January 20, 2019

The Congregation band fuses music, theater at Odyssey

For spiritual fulfillment and community, a person goes to temple. For those things and some foot stomping, rules-defying jazz, a person joins The Congregation.

So says the Grammy-nominated drummer Sammy Miller, 25, whose six-member jazz ensemble is named The Congregation in the spirit of inclusiveness.

“I grew up going to a congregation,” says Miller, who was a member of Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes. “What’s the point of a congregation? To bring people together. Being a group, you actually have more power and you can uplift each other.”

The New York-based band is touring in support of its recently released debut album, “The Mixtape.” But its engagement at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, this weekend and next, will showcase its new jazz-theatrical performance “Great Awakening.” The immersive, hybridized “jazz-theater” production finds the band “playing” a jazz troop that has been banned from playing jazz by an arts organization. So the members have to figure out a way to rebrand themselves as a theater company while staying true to their love of the music.

“Great Awakening” grew out of the group’s vision of jazz as an art form that was all about telling stories. If the genre of jazz traditionally has rules, those rules must be shattered in the interest of making the music less intimidating. The show mixes original music with traditional works from greats like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.

“When you go see a jazz show today, typically the band is stationary, but why is that?” says Miller, who grew up in the Los Angeles area before doing his undergraduate work at the School of Jazz at The New School in New York. “If you go back 70 or 80 years and look at theater or opera, they’re using the whole space. In jazz, typically the music isn’t memorized. Why is that? Why can’t we have what’s standing between the songs be as important as the music? Why can’t the transitions be meaningful and what’s said in between be meaningful?”

“The Great Awakening” arrives at the Odyssey with some serious East Coast buzz. The Congregation staged “Great Awakening” at the Connelly Theater in the East Village, drawing the attention of administrators at New York’s Ars Nova theater. Through its Makers Lab, Ars Nova gives aspiring theater artists the opportunity to develop new works, and has helped launch the careers of such figures as “House of Cards” developer Beau Willimon, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker and “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Sammy Miller and The Congregation will be in residence with “The Great Awakening” at Ars Nova for 2017 to continue to develop the piece.

The production’s director, Andrew Neisler, who works frequently at Ars Nova, calls Miller and his bandmates “jazz clowns” and says “The Great Awakening” has a certain anarchy.

“For me their sensibility is very physical, very clowny,” Neisler says. Everything a clown does has that sort of joyful unapologetic humor. They live very much in a very traditional clown world. They’ve got an insurmountable task ahead of them, which is to perform this kind of perfect jazz concert and they’re always trying to achieve this but they’re always constantly falling short.”

Before returning to New York, The Congregation will play band gigs and the two weekend engagements at the Odyssey. While in L.A., the group will work with students at University High School and at Miller’s alma mater, Peninsula High School, where The Congregation will conduct a master class and perform with the school’s band as a fundraiser.

“We always do schools whenever we’re in a city,” Miller said. “Part of our goal is to educate and hopefully engage students. Most of them have never seen a live jazz concert. If they do, they often have negative connotations, that it’s old-person music or boring or whatever. We have to show them maybe it’s not always that way. It can be a joyful experience.”

The band features trombonist Sam Crittenden, tenor sax player Ben Flocks, trumpeter Alphonso Horne, pianist David Linard and bassist John Snow. Horne was a classmate of Miller’s at Juilliard, where Miller earned a master’s degree. In putting together The Congregation, Miller gravitated toward players who had diverse and sometimes unconventional artistic skills. Flocks can sing in a falsetto voice. Horne, who besides playing trumpet, sings and dances. Linard’s parents are actors, which contributes to the pianist’s theatrical background.

All of those abilities may come into play, Miller says, when The Congregation assembles.

“The idea of purist is so wild to me. It offends my sensibility,” Miller said. “I never was into that. I’m always inviting people into a concept, not excluding people. When you have all the different resources of your personality, the music takes on a new character. It isn’t traditional jazz, but perhaps there’s this idea of joyful jazz: music that’s medicinal and can uplift people.”


Sammy Miller and The Congregation present “The Great Awakening” at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 6 p.m. Sundays at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 477-2055, ext. 2. odysseytheatre.com.