Contrary to some beliefs and suspicions, jazz and humor are not such strange bedfellows. Jazz’ cred as a serious music can mix with its status as a uniquely flexible and progressive music, as evidenced by the Vienna Art Orchestra and the Willem Breuker Kollektief, from Europe, and America’s zanily creative and skilled Mostly Others Do the Killing.
Enter fellow American act Sammy Miller and the Congregation, which shamelessly splashed Campbell Hall with its raucous program of jazz and silly antics last week. Miller is a young-ish drummer (he has played with Joey Alexander), a knowingly limited, gamey singer-songwriter, and leader of his seven-piece band, aimed to entertain while also slipping in musical integrity and snippets of jazz history. The delicate balance doesn’t always work — sometimes the shtick shoves musicality aside — but the Congregation deserves credit for its effort to expand the definition of — and the audience for — jazz.
The built-in seriocomic dichotomy emerged at the outset at Campbell Hall, as a piano trio played the gentle “Searching for Ragtime” in dim-lit mood lighting. Suddenly, lights went up and the three horn players — trumpeter Alphonso Horne, trombonist Sam Crittenden, and tenor saxist Ben Flocks (the band’s strongest soloist) — blared a cheerful fanfare theme from the aisles, drifting on stage and kicking up a brashly funny “let the games begin” energy.
Said games included the goofball ditties “Date a Jew,” “Eagle Rock,” trombone-featuring balladry, and the micro postmodern-vaudeville yarn of a “Jestern,” which mixes jazz with the cheesy plotting of movie westerns, to close. Not to miss an opportunity for a trick, bassist Corbin James came out, after all the other parties had “died” onstage, delivering a jester’s rant. Yes, it’s that kind of a jazz band.
At its best, Miller’s gang blends intricate, soulful, and sometimes even poignant musical structures and tight ensemble turns with material just for laughs. They are in good company, recalling the smart-meets-smart-aleck work of Spike Jones and Esquivel, among others. We laughed, we mused, we groaned, we got our money’s worth.