Sammy Miller and the Congregation bring a contagious energy to their music, offering the expansive sing-along moments of an amphitheater laced with the intimacy of a New Orleans jazz club. While singer, bandleader, and Grammy-nominated drummer Sammy Miller hails from Los Angeles rather than the Big Easy, his approach to jazz, honed at the Juilliard School in New York, is natural, effortless, and undeniably joyful.
Upon completing his master’s degree, Miller formed the ensemble with friends — Alphonso Horne on trumpet, Ben Flocks on tenor sax, Sam Crittenden on trombone, David Linard on piano, and John Snow on bass. The band dove into the New York scene, playing late-night sessions at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, and has performed all over the world, from the Hollywood Bowl to the White House. The ensemble is promoting its latest collection of rollicking tunes, The Mixtape, and will bring its theatrical blend of spirited jazz to SOhO on Friday, September 28. The Santa Barbara Independent caught up with Miller ahead of the group’s show.
Independently, you and your bandmates have performed and recorded with well-known artists like Wynton Marsalis, Lady Gaga, and Queen Latifah. How did you all come together to form the Congregation? I’m from Los Angeles originally. I grew up playing in a family band with my siblings. Music was always something that brought us joy. After high school, I moved to New York to learn jazz from the masters of the music. It was incredible, but I was missing the down-home, familial quality of music making. Often, I’d go hear music, and it felt distant and exclusive to most listeners. So, while in school at Juilliard, I sought out fellow musicians of the conservatory who, like me, were un-conservative in their approach. We wanted to create art that felt good and was inclusive for all. The Congregation was born.
Your music is often described as “joyful jazz.” What does that mean to you? It means our music is here to make people feel good. To bring them joy. And in spite of whatever struggles someone might be going through, we want to bring lightness to their feet and strength to their soul.
What is your songwriting process? Where do you find the inspiration for your songs? I think the ideas are already out there in the universe, and I just try to be tapped in often enough to grab ’em when they are wanting to be heard. Sometimes a musical idea will come when I’m running; I do that every day on tour. Sometimes it happens when I’m riding the subway in New York, but most often it happens during the mornings at the piano. I get to the piano every day; even on tour, I’ll bring a little mini-keyboard. Once I get to an instrument, I’ll try and distill whatever melody, rhythmic world, or set of lyrics I had in my head. Sometimes it’ll take 20 minutes; other times it’ll take weeks, even months to complete a song. I love showing our pianist, Dave, something before a rehearsal, because he always brings such a vibe and intelligence to the sound. In rehearsal with everyone, it’ll change, and on gigs over time it evolves so much more. My bandmates are all incredible musical minds and help shape the sound of the music.
Who are some of your biggest musical influences? There are so many — Duke Ellington, John Prine, Randy Newman, Louis Armstrong, Aaron Copland. I’m very interested in the idea of our distinct American sound. It can be hard to articulate, but we all know it when we hear it. It’s a musical palette that is hopeful, expansive, and most of all, inclusive to all.
What can attendees expect from your live show? Expect to leave feeling better than when you arrived. There’ll be something for everyone — the jazz lover, the casual theatergoer, even a person who hates seeing lives performances; we dare you to not have a good time!
Sammy Miller and the Congregation play Friday, September 28, 6:30 p.m., at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.). Call 962-7776 or see sohosb.com.