Sammy Miller and The Congregation
Gig Seeker Pro

Sammy Miller and The Congregation

New York City, NY | Established. Jan 01, 2014 | SELF

New York City, NY | SELF
Established on Jan, 2014
Band Jazz

Calendar

This band hasn't logged any future gigs

This band hasn't logged any past gigs

This band has not uploaded any videos
This band has not uploaded any videos

Music

Press


"Sammy Miller and The Congregation Specialize in Jazz With a Twist"

Comments
KASSY BALLI
KASSY BALLI
Sammy Miller and the Congregation 8 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 17, at Boom Boom Room. $8, www.boomboomtickets.com.
The song starts with a patter of drum taps. Then comes a guttural yawp from every member of the band. Then more taps, another yell, and the sequence starts anew.

This is the 1927 jazz composition "Black and Tan Fantasy," but not as Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley originally performed it. This is Sammy Miller and The Congregation's 2015 version of the classic. And it works.

Supportive "wahoos" and "yeahs" reverberate from the audience as trumpeter Alphonso Horne blasts out melodic, bold phrases. No one in the audience is sitting because there's no need for chairs at a Sammy Miller and The Congregation performance. This is not post-WWII cool jazz hiding behind a pair of Ray Ban Wayfarer sunglasses. This is feel-good party jazz, harking back to the '20s and '30s. It's brassy, stomp your feet and dance music, and it's got the raw, uplifting vibe of a New Orleans street parade.

"You used to see this happiness in early jazz and, somehow, we got away from it," says 24-year-old Los Angeles native Sammy Miller, the group's drummer and bandleader. "You hear joyfulness in all the old records, [and] we like being a part of that lineage."

Miller formed The Congregation — a line-up of drums, guitar, piano, sousaphone, trumpet, trombone, and tenor and soprano sax — in 2014, after completing a master's degree at Juilliard School of Music in New York. And although the band has only been around for a year (and released one EP, Say, Say, Say), they're already making waves.

Lincoln Center named them an "Emerging Artist of the Year" for 2015, and Vanity Fair included them in "Jazz Youth-Quake," a list of up-and-coming jazz artists. They also have a monthly, late-night residency at Lincoln Center where they try out new material — the most recent experiment was a barbershop quartet song played through a jazz filter.

"We take deep responsibility and try to present something meaningful every night," Miller says. "We're really trying to push ourselves."

Education is important to Miller, which is why the band builds school performances into their touring schedule. Last month, they did a 15-day residency in schools throughout Los Angeles, where they taught students about the history of jazz and blues and instructed them on how to play various instruments. Teachers have emailed Miller to let him know that students who were at risk of dropping out got excited about learning music after the band's visit.

Many of the innovations for which the band is renowned begin during rehearsals as jokes or asides that then morph into musical arrangements. For instance, their rendition of "Black and Tan Fantasy," which ends with the theme song from 1970s sitcom Sanford and Son, came about because one of the musicians had the song stuck in his head. Miller says he is a proponent of experimentation and often advises musicians to "let their ears lead the way." As a group, The Congregation has tackled everything from Stephen Foster's 19th century parlor songs to Jelly Roll Morton's ragtime classics to Whitney Houston's singles.

"Nothing is too hokey," Miller says. "If it sounds really good and it's in the consciousness of America, it just gets assimilated. We're not trying to be cute. That's part of what Duke Ellington left us. Why would we stop pulling from other music like he did?"

But the real secret to the group may be The Rum House, a cocktail bar near Times Square. On Monday nights, Miller and other band members go there to watch jazz musicians, ranging in age from 60 to 80, play old-time rags until two in the morning. The experience is humbling and inspiring, Miller says, adding that it's a great way "to hear that unmistakable style of [early] jazz." Miller even brings along a tambourine and drumming brushes because there's always a chance they'll let him jump in for a set or two. - SF Weekly


"The Jazz Youth-Quake: Others on the Upswing"

And who’s keeping the beat? On drums and percussion: Justin Brown, Justin Faulkner, Marcus Gilmore (who happens to be Roy Haynes’s grandson), Sammy Miller, and Sunny Jain (who heads up the remarkable Bhangra funk group Red Baraat, one of the wildest party bands in existence). Party on. Lastly, a special shout out to Meghan Stabile of Revive Music, a promoter and organizer who works with many of the musicians listed here as well as in the pictorial pages. By using, among other things, social media to spread the word about contemporary jazz (especially that which utilizes pop and hip-hop elements) she comes closer than anyone to becoming a 21st-century equivalent to such jazz factotums as the legendary George Wein (who just turned 90 in October). - Vanity Fair


"Sammy Miller and the Congregation revive the art of rough-edged jazz, mixed with fun and floor-show elements"

At the end of its cheekily named Rust Belt tour, Sammy Miller and the Congregation played Birdy's Sunday night to a large, ardent crowd. The New York sextet includes as keyboardist David Linard, formerly active in Indianapolis as a Sophie Faught sideman.

Led by an amiable drummer manning a compact kit with a wide range of dynamics and exuberant time-keeping, the band was Rust-Belting it out one last time. According to trombonist Sam Crittenden, the now concluded tour is the band's first-ever venture away from the Big Apple.

Sammy Miller and the Congregation update classic jazz and Americana. The latter loose category ranged on this gig from Stephen Foster to Jimmie Davis, whose "You Are My Sunshine" was an assertive encore.

Everything they take up seems subject to hardening the groove and freeing the conventional jazz demeanor: The band revives the category of "entertainment jazz," whose luminaries include Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Louis Prima, and Louis Jordan.

There was also enough movement on and off the stage during the band's program to distantly evoke the way good jazz was often accompanied by a floor show. Nothing as elaborate (or tempting) as a troupe of female dancers travels with the Congregation. But I couldn't help thinking of the vintage photos and prose accounts of the shows Duke Ellington put on at the Cotton Club while presenting some of the most innovative jazz ever.

That history came to mind with this band's performance, after a set-opening "Mahogany Hall Stomp," of a medley consisting of "Solitude," featuring the Bechet-like soprano sax of Patrick Sargent, and a grinding "Black and Tan Fantasy." The steady chunk-chunk rhythm of the original was intensified here to a pile-driving beat, introduced by ensemble shouts. Then the well-knit melodies unfolded, ending with the famous Chopin Funeral March quotation and tenor saxophonist Ben Flocks suitably supine on the stage floor. Along the way, Crittenden offered a personalized approximation of Ellington's plunger-mute pioneer, cornetist Bubber Miley.

Novelty elements were freely troweled into some songs. The line in Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'" about "just me and my radio" provided the occasion for the band to imitate static-flecked dial-twirling and snatches of different musical genres in broadcasts of yore. As bassist John Snow began one number unaccompanied, band members turned aside, chatting in two groups. That evoked a much-shared cartoon on the Internet of a crime suspect about to open up under interrogation, flanked by a double-bass player and a detective: "He'll talk — everybody talks during the bass solo." That morphed into a wailing rendition of "Happy Birthday" to Snow, who was celebrating his 23rd.

Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More" and "Gentle Lena Claire" were linked in a rare excursion — at least for this venue, I assume — into popular music some 150 years old.

The band proposes that what's corny can also be hip: After Flocks was featured in a now-he-sings, now-he-sobs version of "Tennessee Waltz," Miller and the Congregation closed things out with "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," featuring one of Sargent's best neo-Bechet outings and a solo by the leader that skillfully laid out variations on New Orleans march rhythms.

There's a potentially limitless future for making the old new again in the Congregation manner. As one of its patron saints used to say: One never knows, do one? - Jay Harvey Upstage


"Sammy Miller wants to make people really happy"

Sidestepping the cliche of the tortured jazz artist, the Juilliard-trained Sammy Miller and his band, The Congregation, openly celebrate the welcoming aspects of jazz music. Their shows are marked by a level of spontaneity and virtuosity (as well as popularity) that many jazz musicians dream about. The secret to their success seems to lie in an intense focus on creating a memorable, one-time-only experience for the audience. Sammy Miller & The Congregation are bringing their brand of “joyful jazz” to the Queen City this week as the opening act of the Charlotte Jazz Festival.

We caught up with Sammy over the phone as they packed up for the world tour that includes their weekend stopover in Charlotte.

Sammy-Miller-The-Congregation-BW
Photo Credit: Joe Martinez
CLTure: Where are you right now?

Sammy Miller: I’m in New York City.

CLTure: Oh cool. For a gig? Or because you live there?

Sammy Miller: I live in New York, but we’re about to go on tour in about an hour! [laughs]

CLTure: I’ve had a blast listening to your EP, it is so fun and accomplished. How has it been touring the album?

Sammy Miller: We’re always in discovery mode. We play those songs, but now, we do such a variety of gigs all over the country that that’s just a small little bit of the variety we draw from. It’s actually harder and harder to get something on a CD that represents what we do as we evolve and change.

CLTure: Is some of that just the nature of jazz and the kind of music you are playing? It’s participatory, it’s organic. You’re not playing off sheet music.

Sammy Miller: Yeah! Nothing we play is written out. Everything is done by ear in a collaborative manner. We’re very affected by audiences, so one day an audience member will yell something and that will become a break in the music, and the arrangement has changed. It’s always in motion, and that’s one of the cool things about jazz.

CLTure: How do you hang on stuff you like? Do you write it down?

Sammy Miller: Never, never! [laughs] Paper and pen are not our friends. All of the musicians’ focus should be on the here and now, what is happening. As soon as you introduce sheet music into the environment, it’s one more way that musicians can’t be present.

CLTure: You went to Juilliard. You and members of your band have had some measure of success separately, so what made you band together instead of going solo?

Sammy Miller: I’ve been always been a little disappointed in the lack of bands anymore, like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Organizations where you could come up and learn.

For me, it’s always been about bands. The history of jazz, it’s like baseball. You fall in love with, not just the players, but the camaraderie among the players, and the story of how they interact. Take non jazz-music. The Beatles and The Rollings Stones, they don’t get to where they are be changing players every two weeks. To get to any depth, like Malcolm Gladwell says, you need to put in a lot of hours as a collective.

If you have seven people who all believe in the same thing, you can do a lot together.

CLTure: How did you find these people, these seven in your band?

Sammy Miller: It’s all been over time. We all live in New York, but we have people from all over the country. But all chose to come to New York City; it’s like the mecca of our kind of music. There’s not that many people in the world [like this]; I’ve been very lucky to find these people with a similar outlook.

CLTure: Kind of like a snowball, are you kind of collecting more band members as time goes by?

Sammy Miller: Yeah! It was five, and then it was seven. It’s not about the number, but more so about finding people who understanding the seriousness and the privilege that it is to play music.

CLTure: Especially for money.

Sammy Miller: Yeah! People work hard all week, and if they are going to pay money to hear music it should be a meaningful experience. We never degrade that.

Photo Feb 03, 2 36 26 PM
Photo Credit: Chris Randall
CLTure: As I listen to your music, it is participatory by design. You create a sense of “crowd” even on the EP. Talk about the “joyful” part of your jazz.

Sammy Miller: That’s always been my tendency, no matter what type of music. I’ve been playing since I was five, I played in a band with my siblings. I was always a communal experience. As an artist, I’m trying to foster an environment where people feel included. Always thinking about the audience, and trying to create something that’s selfless.

CLTure: That’s interesting, because you definitely have certain kinds of jazz where the audience goes to just sort of behold what’s happening on stage, but no one is really meant to dance along with it. What you guys are doing is creating a whole room full of music.

Sammy Miller: It’s in part inspired by going to some of those shows with incredible artists. I just never thought you should be creating art just for yourself. If you want to, that’s okay, I just don’t think you should be asking people to pay money. Everything is service. Art is a service. You’re doing something that has the power to uplift people.

Go listen to Louis Armstrong, go to listen to Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club. It is a wild, participatory experience! With the band members, and the dancers, and the singers, and the people. You can feel that everyone is coming together.

CLTure: How does that tie into your idea of “globally conscious music”? What does that phrase mean?

Sammy Miller: For me, it means understanding your art in context. We don’t create it in a vacuum. We are creating something in 2016. All the music and what is happening informs what we do. Especially in jazz music it’s important to be conscious of what our impact can be in a larger context.

There’s a lot of terror in the world right now. There’s a lot of pain. Things are so unfortunate, and we’re so aware of it. We see it everywhere. I think it requires an artist who is trying to uplift to be every extreme in the other direction to try to combat that. We have a responsibility, once you are aware, not to be somewhere in the middle but really be out here trying to do good.

CLTure: So, it’s like you’re looking at the sum total of all the bad stuff on earth and deciding that you are going to be a part of the sum total of the good stuff.

Sammy Miller: Yeah. There’s this idea that millennials are jaded. There’s too much irony in art right now. Earnestness. David Foster Wallace writes about this. Earnestness is where we’re headed next. It only makes sense.

Sammy Miller & The Congregation and special guest Wynton Marsalis will perform to a sold-out crowd at the Mint Museum Uptown this Thursday at 7:30pm, and making other appearances at the Charlotte Jazz Festival throughout the weekend. - Clture


Discography

Still working on that hot first release.

Photos

Feeling a bit camera shy

Bio

Currently at a loss for words...

Band Members