Sammy Miller and The Congregation is more than a New York City-based seven-piece of former Juilliard students eager to escape the sometimes insular feeling of jazz to try and create something all their own. It is also a group sharing a message on the power of the community through their jubilant, energetic and sometimes humorous music.
This is a driving concept of their debut album, Leaving Egypt, which was released on February 7, represented via joyful jazz that draws on a century of American song and invites people in with familiar melodies and rollicking rhythms. “We want to get people back in a room together,” explains bandleader/drummer Sammy Miller via a statement. “I love the idea of being unhinged, sincere, vulnerable, and breaking down walls through humor. Music is an uplifting gift, and I want to be generous in sharing it with people.”
To mark the release of Leaving Egypt, we asked Miller to take us through each of its tracks, to understand the inspiration behind them and some of the work that went into the making of the album.
“Searching for Ragtime”
It all starts with the drum – the heartbeat. In the distance, we hear a faint call-out, a greeting. It’s leaving somewhere unknown. It’s the first thing we want to say: we are searching. Our producer, drummer Jay Bellerose, spoke a lot about finding the tones. This old tom-tom is the heartbeat of the record.
We now put words to the feeling of hope. “I hope it shines down on me.” It’s a rhythmic, pulsing groove meant to conjure what could be. Glen Ballard told me this was incantation in rhythm, which I just love.
“Reasons (I Just Don’t Know Yet)”
Thinking a lot here if Duke Ellington was creating music for the 21st-century – beautiful statement of the instrumentalist (Ben Flocks melodic mastery on the tenor) but the virtuosity is always in support of the song. Duke’s musicians were always in service of the music, which the cast in this troupe are masters of.
One of the themes of the is not “what is,” but what “could be.” Could music again be a balance of melody, harmony and rhythm? Could instrumentalists and vocalists be treated as equals? Could we see the world not in terms of all that’s bad but all that’s good?
This is the beginning of the second half of the album. The music was always conceived as one full statement. We started with the drums, now we hear a similar calling out, “tuning,” conjuring of the spirits by the other musicians – Dave, Molly, Tall Sam, Fonz, Corbin and Ben. They move as one, slowly building the magical universe that American music is founded on.
“It Gets Better”
Yep, it’s gonna.
This is the beginning of act three. Everything is building in tension – a lot of different moving textures, horns, background vocals. Corbin on tuba, Molly Miller (my sister) on guitar. Our engineer Mike Piersante is a master at finding space for all the sounds we used as a part of this wall of sound. You hear the band in its full glory.
“Date a Jew”
Queen was a big inspiration for the album. The scale of those records dared to treat a rock band like a Wagner opera. The dynamic range is massive and the sounds are beautiful. Before we recorded, I kept journaling about if a brass band could have that tonal range. T Bone Burnett did a similar thing at the turn of the 21st-century with O Brother, Where Art Thou? He captured the Americana palette – banjos, upright bass, the human voice – with a dynamic range that effortlessly invites you into a world you may not have known you liked. The rebirth of the “jazz” pallette – trumpets, tubas, acoustic pianos, big ole drums – is long overdue. This is our proposal.
“When I’m Gone”
As quickly as we arrived, we are now headed out, onto the next town, the next station, the next road. The record isn’t even over yet and I’m already nostalgic. Dave sends us off with one last idea, something to be remembered by – how did we make you feel?
To find out more about Sammy Miller and The Congregation and their new album, visit them online.
Featured photo by Lauren Desberg.
Like this article? Get more when you subscribe.