Sammy Miller And The Congregation

Sammy Miller And The Congregation

Independent release, 2017

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Whether it’s love or pain or the search for meaning, every album worth remembering is, on some level, about something.

This album is about joy. Pure, unadulterated, unaffected, unconscious, giddy-from-the-top-of-your-head-to-the-tips-of-your-toes joy. The kind of joy that inspires—no, demands that you play music. And then the joy that you get back from listening to that instinct and just playing, really playing, giving yourself over completely to the music and living inside of it.

Sammy Miller And The Congregation play jazz. It’s hard to define them beyond that simple description, because jazz has so few firm boundaries, and because this collection of young musical wizards pushes every one there is.

Don’t get the idea these guys are experimentalists uninterested in tradition, though. Quite the contrary, they are steeped in the roots of jazz and deliver superb covers of iconic jazz standards by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin. But their covers are superb precisely because they don’t feel like covers; they feel like taking a ride in a 1948 Ford pickup that’s just had a throaty new engine fresh off the racetrack dropped into the chassis.

This band—Sam Crittenden on trombone, Ben Flocks on tenor sax, Alphonso Horne on trumpet, David Linard on piano and harmonica, Patrick Sargent on soprano sax, Jon Snow on upright bass, and the irrepressible Sammy Miller leading the charge on drums and vocals—contains so much energy you start to worry they may spontaneously combust.

And yet they also understand how to pace a show (as I witnessed recently) or an album; the quieter moments are precisely what give the more crowded, frenetic ones their power and impact. Thus the band opens with a relatively subdued take on “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” dialing it back to just piano, bass and drums and giving it a sort of gently playful lounge-jazz arrangement. “What A Wonderful World” is similarly but more energetically transformed, opening with that familiar, gorgeous melody played through once by the horn section before the rhythm section kicks in and they begin working outside the lines of the song, hanging onto that aura of elegance even as they explore unknown reaches of the basic melody. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The third track, a cover of the old New Orleans brass band standard “Lil’ Liza Jane,” is where Sammy And The Congregation achieve full liftoff, turning a normally jaunty number into a seven-man locomotive careening brakeless down the tracks; it feels like the band could run right off the rails any moment, but they make every curve like a bulging-eyed cartoon of a world-class jazz band. The ramshackle exuberance of this group in full flight is a thing to behold (and behold it you should).

Next up, the suite of Miller originals “Chorale” / “Blues Don’t Bother I” is characteristically idiosyncratic, a clever, intentionally shaggy group vocal introducing a rambunctious, rollicking number that feels like it should be another transformed standard, but isn’t. It’s a song whose resting gear is double-time and that speeds up from there in a series of frenetic blasts of showy and undeniably impressive soloing. It’s loose and playful and full of a boisterous flair that amuses and amazes in equal measure.

By contrast, the gospel traditional “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” opens as a New Orleans funeral march, saxes and trombone over drums, before picking up steam (and players) as it moves from languorous to assertive and introduces a characteristically sassy trumpet solo. The other Miller original “In The Morning Light” opens as a lounge-y piano ballad, with Miller crooning “I’m a worn and sensitive soul” as gang vocals come in behind him to give it all a woozy morning-after feel. Miller’s scruffy charm is on full display as our narrator owns up to his behavior even as he busies himself trying to talk his way out of any consequences. “Good lord I’m bad,” Miller finally confesses, cuing up a ringing sax solo.

“Black Bottom Stomp” is a 1925 Jelly Roll Morton number that Miller and Congregation turn into a five-minute joyride that gains velocity bar by bar until it careens across the finish line with all four horn players soloing over the top of one another. They close this all-too-brief 34-minute debut with a brilliant take on Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” playing it reasonably straight at the open before letting their instincts for showmanship take over as they break it down again and again in increasingly imaginative and acrobatic ways. Typically for this group, there’s yelling in the background as they egg one another on, traversing a winding, interwoven series of horn solos that culminates in a complete breakdown before they return in triple-time. It’s like the grand finale at the circus where every clown and animal and gymnast comes out and does their thing all at the same time with the house lights blazing.

These guys still have lessons to learn in terms of translating what they do on stage—which is tremendous but also tremendously visual—onto a studio recording, but there’s no question they will. Sammy Miller And The Congregation is a dynamite debut from a very promising jazz collective, a band of brothers that proves with every note and every song that they are playing music for all the right reasons: because they love it, and they want to share that love with you.

Rating: A-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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