Leaving Egypt

Sammy Miller And The Congregation

Independent release, 2019

http://www.sammymillercongregation.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/21/2020

My guess is it’s easier to juggle flaming swords than to juggle the potent but volatile combination of humor, pathos, and musical flair that are the stock in trade of artists like Ben Folds and Fountains Of Wayne. When the ingredients are in balance, the result is music with the potential to make you laugh or cry or slip into slack-jawed amazement, sometimes all in the same song. When they fall out of balance, though, the result can feel like cringe-worthy, over-the-top shtick.

Which brings us to Sammy Miller And The Congregation, who begin from a position firmly outside the mainstream and travel onward from there—a seven-person ensemble playing jazz that’s both traditionalist and inventive while covering a broad emotional and instrumental range. One minute they’re “Searching For Ragtime” on this album’s spare, dreamy overture, the next they’re full-band-and-gang-vocals exhorting you to “Shine” on the anthemic second track.

Leaving Egypt is the group’s second self-released album (the first being 2017’s self-titled). “Searching for Ragtime” opens the album with drummer, singer, bandleader and principal composer Miller’s muted kick-drum serving as a heartbeat, with Congregation keyboard wizard and this track’s co-composer David Linard decorating the first half of the song with gentle piano flourishes. A couple of minutes later the rest of the group joins in, the slightly woozy melody nonetheless bright and soulful.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

After breaking it back down to the aforementioned heartbeat, they transition to Corbin Jones’s upright bass leading into the bigger, brassier vocal number “Shine.” Alternately sassy and sincere, it weaves together elements of New Orleans jazz and Memphis rhythm and blues under a lyric that exudes the group’s trademark positivity, right down to the final breakdown to the band laughing in the studio.

Next, the O. Henry musical concoction “Reasons (I Don’t Know It Yet)” opens up with tasty, tasteful horn work from Alphonse Horne (trumpet) and Ben Flocks (tenor sax) over a driving rhythm, unfolding like an open-ended jam until Miller and company finally come in at 2:00 with the vocals – which run exactly four lines before the song’s abrupt end 15 seconds later. Wait. What?

“Bluebird” is touch more conventional in structure while featuring especially fine work from Horne, Flocks, and trombonist “Tall Sam” Crittenden, and leads directly into the airy, instrumental free jazz exploration “Before,” the middle section of what feels like a three-part suite. Third segment “It Gets Better” picks up melodic and lyrical elements from “Bluebird” and repurposes them as building blocks for a fresh look at the punishing reality of high school life.

Thematic sequel “Eagle Rock” features Linard on wurlitzer and guitarist Molly Miller lighting up an expansive arrangement that veers from r&b verses to blues-rock choruses, with the horns featured on the extended outro. From the halls of high school we step into the real world… of stand-up comedy. “For love, we gonna break the rules” sings Miller, capturing the sweet core of the otherwise heavily jokey “Date A Jew,” a novelty tune with a message, whose numerous twists and turns bring the whole band into what is at its core a five-minute comedy routine.

Naturally—because these guys do exactly nothing by the book—“Date A Jew” segues into Linard’s, somber, gorgeous solo piano on the closing “When I’m Gone,” a melancholy instrumental coda whose placement puts the exclamation point on Leaving Egypt’s mood swings.

The focus on the middle section of this album on surviving high school (and beyond) is telling. Other than sister Molly, Sammy Miller met most of the Congregation while attending Julliard, the place where they presumably all went from being the awkward band nerds at their respective high schools to the coolest cats each other had ever met. It’s clear from this album and its predecessor that Miller and the Congregation feed off of one another’s energy and fellowship in a way that can’t be manufactured or faked. There is joy in these grooves, and pain, and laughter, and reflection. It’s a risky combination of volatile elements that these seven individuals bring into balance by instinctively doing something that many more mature artists struggle to do: being themselves.

Rating: B+

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