Proximity is the sequel of sorts to 2018 science fair for the duo of drummer Allison Miller and pianist Carmen Staaf. Proximity although this is strictly a duo album whereas the predecessor was a basic trio album with Ambrose Akinmusire and Dayna Stephens adding trumpet and sax respectively to some tracks. Nonetheless, Miller and Staaf should be household names for jazz fans. They have a history together, as they were part of violinist Jenny Scheinman’s board game and Staaf plays on Miller’s project. Rivers in our veins. Staaf is musical director for singer Dee Dee Bridgewater and she also plays in Miller’s band, Boom Tic Boom. Here, the ten compositions represent eight originals, five by Staaf and three by Miller, as well as two standards. Although it seemed to involve tons of structure, the approach was loose while still retaining a sense of melody and rhythm.
The album opens with Miller’s uplifting “Dan Dan,” a pop tune that emerged during the unfinished tribute album to drummer Shelly Manne that the two participated in. Here, the two musicians launch into the melody vigorously, deftly navigating its delicate syncopation that mellows as the melody evolves. We immediately get an idea of Staaf’s rich pianism, full of ideas with a superb mastery of dynamics and a basic style that often invokes the blues. With Miller’s propulsion, the two can create locomotive motion and almost instantly reduce it to a whisper. For example, Staaf’s “Blue Thrush” begins pensively, complete with a recording of a bird song the pianist captured at the Bronx Zoo. It begins to gradually build bluesy momentum, with a few notes that carry on beautifully as Miller uses cymbals and chimes to accent the piece.
“Top Shelf”, by Miller, originally appeared on the Board game registration. It’s a frenzied fragmented and wandering piece evoking the absurdity of getting drunk on high-end alcohol. Both are totally locked in, feeding on each other’s energy, with Staaf continuing to surprise, in this case his chord on the bottom with his right hand absolutely flies. Instead of a rousing climax, they fade – yet another unexpected twist. Hoagy Carmichael’s “Nearness of You” seems to emerge naturally from this fade, demonstrating that the two can whittle it down to magnificent restraint, putting a ceiling on it with the most delicate of endings.
Staaf’s “New York Landing” is energetic blues, meant to capture the excitement of landing in the jazz capital. The momentum is inspired by an Elvin Jones-inspired 3-on-4 rhythmic feel. Staaf seems particularly impressed with Miller’s swirling activity on the kit, giving her piano a drummer-like workout. Staaf’s fascination with the outdoors continues with “Birds”, a track that, more than any other, represents the way these two work together using contrasting sections, polyrhythms, repeated patterns and changing moods to keep the listener engaged and surprised. Again, their energy is explosive only to quietly melt away at the end. Miller’s ‘Beans and Rice’ is a more conventional swing tune, a bit jagged in parts thanks to Monk and sometimes melodious thanks to Ellington with terrific drum-piano exchanges and a drum solo near the end.
They nod more openly to Monk for his “Ask Me Now”, returning it again with a delicate touch. Staaf’s “MLW”, his homage to one of his main influences, Mary Lou Williams, has appeared on a few recordings, including science fair, but the approach is different this time around. It begins with a series of short phrases but then alternates swing with bluesy statements to a left-hand marching bassline and insistent rhythms punctuated with snare crackles to an abrupt end. Staaf’s ‘Chant’, a meditative piece with minimal notes and whispering percussion, ends,
Miller and Staaf delivered compelling music, with shifting moods and directions that never seemed constrained. Both play with energy and versatility, sharing a natural musical bond that exudes relaxed fun and spontaneity.