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Ron Miles: Jazz Gentleman, Part 2

Florence Wetzel By

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Bill Frisell

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" Smith—just 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.

Ron Miles—My Cruel HeartMy Cruel Heart

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 flute—my wife plays flute, Fred Hess played flute, and I loved that kind of blend. But the first version we did of My Cruel Heart—something 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 remember—I have some pretty wild things to say about these Gramavision records—the 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 Nirvana—it 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 scores—because 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 that—but 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.


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