Monday, October 26, 2015

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

Sammy Miller, in a subdued portrait sans Congregation
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?