July 21, 2024

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CD review: Allison Miller & Carmen Staaf – Nearness 2022: Video, CD cover

As relationships evolve, a special language can develop between partners. This language can foster new ways of approaching syntax and messages that have been often repeated. The duo of drummer Allison Miller and pianist Carmen Staaf found their voices together with repeated, enthusiastic involvement in a variety of musical settings.

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic made it necessary for social distancing necessary in all aspects of life. Miller and Staaf’s response to this distancing was to heighten their intimacy through music. Their new recording, Nearness, shows just how much their bond has grown and their creativity has blossomed.

Miller and Staaf were originally introduced by bassist Todd Sickafoose in 2015. The two jumped right into a productive partnership, including monthly “lab sessions,” where they would meet and rehearse their new musical ideas. The two found that they had a very special improvisatory and rhythmic chemistry. Their initial discoveries were documented on their debut album together, Science Fair (Sunnyside 2018).

Opportunities to work with each other continued to multiply. Miller invited Staaf to participate on an homage to Shelly Manne’s 2-3-4 album, a 1962 recording of the legendary drummer in duos with different participants. The project wasn’t completed but it left Miller hopeful for more work with Staaf. The pianist then joined Miller and violinist Jenny Scheinman in their co-led ensemble, Parlour Game, and she is instrumental to Miller’s new project, Rivers In Our Veins.

While still trying to resurrect the Manne recording, Miller and Staaf reconvened for another recording session but the onset of the pandemic and the initial shock of not having played with anyone for months left the results in the can. The two did start their monthly sessions immediately, building up repertoire and revisiting ideas that they had experimented with previously. They began to focus on building their body of material but freeing it from the structure that had once defined it. They wanted music that was free to go anywhere.

The pair showed up at New York’s Eastside Sound recording studio in May 2021 with a deepened approach and a beautiful Yamaha CFX piano provided by Staaf’s new sponsor. With two days to work with, Miller and Staaf tried a new approach to creating an album together: Letting go.

The recording is made up of original compositions and a couple of standards. A number of the pieces emerged organically just from the act of sitting down, playing, and letting the music come together on its own while honoring melody and a sense of time, even while playing free.

The recording begins emphatically with Miller’s “Dan Dan,” a pop-like tune that emerged around the Manne project. Staaf has owned the piece since its first reading, thus the duo’s rousing and novel rendition here. During the pandemic, Staaf learned to have a new appreciation for outdoor activities. On “Blue Thrush,” Staaf uses a recording that she made of a bird song after a 5K race in the Bronx Zoo as a countermelody in a wistful, moving blues. Originally recorded with Parlour Game, Miller’s frenetic “Top Shelf” is a musical equivalent to one of her sayings concerning the absurdity of getting drunk on top shelf liquor.

Hoagy Carmichael’s “Nearness of You” appears as if by magic as the duo freely set up a mood evocative of Yusef Lateef’s gorgeous ballad “Plum Blossom.” Staaf’s blues, “New York Landing,” is supposed to conjure the feeling of landing in New York City and finds its Big City momentum from an Elvin Jones inspired 3 against 4 rhythmic feel. Staaf returns to winged inspiration on “Birds,” as she captures the polyrhythms and different repeating melodies that she heard while she intently observed birds in her neighborhood. Miller’s “Beans and Rice” is her favorite for the duo. It is a straight ahead nod to heroes Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington with a playful manner and a classic swing.

The duo’s version of Monk’s “Ask Me Now” sings with a gorgeous, conversational reading. Staaf’s piano flourishes unintentionally lead into “MLW,” the pianist’s frequently played tribute to the legendary Mary Lou Williams. The duo arrive at their swinging musical destination in a much different way than their initial recording of the tune from 2018. The album concludes with the contained energy of Staaf’s “Chant,” a delicate musical meditation or protest, whichever is needed in response to these tumultuous times.

As their relationship evolved, Allison Miller and Carmen Staaf chose to capture a moment as their communication and trust deepened on Nearness. Their sonic conversation expresses nearness without the need for proximity or even words.

1. Dan Dan (6:13)
2. Blue Thrush (3:09)
3. Top Shelf (6:45)
4. Nearness of You (3:12)
5. New York Landing (5:52)
6. Birds (5:17)
7. Beans And Rice (4:59)
8. Ask Me Now (3:24)
9. MLW (5:02)
10. Chant (2:43)

Allison Miller – drums & percussion
Carmen Staaf – piano

Nearness | Allison Miller & Carmen Staaf | Sunnyside Records

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