Concert Preview: Sammy Miller and the Congregation
The vibrant jazz ensemble from New York will play two shows in Columbus at The Refectory and Dick's Den on April 7.
Upon hearing the opening notes of “Mahogany Hall Stomp”, the lead track from Sammy Miller and the Congregation’s EP Say, Say, Say, I smiled wryly. When the band wrote to me last month and asked me to preview their back-to-back shows at The Refectory and Dick’s Den on April 7th, they described themselves as purveyors of “infectious energy and joyful music”. I’m not necessarily skeptical when I’m fed a band’s PR tagline (usually stacked with batches of adjectives like “soulful” or “edgy” or “innovative”), but I always reserve interpretation until I’ve had an opportunity to dive head-first into the music. As soon as I clicked play, their promise that I’d be uplifted was fulfilled. Columbusites: you know that little spine tingle we get when the OSU Marching Band plays “Hang On Sloopy”? Yep. That kind of feel-good.
The New York-based Congregation is a tour-de-force of talent. Founding and leading the band is Grammy-nominated drummer and vocalist Sammy Miller, who received the award nod last year for Best Jazz Instrumental Album for his contributions to piano prodigy Joey Alexander’s, My Favorite Things. After completing his Master’s degree at The Juilliard School, he assembled the remaining members: Alphonso Horne (trumpet and vocals), Ben Flocks (tenor saxophone), Pat Sargent (soprano saxophone), Molly Miller (guitar), “Tall Sam” Crittenden (trombone), David Linard (piano), and John Snow (bass). And while great talent doesn’t always gift great success, the Congregation has firmly established themselves as rising stars in their genre, collaborating with acclaimed artists like Wynton Marsalis, O.A.R, Iron and Wine, Joshua Redman, Lee Fields, and Jason Moran. Later this spring, the band will be featured performers at the Charlotte Jazz Festival, the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy, and The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
All accomplishments and accolades aside, The Congregation remains firmly focused on their mission: making music that nourishes the spirit and fuels goodwill and positivity among its audience.
Tell me a little bit about how The Congregation came together.
Sammy: “We’re friends; friends who are lucky enough to play music with each other in our home base of New York. I’ve been playing music since I was five years old with my siblings in Los Angeles, and hadn’t felt as close with anyone musically until I met these six guys: I met Patrick way back in a high school honor jazz band, Ben (from Santa Cruz, California) at The New School for college, Dave (from Indianapolis, Indiana) and Alphonso (from Jacksonville, Florida) in my Master’s program at Juilliard, and Tall Sam (from Dekalb, Illinois) and Snow (from Los Angeles, California) since graduating Juilliard. I always been drawn towards selfless music, whether it Louis Armstrong Hot Five, The Duke Ellington Orchestra, or The Beach Boys – these types of bands you always feel the the musicians serving the music. I feel mighty blessed to be playing alongside such incredible artists who share belief in the power of unselfish, collective art. Over the past 14 months, we’ve played over 275 gigs, 460 sets of music, in wildly different contexts: concert halls, rowdy bars, weddings, elementary school shows, all helping us to build something special that can benefit others.”
Is everyone in the band classically trained or are some of you self-taught?
David: “My introduction to piano was classical, but I never really got into it until much later. I was much more into blues and soul. I remember sitting in the studio, 6 years old, waiting for the teacher to come into the room to start the lesson – I would be pretending to play like Ray Charles, only not even touching the keys. But sure enough my head would be bobbing around the way his did. And every time the teacher would come into the room and catch me in the act pretending to be Ray Charles, I would be mortified!”
A lot of what’s written about the band mentions that your music has a “global conscience”. What does that mean to all of you and how do you actually put into practice when you’re writing or performing?
“Tall Sam”: “It’s so easy to look at the pain, violence, and hatred in the world and get lost in the sheer volume of it. And for us – we can barely get dressed and into the tour van on time, let alone use the real world skills acquired in the process of getting our jazz degrees to end world hunger and broker a massive world peace. Yet we’ve found time and time again that along with the strife that can be so overwhelming, laughter and joy are just as prevalent. This truth, more than any other, has influenced how we create and perform our music. It doesn’t matter whether we’re in Columbus or Russia – where we were last week – or back home in NYC, our goal is to tap into that universal capacity for joy and make sure you leave feeling a little lighter than when you walked in. After that, I guess all we can hope is that you find a way to pass that energy on to someone else as well.”
Right now, you’re overseas playing the Jazz and Humour Festival in Russia. What has your experience been like?
John: “Russia has truly been an amazing and enlightening experience for us. We were so honored to be able to play in two great cities. Our first show show was in the city of Chelyabinsk where we played the Jazz and Humor Festival along with the great Igor Butman and his jazz orchestra. Not only were we so inspired to hear Igor and his orchestra deliver a riveting and engaging performance that kept everyone engaged till their last note, but the audience in this city was one of the best audiences we have ever played for. They were respectful, engaging, and generous all at the same time and the 600 person sold out crowd gave us a standing ovation and stayed around after to hang out with us. The journey continues the following day as we flew to Moscow and immediately took to the energy of the city and went exploring in the Red Square. Those buildings are so beautiful! Wow! We were able to take the energy from our sight seeing adventures to the show that night at the great Igor Butman Jazz Club. It was great to be able to play in this club for a very attentive and respectful audience once again. Overall, being in Russia really was a turning point in our development as a band. It showed us once again, that music has so much power, a universal language, and the power to reach different people all over the world. We were so humbled and honored to be there and hope to go back very soon.”
You’ve described your music as joyful and uplifting – and in listening to your EP, I would absolutely agree. Have any of your fans told you a story about how you’ve impacted them that’s been particularly touching or surprising?
Pat: “In August we had a refugee from Yemen at one of our concerts. After the show we were talking to him and he recounted for us the harrowing escape that he had made from the country right as the situation turned dangerous and unstable, only a few weeks before the concert in question. He then told us that our concert was the first time since that experience that he had smiled and experienced joy again. A friend who stood next to him at the show corroborated, saying ‘It’s true, he really couldn’t stop smiling for the entire show’. To me this anecdote really puts in perspective how powerful of a healing force music can be, and how you never know who in the audience is in dire need of that healing.”
And what is the most joyful part about being a member of this band?
Ben: “Playing in the Congregation is a joyful experience for so many reasons. Most of us have known each other since high school so we’ve all developed a close musical bond and really strong friendships. Making music with your best friends is incredibly rewarding. Most of all, we’re lucky to travel and have the opportunity to experience different cultures, eat delicious food and meet beautiful people all over the world. We wouldn’t trade it for anything!”
Now that the EP has been out for just under a year, do you have plans to record a full-length album – or are there other things you’re tackling before that happens?
Sammy: “Can’t share too much just yet, but we’ve got all sorts of plans in the coming months. We will be recording, but our foremost goal is to be out in the field performing for all types of folks – young and old, all over, being a force for good in the world.”
As you create music, how do you ensure each of the seven voices in the band are represented in some way?
Alphonso: “The personalities in the band are just as important as the music we create. Creating music that features each personality in the band is much like writing a novel that introduces multiple characters. Each character plays a specific role in the arc of the piece that we play. One person offers humor while the other provides virtuosity and poise while another offers romance. Our goal is to make the music we create as human and real as possible. Writing for the particular members of the band is one of the ways we accomplish that.”
Sammy Miller and the Congregation will play two shows in Columbus on Thursday, April 7: The Refectory, 1092 Bethel Road, at 6:00 pm (guests may arrive at 5:30); tickets are $100 per person (exclusive of tax and gratuity) and include a four-course meal with admission. Second show is at Dick’s Den, 2417 North High Street, at 10:45 pm. Admission is $5.00 at the venue.
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