Allison Miller / Carmen Staaf - Science Fair

Label: Sunnyside Records, 2018

Personnel – Carmen Staaf: piano; Allison Miller: drums; Matt Penman: bass; Dayna Stephens: tenor saxophone; Ambrose Akinmusire: trumpet.


Science Fair marks a successful collaboration between drummer Allison Miller and pianist Carmen Staaf, both accomplished musicians and composers. The album, produced by the avant-garde clarinetist Ben Goldberg, flourishes with great musical choices and dynamic interplay. Each tune, regardless of the group configuration, displays an attractive jazz-rock hybridity that sparkles with genuine vitality.

Miller’s “What?!” suggests a kaleidoscopic avant-garde explosion before a cool drum beat takes over. Agreeable yet challenging melodies are delivered by illustrious trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and saxophonist Dayna Stephens, both inventive soloists. Mood and rhythm are subjected to changes, impeccably designed by Miller, Staaf, and bassist Matt Penman, who rounds out the rhythm section. Together, they coordinate effervescent pulses, thick grooves, and dizzying undertows.

The horn players become fully active once again on “Weightless”, a triple-metered piece that starts rambunctiously rhythmic, shining with pinpointed piano-bass articulations and lyric improvisations from sax, bass, piano, and trumpet. Not all of them are delivered under the same mood, and Akinmusire’s tremulous and lachrymose dissertation demands careful contemplation at the end.

The elegiac “Symmetry” sheds rich, emotional chord passages, featuring the pianist in the pinnacle of her lyricism. Her methodical dark voicings pair with Miller’s intelligent, multi-timbral drum chops, setting the perfect tone for Stephens’ poignant exhortation.

The band is reduced to a classic piano trio configuration for “Ready Steady”, which explores the shapes of space and rhythm with easygoing melodies surrounding the shimmering brushwork of the drummer and the tireless if undeviating trajectories of the bassist, who improvises upfront. However, Staaf dares to thrill by going through rowdy angular contortions at the same time that liberates delicious fragrances of Monk's music in the air. The bandleaders refuse additional accompaniment for the Latin-tinged duet “MLW” (a tribute to pianist Mary Lou Williams), which they eke out with an acute sense of timing. The song recalls “Caravan” in a crossing between Dizzy’s exotic spells and Jessica Williams’ rhythmic punches.

Staaf speaks sophisticated idioms on her breezy “Nobody’s Human”, a jazzy straight-eight piece with a fine melodic figure at the center; and on “West of the Moon”, a contrafact on the jazz standard “East of The Sun”, whose serpentine patterns perpetuate a certain uncertainty about which path to take: rock or swinging jazz? She ends up mixing both before the definitive installation of a frantic, combustible rhythm with Miller in absolute command.

And “Skyway” is a honey-toned ballad that closes out the album with minimalist fashion, featuring Penman in a double front: theme’s statement and improvisation.

Miller and Staaf's openness to exploration and their knowledge of jazz tradition allow great interactions to occur, with the rest of the members integrating this fantastic, hook-filled project with commitment and fun. The sonic aesthetics pack a punch, luring you in when you least expect it.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:

01 - What?! ► 03 – Ready Steady ► 07 – West Of The Moon