scott will feature organist Ken Lovern’s long-running OJT band. It takes place at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Green Lady, 1809 Grand Blvd.; you’re invited.
▪ The Blue Room also has the Louis Neal Big Band at 7 p.m. Monday, pianist Roger Wilder’s quintet at 8:30 p.m. Friday and pianist Charles Williams and his Genre band at 8:30 p.m. Saturday.
▪ The Green Lady Lounge also has pianist Michael Pagán’s trio at 6 p.m. Sunday, followed by percussionist John Kizilarmut’s trio at 9:30 p.m.; guitarist Matt Hopper’s trio at 5:30 p.m. Monday, followed by trumpeter Stan Kessler’s Force 5 at 9 p.m.; pianist Roger Wilder at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, followed by the group Sequel at 9 p.m.; guitarist Danny Embrey’s trio at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, followed by OJT at 9 p.m.; Hopper’s trio again at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, followed by saxophonist Brett Jackson’s quartet at 9 p.m.; pianist Tim Whitmer at 5:30 p.m. Friday, followed by organist Chris Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7 at 10 p.m.; and another Kessler group at 6 p.m. Saturday, followed by Hazelton’s quartet at 9 p.m.
▪ The Westport CoffeeHouse Theatre, 4010 Pennsylvania Ave., has the debut of tenor saxophonist Brad Gregory’s KC Reeds and Rhythm project, featuring the full reed section of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Tenor saxophonist Matt Otto’s group performs at 7 p.m. Thursday.
▪ The Art Factory, at 5621 W. 135th St., Suite 2630, in Overland Park’s Prairiefire development, has trumpeter Hermon Mehari’s group at 8 p.m. Saturday.
Joe Klopus, 816-234-4751