Ron Miles: Jazz Gentleman, Part 2
[Editor's Note: The second part of Florence Wetzel's extensive interview with Ron Miles covers the Colorado-based trumpeter's early performance years, and begins a chronological look at all of his solo releases, beginning with Distance for Safety (Prolific Records, 1987) and concluding with Heaven (Sterling Circle, 2002), his soft duet with guitarist Bill Frisell, with whom Miles has played, off and on, since the early 1990s. Part 3 concludes the interview tomorrow].
AAJ: So you came back to Denver in 1986, and not long afterward in 1987, you put together your first release, Distance for Safety. The album came out on Prolific Records, which was a Colorado label that was around from the late '80s through the mid-'90s. The record is eight songs that are all your original compositions, and it's mostly a trio with drummer Mark Fuller and bassist Mark Simon, plus one song with the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble.
This record doesn't always show up on your discographies on the Web and other places, but you recently rereleased it as a fundraising endeavor for the Denver nonprofit Mission Supports, which is run by Arnie Swenson, who was one of the people behind Prolific Records. So after all these years, Distance for Safety is back in circulation, and it's having a nice second life. Can you talk about this record and how it came into being?
RM: I was playing a lot with Mark Fuller in a band led by the composer Bruce Odland. Bruce had this big band in town with Fred Hess and all the horns in the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble, and the rhythm section players in Bruce's band were part of a new music scene, with Thinking Plague and some of these bands around town, kind of an art music scene. That scene also got me into pop music; that's the first time I'd ever heard of Ginger Baker, actually, because the drummers would tell me about Ginger Baker, and so I bought Horses and Trees (Celluloid, 1986), the record he did with bassist Bill Laswell.
So Mark Fuller and I were doing that music with Bruce Odland, and Mark Simon and I were in a band called the Worms, with Andy Weyl on piano, Keith Oxman on saxophone, and Paul Romaine on piano. That was more of a mainstreamy band that was playing around a lot. But Mark and I also would talk about all sorts of other music, so we put this trio together to do some different kinds of music.
Most of the music on the record, I think, was written while I was in New York, and then the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble shows up on some of that record, too. A lot of the music is grooves with these long melodies and not really too many chords or anything, but mostly more free playing. But it was really exciting and fun to play with those cats; I really miss that.
AAJ: So it's a big moment to do your first release. Did it feel monumental to you?
RM: Oh, yeah! I mean, I remember getting the record and looking at the cover and just the whole thing. It only came out on CD recently, so at that time it was just on vinyl. So yeah, it was a really big deal to get a chance to do a record. Also, people wrote about it, and people were playing it on KGNU, so it seemed like it had a little bit of critical buzz. So that was pretty neat.
It was also great to have a band and to see if we could maybe develop something. Because, again, I think the thing about this music is that it's always communities or groups of musicians that make the music move forward. I mean, history books always cite the leader as the most important person, but it's always groups that move the music. I was learning all this stuff from these guys, and it was really, really helpful. It was also just helpful to write, to get going as a composer and have a group to write for, because that turned out to be a big part of my later records, too.
AAJ: This record is pretty free and avant-garde. The song "Whoring with My Pants On" seems reminiscent of Albert Ayler, and then there's the bonus track for the CD, called "Distance," which is a free solo trumpet that seems to echo trumpeter Bill Dixon in some ways.
RM: Oh, gosh, yes. At that point, I'm not even sure I'd heard much Albert Ayler yet; I became a huge, huge fan of Albert Ayler later, but I had only heard a little bit by then. But I'd certainly heard a lot of Braxton and the post-Ayler people. And Bill Dixon I'd heard at that point, certainly. So yeah, that was my powerhouse! I was just so into the avant-garde music of that time, Air and all those bands, so I'm sure you can hear them all over that music!
AAJ: You worked on a master's in music from 1986 to 1989 at University of Colorado at Boulder (CU). What impelled you to further your education at that point?
RM: When I was finishing up my first year at Manhattan, I got a teaching assistantship at CU, so I just came back here and finished up my degree at CU. I was playing in the faculty brass quintet, and I think I took composition classes, but I also took all sorts of other music classes. I thought maybe a degree would be good if I was going to audition for orchestras, and also I thought that being a teacher might be something that would happen in the future, so that was a little bit of it, too. All this stuff was still kind of floating around at that point; I hadn't really made any firm decisions yet.
AAJ: So, in 1988, you started teaching at Metropolitan State College in Denver, and you still work there to this day, so it was the beginning of a long relationship. Was teaching something you always imagined you'd do, or was this kind of a surprise?
RM: It was a surprise. I mean, honestly, I read about the job in the newspaper, because at that point Metro had to advertise all non-tenured gigs every year, whether there was an opening or not. So I went down there and I turned in my resume. It was a very small department at that point, and I kept talking to the receptionists, Virginia Downing and Patrice Balke. Eventually I said, "Is there actually a job here or not?" And they said, "Well, there really isn't, but we've got your resume."
So when I left, I found out later that they were like, "We like this guy! We should find something for him to do." It turns out one teacher didn't call back, actually, so they asked me to teach. I was still at CU at that point, so I was still riding the bus; I'd ride the bus up to Boulder, and then ride down to teach a class at Metro, then ride back to Boulder and do a concertit was pretty wild at that point.
So yes, teaching was a bit of a surprise, but the department was so small, and I felt such a connection to the students. And I was learning so much, especially when I started to teach jazz history. I really got to get my early music together, and I got to see the continuum, particularly improvisers and composers; I really got into pianist Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington, obviously, and Louis Armstrong. I got to see that all this music was avant-garde, and that to me, being part of this tradition means that you have to find a way to make some music that really speaks to your time. Even some of the music that I was writing then, which was overly evocative of the avant-garde of the 1970s, I felt like that had to change because we weren't there anymore. Those were my immediate predecessors, and I just had to figure out how to encapsulate that music and make it work into my own vision. That coincided with the reawakening of my love for pop music, and then it all started to flow together.
AAJ: So your next release is Witness, which was recorded in 1989 and released in 1990 on the Colorado-based label Capri. It's an amazing group on this record: Art Lande on piano, Fred Hess on tenor and flute, Ken Walker on bass and Bruno Carr on drums. Bruno Carr was a heavy hitter! He played with so many great peoplethe singers Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, flautist Herbie Mannso many amazing musicians.
RM: Oh gosh, he sure was. He was amazing.
AAJ: So how did this project come about with that personnel in particular?
RM: Well, Tom Burns, the record producer who runs Capri Records, we talked about doing something together, and I just loved all these guys' playing. I mean, it was pretty scary to call them all up, actually, and ask them to play with me. But they all agreed. Art and Bruno and Ken were so supportive, and Fred and I obviously already had a long relationship.
In some ways, this record was different from a lot of the other releases I did, because it actually features more songs I didn't write. I think I only wrote a couple of the songs: "Witness," "Just Like You (I Don't Want to Be)" and "Our Time."
AAJ: Right, you have those three tunes, and then you also have pianist Thelonious Monk's "Ugly Beauty" and composer Billy Strayhorn's "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing." You also have bassist Charles Mingus's "Pithecanthropus Erectus"; Howard Mandel, who wrote the liner notes, said that was a bold choice because it's not often recorded.
RM: I was really getting into Mingus at that point. I think maybe even Art and I talked about that song. Art also wrote some other parts on "Witness," too; he wrote some chords that he wanted to play over on his solo.
And so, yeah, we went in and we played live. It was really fun to do. We only did a handful of gigs with that band, but just to play with those musicians that great, it was really something for me. Also, being in a swing like Bruno Carr's was just pretty amazing. You know, when he got sick near the end, he told me, "I want to make you a star!" He was just trying to convey to me that I was doing something different, and he really wanted to see if he could help. It really meant a lot to me that Bruno would say that, because I never knew if he even liked my playing! I kind of wondered sometimes; I did all these crazy shrieks and everything, and he was like, "What the heck?" But we would talk sometimes, and you know he played with guitarist Sonny Sharrock and a lot of folks through the years, so he heard a lot of shriekin'! But he was a really strong, powerful man, and just a beautiful, beautiful player. And Art, of course, he's a legend around here, and Kenny, too. So that was really something.
AAJ: Another thing that's really striking about your musical life is the many long-term relationships you've maintained. This record was done with these musicians so long ago, and you still play with them here in town.
RM: I think that's been the blessing about being around Denver, for sure. Because I feel sometimes that my trajectory has been pretty unusual in that I've been able to stay here and still branch out. I think that sometimes when you're here, you assume you're just going to be here and you're just going to work in a network of musicians around here. And that's great because there's lot of great musicians here!
So these long-term relationships that I've set up here have been really some of the most important ones ever. The other stuff that I travel to do is gravy and great, too, but the relationships here and the connections with the scene here in Colorado is really primary to me. To me, that's what you're supposed to do with whatever you do when you get out to be an adultto see if you can make a positive contribution to the community that you're in, whatever that is. We play music, so that's what we do.
AAJ: Your next release as a leader isn't until 1996, but some important things happened to you in the early '90s. One of these is your time with Mercer Ellington and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. You met him in 1992 when you were in Italy playing with the show Sophisticated Ladies?
RM: Yes, that was the year after my wife, Kari, and I got married. I got a call to go play the jazz trumpet chair in Sophisticated Ladies in this Italian tour. And you know, I was avant-garded out at this point, so doing a show was like, "I don't know if I can really do that kind of thing!" But they said Mercer Ellington was conducting it, and at this point, too, we'd started playing a lot of transcriptions of early music in the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble, because Fred had been going to Sandpoint Jazz Institute during the summer, with composer Gunther Schuller and Wynton [Marsalis]. Fred had been bringing back Jelly Roll Morton music, and I'd gotten deep in it; I remember playing "Dead Man Blues," the cornetist George Mitchell's solo. One time, Fred played a tape of the group doing this tune to the journalist Martin Williams, and Martin Williams said, "It sounds good, but the trumpet player sounds too Armstrong." I was like, "OK," and so I really got into George Mitchell's rhythm, kind of checking that out.
So when I got the offer for the tour in Italy, I was like, "Oh man, a chance to play with Mercer Ellington and play some of these songs," some of which I had played before with Fred. I said, "Well, can my wife come?" and they said she could. So it was about three weeks, and Mercer conducted the first couple weeks. And it was great. The first day we got there, we had a rehearsal that day; we just checked into the hotel, and they said, "Rehearsal in an hour!" I was like, "Man, these guys are hard-core!"
So I played with the band at that first rehearsal, and afterward Mercer came up to me and said, "Man, where'd you get that growl from?" I said, "I've been listening to trumpeters Bubber Miley and Cootie Williams." And at the shows, Mercer was great; he just let me blow. There'd be all these written parts, but he'd say, "Just go for a while, just play." So I was like, "This is fun! This is a great show! I get to improvise all night long!" But when he left, I found it wasn't so much fun because a new conductor came in, and when I started playing, he was like, "Stop!"
But before Mercer left, he said, "I'm going to call you to play when I get home." I said, "OK." So the next day I got a call in the hotel on the payphone, saying, "We represent Mercer Ellington. Can you do these gigs when you get back home?" And actually I couldn't do them, so I thought it was all over, but they called back again when I got home. The first gig I did with them, I think, was in Atlanta with the Atlanta Symphony, and they had left all the music in New York! But I knew what to do; I was ready, and so I played. I went up there and I played on "Rockin' in Rhythm" and all these tunes. The next gig was with singer Tony Bennett, in some place, and that time they had the music! Then they asked me to do a tour of Japan for about three weeks, and for a year I did a handful of dates with them. Again, I'm not based in New York, and so the fact that they would ask me to go was really quite nice.
And I learned a lot. I remember pulling out a piece of music, "Mood Indigo," and it was handwritten by Duke, and it said "Cootie" in the left-hand corner. I was just like, manI just looked at that, just looked at it. Wow! I can't believe it. It didn't have the melody; it just said, "Play the melody" in words, and then it had some chord tones to play, and that was the part. That was really something to just be a part of that experience. And Mercer was great; he would tell me stories, and it was a really, really, really good time.
AAJ: That used to be the way that musicians came up, apprenticing in a big band. It's a rare experience now, and it's cool that you got to have that experience, and in that band!
RM: Oh, it is. And there were still a handful of people that played with Duke that were still in the band, maybe four or five people. The bass trombone player Chuck Connors was still there, and I sat right behind him.
You know, this whole apprenticeship idea, I think that was one of the things that got a little confused in the '80s when all these young guys were getting signed, and I was almost getting signed, too. It was like you didn't have to do that apprenticeship anymore; you just came out like in pop music, and you were a star. But it's so important to play in groups like that; you learn so much just by being around the older musicians. I learned sometimes what not to do, too, so that's also an important part of it! It was a great experience.
AAJ: Also in the early '90s, you met guitarist Bill Frisell who, like you, grew up in Denver. That was the start of a really long and fruitful musical collaboration and friendship that continues to this day. How did you first meet him?
RM: I first met Bill in 1994. I had contacted him a little bit earlier because during this period after Witness came out, there were still labels that were interested in me; one label asked me to maybe do something, and they asked me to pick a band. I just went through my DownBeat for all my favorite musicians: Bill Frisell and bassist Anthony Cox and saxophonist Joshua Redman, and I don't remember who I picked for the drums, maybe Marvin "Smitty" Smithjust all the folks that I love.
Then the label said, "OK, you call them and see if they'll do the record date." Ohhhh! [Makes a face of dread.] OK! So I made up a little cassette and sent everybody a note. Bill's agent, Lee Townsend, wrote back and said, "Bill's too busy; he can't really do your record." I was like, "Ohhh!" But Bill wrote me a postcard afterward, saying, "I can't do your record, but I really like it. It's really good."
Then sometime after that, I guess in 1994, I came home from teaching and Kari said, "Bill Frisell's on the answering machine." I went and it was him, and he said, "Could you call me?" So I called him, and he said he had heard me on the radio playing on a Fred Hess record, and he said to himself, "This sounds like the guy who sent me that cassette a year or so ago!" We talked for a long time that day, and then he said, "We should play."
So Bill came out here, and we played at the Ogden Theater in 1994. He actually had a local trumpet player in town, named Bob Gillis, come to introduce us because Bill didn't know what I looked like; he didn't know anything about me, so he had to have somebody come to introduce us. So we played and it was really fun, and then he asked me to play on other gigs. I think we did a gig just after Christmas in Italy, a trio with the accordionist Rob Burger. Then he asked the violinist and tuba player Eyvind Kang and I to join his group with the drummer Joey Baron and the bassist Kermit Driscoll, and we did a tour early the next year. Joey and Kermit eventually left the band, and then Bill put together the quartet with Eyvind and trombonist Curtis [Fuller] and myself. So that became Bill's quartet for a couple years.
AAJ: That group did the amazing album Quartet (Elektra Nonesuch, 1996), which was partially composed for a television show based on Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons. That record was really different, and people still speak so highly of it.
RM: The Tales from the Far Side record! That's a pretty wild record. Eyvind and I had played with Joey and Kermit; I don't think I had met Curtis until we made the record. So we showed up and I met Curtis and we recorded. It was a pretty bold move on Bill's part to jettison the bass and the drums and have this band with just single-line instruments, essentially. But it was really fun.
I learned a lot from playing Bill's music and also from seeing how he wrote his music, seeing how he organized bands and rehearsals, how he parceled parts out, and of course he had great harmony. Also that idea of not having a traditional rhythm section, that everybody took part in creating motion in the music. You couldn't just coast and let the bass and drums take it; you had to do something! That was really, really good for me. Playing with that group got a lot of things together in my playing that I think are points that I needed to get developed.
AAJ: You and Bill went to the same high school, right?
RM: Yes. But I think he had left Denver before my family moved here from Indiana. But yeah, he went to East High School; I think I read about him going to East High probably in DownBeat, which was a great sense of pride: Bill Frisell went to my high school! It was so cool.
AAJ: So your next release as a leader is the CD My Cruel Heart in 1996. This release and your next are on Gramavision. How did your relationship with them start?
RM: Well, Bill had heard an early version of My Cruel Heart; I think when he called me, we had just finished recording that album. I sent it to him, and he really flipped out, and he sent it to Gramavision, and they liked it, too. So that's how that all started.
Hans Wendl was running Gramavision at that time. He also ended up producing my next release, Woman's Day (Gramavision, 1997), and he produced this new record, Quiver, that's about to come out. Gramavision was my favorite label: clarinetist John Carter was on that label, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, pianist Anthony Davis, and drummer Bobby Previte. All of these heroes of mine were on Gramavision, so it was really a great honor to be on that label. And also, you know, to be from here and to have a record come out someplace like that was really pretty swell.
AAJ: So this record has 10 songs, and again they're all your original compositions. There's a trio base of you, Rudy Royston on drums, and Artie Moore on bass, but you also have many other musicians, and you use a wide mix of instrumentation including organ, flute, lots of guitars, plus a synthesizer and samples. The record seems to be a big leap from your earlier sound; what was your inspiration, and how did this interesting mix of instrumentation and musicians come about?
RM: You know, some of these records I've done a couple of versions of, so there's another version of My Cruel Heart even before this one. I was working with this idea of the flutemy wife plays flute, Fred Hess played flute, and I loved that kind of blend. But the first version we did of My Cruel Heartsomething was not right about it, it felt to me. It reminded me a lot of Miles' '80s music a little bit too much; the tempos were kind of up and fast and fusiony.
And I rememberI have some pretty wild things to say about these Gramavision recordsthe thing that really made the biggest impact on this version of My Cruel Heart was a tune by Janet Jackson. Her record Janet had just come out, and there was a video for her song "That's the Way Love Goes." I remember the video was just a couple of people sitting around, the song's pretty down tempo, and heads are just kind of bobbing. That got me thinking, "OK, that makes sense for how people would listen to this music I'm trying to do. They're not necessarily dancing to it, but they're just chillin,' kind of just OK." So after that, all the tempos on the record went way down; in the earlier version, all the tempos were much faster, it grooved in a different kind of way. Also, I had finally gotten into guitarist Jimi Hendrix, so that was a big part of this record, and the grunge rock group Nirvanait was like all this music was around and got me going.
I was also bringing in people from the community to play. Al Hammond Moore played organ on the record; he was a cat who, I think, is from Indiana, but certainly he was playing around town a bunch. I remember asking him to come in to play, and then going across the street trying to think of a part for him to play, and finally coming back and saying, "OK, do this," and so he did that. The composer Mark McCoin from Bruce Odland's band came and played some crazy sounds, and all these different guitarists played on it. Most of these folks just had something that I really wanted, so I had them do that particular thing. A lot of the music was really due to the producer Mark Fuller, who played on my first record Distance for Safety; he had a lot of great ideas and this tireless energy, so we were working on this together over a period of time. So yeah, that was how that came together.
Again, it was a big communal effort, even though I was writing a lot of the music, and some of it was really very specific, like with scoresbecause since working with Bill, I had started writing these big scores. There's also harmony on this record, long stretches of nice chord changes and stuff, which I hadn't really experimented with so much before. So that's really the first time on the records that this kind of harmony shows up.
AAJ: This was your first release with Rudy Royston. He's another one of your long-term musical relationships; how did you meet him, and what is it about his playing that you like?
RM: Well, Rudy's played with everybody! He's done it all, because he's living in New Jersey now and just playing with everybody. But at the time, I'd been searching for a drummer for a while who really was into all the same stuff that I was into. And you know, there are so many great drummers around, but people can get into certain pockets, like somebody who is straight-ahead doesn't necessarily want to play any funk, or somebody who plays funk doesn't want to play swing or play free.
So Rudy was at University of Northern Colorado at Greeley, and he was this kid that everybody was having trouble with! I heard that this kid was playing all this crazy stuff, and I said, "Oh, I gotta hear this guy!" So I asked him to play with us; I don't even think he came to rehearsal or anything. And he played everything great; he just knew what to do. It was like, "OK." So we stayed together a long time. And Artie Moore was on everything too for a long time. So that was that group.
You know, everybody loves the drummers Tony Williams and Elvin Jones. Back then it was like, if someone didn't love those two people, you couldn't even talk to them. But Rudy also understood the drummer Ed Blackwell; for my generation, Ed Blackwell was the cat that if you got him, then it was, "OK, now we can really talk." And Rudy really got thatbut he also loved Prince, and he loved all the other stuff that I was really into, too. So that worked out great.
AAJ: The drummer Matt Wilson wrote a song for Ed Blackwell, and he's another player you have a strong relationship with.
RM: Oh gosh, yes. To me, Matt's the living embodiment of that spirit. I mean, Matt Wilson is a totally individual drummer, but that melodic approach that he plays, that direct compositional approach to his soloing and playing is so beautiful. Yeah, I love playing with Matt Wilson.
AAJ: So your next release is Woman's Day in 1997, again with Gramavision. There's 12 tunes, all your original compositions, and just a core group of you, Bill Frisell, Artie Moore and Rudy Royston. There's less personnel on this record than on My Cruel Heart. What was the evolution with this release?
RM: Well, the record was going to be kind of the same as the previous one. Originally that was the idea, plus to have Bill show up and maybe play a solo or something. But the music changed, so the band that played on My Cruel Heart wasn't necessarily the right band for these songs. As the music developed and we tried to play, it seemed like the music and the personnel didn't fit because the music was getting more harmonic than it had been before. There were some textural strengths that the My Cruel Heart band did that were really quite unique, but they didn't necessarily transfer to this music. So that was a lot of it.
The bassist Kent McLagen also plays on this record on the track "Born Liar," and the pianist Eric Gunnison and the clarinetist Mark Harris play on "Woman's Day," which is another one of these through-composed pieces; I think it's all just written out. I don't think there's any improvising on that song at all. So the record was a mix of several things. But I think that, again, there was a big move toward even more harmony in the music.
There's also pop references on this album. When I was writing some of the music, it really took a big leap when I rented the U2 movie Rattle and Hum. My wife, Kari, and my daughter, Justice, went away on a vacation for a week, and while they were gone I watched Rattle and Hum over and over and over again, and then I just sat at the piano and wrote this music. I don't even think I changed clothes for a week! There were just certain things U2 did that I started to incorporate, like about the Edge staying the same on the top but the bass part's changing underneath, and little pulsating eight-note bass rhythms that show up through this record a lot. Also Achtung Baby (Island, 1991), which is my favorite U2 record of all, came out a little bit after this, and that also was a big, big thing for me, too. So Janet Jackson and U2 were the big pop influences for these two Gramavision records.
AAJ: So this was your last project with Gramavision. Did you have a two-record deal with them?
RM: They folded, and that was it for Gramavision. At that point, they were taking some chances, but I think it's also because there was a change in the jazz record industry at that point, which was starting to become really apparent.
AAJ: So then you worked on what is probably your best-known sideman project, Ginger Baker's Coward of the County (Atlantic, 1999). You not only played on this record, but you produced it and you provided six of the compositions. How did you first meet Ginger Baker, and what was the evolution of your musical relationship?
RM: Ginger had done these trio records with Bill Frisell and bassist Charlie Haden, and the first gig that I did with Bill at the Ogden Theater, Ginger showed up at the gig. Bill had not seen Ginger since the record, and he wasn't even sure that Ginger liked him at all after the recording. He said Ginger hardly said two words to him the whole session; then I think he even wrote Ginger a couple times after, and Ginger never wrote back. So we leave the stage, and there's this guy back there in this dusty suit like an overcoat, and it's Ginger BakerI recognized him from the record Horses and Trees. He and Bill struck up a conversation, and Ginger told me he liked my playing.
Then Ginger started to play with me and Artie. The first gig we played was at the Stockyards in Denver, on the back of some flatbed truck. The writer Hunter S. Thompson was also thereit was a pretty surreal scene. I remember Hunter S. Thompson talking to me, and I have no idea what he was saying, it was just this garbled thing! Ginger played polo in Parker, Colorado, and he would have us play during the summer after these polo matches. He would get off the horse in his polo uniform and sit down at the drums, and we'd be playing some Monk tunes. It was pretty crazy!
Ginger also set up a gig in New York, and we played at the Iridium for a couple nights, and it was a scene. People were bringing guitars backstage for him to autograph and asking him when Blind Faith is getting back together, and it was just a whole thing. I remember the drummer Max Roach came to some of those gigs, and also the head of Atlantic, Yves Beauvais. Yves said he wanted to do a new record with Ginger and this sort of jazz band, and so that was really cool.
So we were all playing together, but at the gigs I felt like the music really didn't click. We were mostly doing tunes, and Ginger's such a special player that it would have been nice to have some music that didn't constantly have people making references to other drummers like Art Blakey or Tony Williams or Max Roach or Elvin, but instead something that would really set Ginger off. So I set out to write a bunch of music for him that wasn't really tune-like music. Then Ginger and I rehearsed a bunch; he came by the house, and we'd play together.
It became pretty clear that this wasn't the record that Atlantic was expecting, and so I was not sure what Yves was going to do when he showed up in Denver to record us. Then about a week or so before the recording, Yves called and said he wasn't coming, so I was off the hook! He said, "I'm not going to be able to come, so you're going to produce the record." I said, "OK, great!" I had Shamie Royston on organ and this huge band with guitar and pedal steel, and I was like, "OK, we're good, we're good." So then we recorded, and we didn't record any extra tunes; I didn't want Atlantic to even have a chance to say no to anything. Then Atlantic got the record, and they liked it, and Ginger loved it.
And, man, my favorite performance on the record is "Megan Showers," this ballad that Ginger plays on, because it was so surprising how beautifully it went. I was a little bit concerned about that one because it was a little rough around the edges in rehearsal, but Ginger played just so beautifully on the brushes. I remember thinking while we recorded, "Please don't mess this up, Ron! Please don't mess this up, because it sounds so good!" And it went really well. Yeah, Ginger really came to on that record. Because there was some hard music on that, definitely out of his comfort zone, but he really came through. He wrote some great songs on there, too, "Cyril Davis" and "Dangle the Carrot." So it was really, really fun.
AAJ: In the Denver magazine Westword, there's an interview that Ginger did in the late 1990s, right before he moved away from Colorado, and when he was talking about Coward of the County, he said, "It is the best record I have ever made."
RM: Wow. I'm glad that he feels that way. I think he does like the record; I think he should feel really proud of it because I think he really came to play. And clarinetist James Carter sounds great on it, tooyikes! Man, he was no joke! He's got perfect pitch, and he just really showed up and elevated the music to a whole other level. That was really great, too.
AAJ: Your next release as a leader is in 2000 with Ron Miles Trio, your second release on Capri. It's a trio with Eric Gunnison on piano and Kent McLagen on bass, two mainstays from the Denver music scene. It's six tunes, five of which are your compositions. One reviewer called this music "no-frills chamber jazz," so here you're definitely going back to a simpler format after the complexities of the Gramavision releases and your work with Ginger Baker. Was that something you had been wanting to do?
RM: Yeah. Kent and Eric and I had been playing a lot as a trio, and one of the things that I liked the most about that trio is the acoustic balance we were able to get, for one because Kent is so unique. He really can play with such a big sound acoustically, and I wanted to try and get that on tape. The producer and engineer Mickey Houlihan and I had talked about doing something where we recorded just direct to analog tape and live to two-track, and so we just had a single studio microphone set in the middle of us, and we stood around it and played. We tried recording the album once before in somebody's house; that didn't work out so well, so we ended up finding another room to record it in. But I really wanted to capture that essence of people just playing together.
Actually, Coward of the County is live, too, because we recorded that live to two-track. That was the one thing Yves did set into motion before he said he couldn't come. So we were all in one room and we're all playing, with only the guitar amps in a different room. So I had wanted that kind of electricity on this release, too, but a little bit more simple.
Also, with Kent and Eric, Kent really likes complex music a lot, so I could experiment with some really wild things. Some of the music changes meters every measure. It's just always moving all over the place, but we'd really figured out a way to play all that. I also felt that without the drums in there, it would just allow all these melodic lines to interact in a different way. So it's a pretty fun record; that was a fun band.
AAJ: Another thing that was notable about this release is that three of the compositions are over 10 minutes, with "Darken My Door" over 19 minutes, so you guys really stretched.
RM: Yeah, that's a big one. We did a shorter version of just the chewy pop center of "Darken My Door" on Heaven (Sterling Circle, 2002). My idea with "Darken My Door" was that I was going to write this classic song with a verse and then a chorus. And then, of course, it changed into this huge, long thing! The verse is really long, and the tune is long, but the middle is this chewy pop center. The Carter Family tune "Wildwood Flower" is on that record, too, and Bill and I had been playing that a bunch at that point, so I guess my pop music thing is still showing up in unique ways!
AAJ: So next is Heaven in 2002, which is a duet with you and Bill Frisell. This is your first release on the Boulder-based label Sterling Circle, a label that's still around today. How did your relationship with Sterling Circle start?
RM: Mickey Houlihan, who recorded the Ron Miles Trio record, runs Sterling Circle, and we had talked about the idea of community and doing recordings that were really pretty simple in a waysimple to do, but of course hard to get out in the world and all that kind of stuff! We'd done the trio record with just one microphone, and Heaven was the same thing.
Bill and I had talked for years about "We should just get together and play." You know, to not really set up any kind of complex thing, but just pick some songs and play. That's really what we did; Bill brought a few songs, I brought some songs, and we spent a day kind of choosing what songs we wanted to record, and then we recorded them. Mickey put us in a room with some microphones, and we just played these songs down. Bill brought all his effects, but he never used them. I remember at one point when we were going to record one of the songs, he turned something on, but then when we started, he turned it off. So he didn't use any effects; he just wanted to play guitar.
It was just a really easy record to do because Bill's so great. I would say it's like taking a picture with Tyra Banks: you don't have to look like anything, because no matter what, the picture's going to be great! Same with Billyou play the tune, and he does his magical stuff to it, and everything sounds good.
AAJ: In reviews for this album, it's interesting how reviewers get very poetic describing the music. They use words like "sublime," and someone even said, "It's a tone poem of praise." It seems like it might have been one of those magical sessions, because it's such a luminous record; there's something really special about it.
RM: It feels that way to me, too. Bill and I did an interview on the radio in New York a couple years ago, and they played something from Heaven, and neither of us had heard it in a long time. We both said, "Wow! That's really something!"
And just that Bob Dylan song that we did, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"I didn't even know that song, but Bill had a real deep attachment to it, and Mickey's around the same age as Bill, so their connection to that song is really powerful. They taught me the words and everything so I could figure out a way to play it. And I think people have a real strong connection to all the songs on this record: obviously "Heaven" by Duke Ellington, and "King Porter Stomp" was one that I picked. I had a duo recording of cornetist Joe King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton playing that song, so that was a real centerpiece that I wanted to do with Bill because my connection to the song was really strong. And "Your Cheatin' Heart" by Hank WilliamsI wrote this little intro to it, and I thought, "Bill's going to hate that!" But then he plays it and it's like, "Oh, yeah!" He plays so great, and he liked it.
AAJ: And there's also the Monk song "We See."
RM: Matt Wilson does that song a lot, too. That was, again, one of those songs that, at that point, people weren't doing so much. Monk only wrote maybe 60 songs, and some of them get played quite a bit, so it's always nice to find one that not everybody does.
Page 1: Monica Frisell
Page 2: Daniel Sheehan
Page 3: Manuel Cristaldi
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3