Denver-based cornetist Ron Miles
seemed to turn an important creative corner with the release of his last album, I Am a Man
(Yellowbird, 2017). With a stellar band in tow, he seemed to have gathered the elements to produce something very original. This was not an easy task, considering the ardent individuality represented by the session's participants. Indeed, guitarist Bill Frisell
, pianist Jason Moran
, drummer Brian Blade
and bassist Thomas Morgan
had all made major impressions on the landscape of the recent history of jazz. Each had done so coming as close to the perception of creating the ever-fleeting impossibility of the "original voice" as one could venture and not fall perilously into the abyss of anonymity.
Much of Miles' prior recording history with Frisell and Blade had been in the trio format, without bass and piano in the mix to bind things together. On Quiver
(Yellowbird,2012), and Heaven
(Stirling Circle, 2002), it was pure jazz democracy, with each instrument playing on equal terms, carrying equal importance. Adding Morgan and Moran to the mix, led by Miles' stylish playing on cornet raised more than a few reminders of the vibe captured by Dave Douglas
and Frisell on the now iconic album, Strange Liberation
(Bluebird,2004). There was that sense of open space that Frisell's presence oddly employs, layered on top of the other components of the rhythm section. His playing somehow acted as a connector between the rhythmic, and harmonic elements that collide to make great music.
For his first release on the Blue Note label, Miles has harnessed the commonalities of these unique musical personalities, with a career defining effort entitled Rainbow Sign
(Blue Note, 2020).
The separation is in the writing, and Miles' role as a bandleader, selecting the appropriate vehicles for this quintet to move forward with. The opener, "Like Those Who Dream," begins with a sparse ostinato of harmonics, with Miles' sharp, jabbing pulses striking intermittently. Frisell jabs and counter-punches with haunting, dragging lunges into oblique, torrid stretches of prime colors. The long running piece breaks down into the blues foundation it is built upon, although a blues with odd striations, and angular melodies that rise from imaginary places. Miles' vibrant cornet playing boasts a constant remembrance of tradition, while valiantly grasping, and redirecting new, broad melodic stripes. Moran's sparse playing through the piece is emblematic of his harmonic role throughout this session, comping sparingly and creating broad stretches of space for his bandmates. The work between him and Frisell is so essential to the overall sound, and rhythmic tide their mates follow.
Miles brings the art of playing freely while swinging to new heights with the neo-bop composition, "Binder." The melody hops and skips along, with Morgan expressing the vibe with strong, thick tones, that seem to lead the way into Monk-like folly. Frisell takes advantage of the wide- open harmonic berth, with Moran showing great restraint in comping, before delivering his own blistering statement.
Miles wrote most of the music on this album in the summer of 2018, after the death of his father. The emotional connection is evident throughout the session. The title track offers a memorable melody that settles into an elegant solo from the cornetist. With the band in a gliding, easy swing groove, Miles' solo is the emotional center of the record. Moran's solo is backed by Frisell's somewhat conventional chord work, with the pianist sidestepping the harmonic parameters tastefully. The tune is the centerpiece of this album that in so many ways states what modern jazz is in 2020. Miles as a bandleader has clearly found the keys to the true defining characteristics of free playing, while lightly sketching it within the traditions that have led to that liberation.
In many ways, Miles is an unknown quantity. His residence and teaching career in Denver to some extent explains that. The quality of the company he keeps speaks to how he is revered by his fellow musicians. With Rainbow Sign
, Miles has accomplished more than releasing a fine album, accompanied by a special gathering of musical souls. While he has indeed produced one of the defining jazz recordings of the year 2020, he has as well spoken to the global coalition of jazz forms, in a single, unifying voice.
Like Those Who Dream; Queen of the South; Average; Rainbow Sign; The Rumour; Custodian of the New; This Old Man; Binder; A Kind Word.