Ron Miles: Jazz Gentleman, Part 2
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.