Allison Miller: a drummer who dives in the current of rivers

Allison Miller: a drummer who dives in the current of rivers
Allison Miller by Erika Kapin

Some have found a reason to explore and create through the intrinsic connection between nature and art. Artists can walk on the shore and discover harmonies in the sounds of the currents. Their creative gaze can show them ensembles and dancers when they look just for their reflection in the water.

Rivers In Our Veins album cover

Art requires a willingness to dive into the depths to advance the creative process. 'This album is about water, and my creative process is all about flow. I decided to make some mimics of the water that I observed during my research while going to those river banks to convey that in my music,' delves drummer and composer Allison Miller on the occasion of Rivers In Our Veins, her last album. 'I was constantly thinking about these continual strong dynamics where you go full throughout all, and suddenly, the music drops, so now it turns quiet. There is this kind of harmonious feeling of beautiful chaos.'

Commissioned by Mid Atlantic Arts Organization and Lake Placid Center for the Arts, Allison plunges into the water to pay tribute to some crucial rivers of the United States. 'Each piece is inspired by a body of water, animals, or plant species found along the rivers.' An album that shows the strong connection she formed with these tributaries. 'In this piece, in particular, I did a lot of research, a lot of travel through different rivers, and a lot of interviewing academics about the biology of rivers.'

The East Coast as a starting point. An exploration of five rivers that might serve as a vivid image of the place we live in. 'It all goes hand in hand with the world today. We have conflicts directly tied to conservation and how we are nearing our critical point in climate change. Rivers can show how much this crisis affects our planet.' Listening to the sound of the waters when they collide and the voices of those who have been documenting these transformations for years: riverkeepers. 'Interviewing those folks, I learned how much work is done at the community level. It’s like politics: it starts with your local legislation, and then we move to the "presidential" level. It starts at the grassroots, and that’s what I’m interested in doing with this project: each time we perform it, I try to connect with a local riverkeeper to raise awareness among our audience members about the hard work of those organizations.'

Allison is surrounded by people who have accompanied her on multiple adventures and scenarios, 'I've been working with the same musicians because we are like a musical family, and I trust them. They come with strong opinions and ideas. While performing alive, we make even more changes: shifting and trying to honor the flow of water, rivers, and waterways so we are always open to change and growth.'

She composes on the piano and sometimes on the electric bass or vibraphone. Whether in nature or the recording studio, Miller doesn't miss a single detail, 'I’m not the kind of musician who records an album, does the mix, and feels happy. I want to fulfill the aural vision that I heard in my head when composing. For the first track of the record, we did nine mixes.'

'One of the things I noticed when I was researching is that if you go into a river bank, specifically thinking of one in Pennsylvania- and you look across the river level, you could see about ten different flow rates, so if you are closer to the bank, it feels like the river is flowing slowly then if you look into the center, it seems like it’s flowing faster. I wanted to mimic that through the music, so I wrote pieces that feel like the piano is in a different time signature than the drums and the bass, but they are all together.'

'Sometimes, I feel I’m improvising my way through life every day as if I don’t know what’s happening next, but I have some structure and foundation.' The art of flowing in a musical universe where the following note is often uncertain. 'Musically, improvisation equals freedom for me. When improvising, I feel the most myself, present and in the moment. I’m not thinking about what I’m doing later, nor what I did yesterday. I’m not worried about what can happen in life; I’m just making music, and music is guiding me to where I'm going next.'

In the spectrum of creativity, anything is possible. An example is the symbiosis that Miller has created over the years with tap dancers. 'For me, dance and music are the same thing. I need to write music that makes people want to move. This is why I include in this production tap dancers, who are incredible improvisers.' Yes, tap is present both on the album and in live performances. 'As a kid, I came up studying and transcribing Max Roach solos and all my favorite drummers. Tap dancers do the same thing: they can quote all the great drummers; it's a shared language. For me, it’s fascinating because I’m sitting on the drums playing something, but these guys are doing something very complicated with their feet while they balance their body weight. It’s just incredible.'

What happens in the body and soul of a person who has found their element? 'It feels the same when I'm running, and the adrenaline explodes: I’m adding years to my life when I play music. It's my happy place. Spiritually, there’s nothing like it. I don’t think most jazz musicians would continue to do what they do if it weren’t for spiritual fulfillment. We were choosing to do this, and we need to continue, even when it’s hard to make a living.'

In a time when it seems that everything is designed to distance us from nature, Allison Miller returns our gaze to rivers: water currents that have witnessed the migratory phenomenon as well as the environmental crisis in which we are participants. Her compositions are complex, as are the problems faced by different organizations. It's the perfect time to immerse ourselves in the waters and see everything from another perspective, or as she says, 'I will take you on a cinematic multi-genre adventure. Sit down, put your headphones on, and allow yourself to immerse in the music. It will take you on a journey; just be open to it.'