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'Joyful jazz' group puts the 'play' in playing music

Sammy Miller and the Congregation releases debut album, will perform in Palo Alto Feb. 22

Sammy Miller and the Congregation will perform at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto on Feb. 22. Photo by Lauren Desberg.

For Sammy Miller and the Congregation, the mission is clear: to uplift people through music.

"Knowing that we're here to make people feel better, that's what keeps us going," Miller recently said during a brief break from rehearsal.

The New York-based band will bring its trademark "joyful jazz" to the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto on Saturday, Feb. 22, where audiences can expect a show full of theatricality, heart, humor and energy.

"Jazz," Miller said, "is the most full expression of your personality. It's about getting good enough at your craft that you can do anything you want with it. It gives you a language to express all the different emotions you feel."

Miller and his six bandmates bring an evangelical zeal to their mission, finding in each other kindred spirits. The group compares its sound to a mix of Ben Folds Five (for its off-kilter pop sensibilities) and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and its live show throws in a healthy helping of comedy, drama and even dance moves. There will likely be props, multipart vocal harmony and, yes, plenty of joy up on the JCC stage.

Though they've been playing together for nearly 5 years, this month marks the release of their debut album, "Leaving Egypt." The biblical title reference was chosen for this collection of original songs, Miller explained, "because it's a departure from everything we've known; we're going into some uncharted territory." The songs emphasize the band's credo of empowerment and positivity, including "It Gets Better," for which a new music video was recently released.

"Growing up, often you assume our struggles all go away when we become adults but they really don't," Miller said of the song's lyrics and themes. "For everyone to be optimistic about what could be is really important."

Most of the Congregation (trombonist Sam Crittenden, saxophonist Ben Flocks, trumpet player Alphonso Horne, bassist and tuba player Corbin Jones and pianist David Linard) met as music students at The Juilliard School in New York City, where they found themselves seeking connection in the sometimes isolated and regimented world of conservatory studies. One bandmate, though, goes back a lot farther with bandleader/drummer/vocalist Miller -- his sister, guitarist Molly Miller.

"She keeps me honest. She's an incredible musician and we've been playing together for more than 20 years," Miller said. Molly and Sammy are two of five siblings, all of whom grew up playing in a family band together. Raised in Southern California, "we played every day after school," he said. While the rest of the siblings have pursued non-musical careers, "we all play whenever anyone gets married."

Sammy Miller and the Congregation have performed in Palo Alto several times before, including at a TEDxPaloAltoSalon at the JCC last year, where they debuted a humorous, dramatic, genre-bending "jopera" (mixing jazz and opera). This year, Miller said, they'll premiere a western-jazz hybrid, a nod to Miller's favorite movie genre.

"I love those archetypes. I'm such a sucker for the good guy and the bad guy. We try to apply the jazz sensibility," he said. "If you liked the jopera you'll love this, and if you hated the jopera," Miller, ever the optimist, laughed, "well, this will be way better."

What: Sammy Miller and the Congregation.

Where: Schultz Cultural Arts Hall, Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto.

When: Saturday, Feb. 22, 8 p.m.

Cost: $30-$35.

Info: Oshman Family JCC.

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Short story writers wanted!

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