Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Sammy Miller and the Congregation: Everyone's invited to the party, but the interactivity is carefully managed

One of my favorite LPs in my early, pinch-penny years as a collector, was Duke Ellington's "Jazz Party." I played it over and
Sam Crittenden plays trombone with Sammy Miller and the Congregation.
over again, from the first track with a bunch of guest percussionists right through a rollicking, all-stops-out blues featuring Jimmy Rushing. In between came bursts of applause by the small studio audience; the record buyer felt in on the party, even as a distant, eager eavesdropper.

A jazz party is what a Sammy Miller and the Congregation show is all about. In this case, there wasn't anything like the cameo appearances (notably Dizzy Gillespie's) in the studio that individuated this particular recording in the Ellington discography. At the Jazz Kitchen Tuesday night, there was just the touring band itself, a sextet now more "theatrical" (trombonist Sam Crittenden's phrase) than in its first appearance locally at Birdy's, and the paying audience had been deliberately attracted. Its hearty response was part of the show.

It's important to note up front, however, that Sammy Miller and the Congregation choreograph their spontaneity elaborately. And the feedback they generate comes from the kind of outreach that's carefully planned — gestures, instrumental arrangements, vocal showcases, and movement up and down the  nightclub's stingy aisles.

Understandably, early Ellington figures into the band's repertoire. It showed up in a travesty of opera — a jazz opera, or "jopera," as drummer Miller said in his introduction. And during an episode focusing on "Creole Love Call," with trombonist Crittenden and tenor saxophonist Ben Flocks wooing each other, that out-among-the-crowd aspect got a risky workout.

The sound of the band is boisterous and draws stylistically on New Orleans jazz as well. The Congregation uses its outdoor voice, the way the Crescent City's bands did at the dawn of jazz. Looking ahead through jazz history, the poses and the mugging evoke such jazz entertainers as Louis Jordan, Louis Prima, Cab Calloway, and Fats Waller. And at the head of the line, sometimes undervalued for the value he placed on entertainment: Louis Armstrong.

Calming things down during a Congregation set is a relative matter: The lyrical heart of "What a Wonderful World" was there in the first encore, but so was a tempo shift into high gear. The second encore returned the Congregation to its rambunctious roots: "Liza Jane" featured recurrent staccato statements from the three horns (sans rhythm section) and an intense blues harmonica solo from the pianist, David Linard.

Fun needs to have a steady presence in jazz. Not everyone can, or should, present the kind of show Sammy Miller and the Congregation did Tuesday night here. But the cluck-clucks of censors in the jazz community sometimes get out of hand. I have two examples: When I needed to replace my copy of "Jazz Party," I was only able to get a tweaked version with all the applause trimmed away and a version of the oft-recorded "Satin Doll" unnecessarily inserted. Some party!

Furthermore, when I needed to get a CD of "Satchmo at Symphony Hall," one of my favorite LP purchases from my teen years, I found that the reissue producer had cut out the Velma Middleton vocals. True, she was never a first-rate jazz singer, but her bounteous voice and enthusiasm were part of the atmosphere of that now 70-year-old Boston concert, with solo turns in "Since I Fell for You" and "I Cried for You." And the band's accompaniments are great; they loved them some Velma!

Also dropped was her wonderful, clownish duet with Armstrong on "That's My Desire."

Suffice it to say that when Louis ad-libs "I feel the touch of your chops all wrapped up amongst mine" in place of the original line "I feel the touch of your lips pressing on mine," he forecast the approach and appeal of Sammy Miller and the Congregation.

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