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Ron Miles: Jazz Gentleman, Part 3

Florence Wetzel By

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[Editor's Note: In Florence Wetzel's in-depth interview with Ron Miles, the Colorado-based trumpeter covers the rest of his releases, including an exclusive first look at his forthcoming album, Quiver (Enja, 2012), due out later this year.]

Chapter Index
  1. Laughing Barrel
  2. Stone/Blossom
  3. Quiver
  4. Practicing and Composing
  5. Thoughts on Performing
  6. Self-Promotion and Careers
  7. The Colorado Sound


Laughing Barrel

AAJ: So next you have another Sterling Circle release, Laughing Barrel (2003), which has seven tunes, all your original compositions. Rudy Royston is on drums, and you have two other great musicians: the bassist Anthony Cox and the guitarist Brandon Ross. Could speak a bit about Anthony and Brandon, and how they came together with you on this release?

RM: Well, Anthony was going to be on that record in the early '90s when I was first trying to contact Bill. He was on the list of my favorite bass players that I wanted to reach out to; his album Dark Metals (Polygram, 1992) had just come out then, and he had those great records with saxophonist Joe Lovano. I was a huge Anthony Cox fan. He actually said back then that he would do the record, and so we stayed in touch a little bit.

I knew Brandon from singer Cassandra Wilson's records and saxophonist Henry Threadgill, and I was just a huge, huge fan. He had heard My Cruel Heart, and he told me that at first he thought it was a guitarist's record, because the song "Finger Palace" starts off the album with a big, heavy guitar riff. I think whoever was playing it for him said, "I think this is some guitarist's record," and Brandon said, "Yeah, but who's the trumpet player? That's who I'm interested in." I think Brandon maybe even contacted me at some point. And I thought, "Man, this would be so great to get these guys together and play!"

So again, I wrote a bunch of music, knowing that this was going to be the band, and we just set out to do it. And the same thing: Mickey recorded it, and we were just all in a big room together, and it was pretty easy to do. All those guys have a history with all kinds of music, Brandon with Cassandra and playing banjo and all those kinds of diverse songs in addition to the skronky stuff, and Anthony had the same thing, too. So doing my tune "Sunday Best" with those guys was easy: "Yeah, we know, we got that!"

"Psychedelic Black Man" was written for Anthony, really. The song was already written, but when we were working on it, he just kept saying, "Psychedelic black man!" He kept saying it over and over again, and I said, "OK, man, we'll call it that!" We had a hard time playing that tune, and they asked me to play it on the piano. I can't really play the piano, but it was the same kind of vibe—just me playing on the piano, just the vibe of my non-piano playing, and they knew what to do: "OK, we hear what you're saying, or what you're trying to say." And then we took off from there.

Ron Miles—Laughing BarrelAAJ: That's something that's really interesting about this record, because one reviewer classified it as mainstream jazz and another classified it as free jazz. But then there's also your song "Sunday Best," which exemplifies the kind of Americana or Colorado sound that you sometimes refer to, which is also like your song "Just Married."

RM: There's also "Jesus Loves Me," actually, which we also recorded on Coward of the County. It's kind of stripped down on this record; that's the only one that carried over from that point. But yeah, there's a mix of music here.

The song "Parade," was actually written at a time when I had hurt my neck. Have you ever had that thing where you're kind of like [mimes being unable to turn head], and you can't sleep? So I was up all night, and Showtime was having a Queer as Folk marathon, and I was really into it—I love soap operas, I just love them. One of the episodes had a gay-pride parade, and it was so beautiful. Other pride parades are like, "Well, we can't have those folks show up at our pride parade, because that's not the side we want to show to the public." But a gay-pride parade has all sorts of folks: wild folks, conservative folks and all sorts of folks in between. It just was so beautiful, and the next day I wrote "Parade." I think I wrote it just straight out; it was really pretty easy to write.

When I started to write these more "song" songs, from that point on I only wrote at the piano; I never picked the trumpet up at all. The only time I would even change the key was when it went out of the range of the trumpet somehow, but for the most part, a song would just show up where it was. Sometimes the songs would have a lyric—only a sentence or so, because I can't really write lyrics, but it would have enough of a lyric that I could generate the song. "Coward of the County," I think, was that way, and just about all the songs on this record were that way, too; they were composed at the piano in that kind of process.


Stone/Blossom

AAJ: Your next CD Stone/Blossom (2006) is also with Sterling Circle. This is a really interesting release because it has two discs: Stone is seven of your tunes, and it's generally straight-ahead jazz with a quartet of you, Rudy Royston on drums, Kent McLagen on bass, and Eric Gunnison on piano. Then on the second disc, Blossom, you have a whole range of personnel: there's Rudy Royston, Greg Garrison on bass, Roger Green on guitar, Erik Deutsch on piano, Glenn Taylor on pedal steel guitar, and Eric Moon on organ, accordion, and keyboards. The music is different, too—it's six of your tunes plus two really interesting covers: "I'll Be There" from the Jackson 5 and "I Woke Up in Love This Morning" from the Partridge Family. One reviewer said that the album's a mix of jazz, 1970s love-rock, and Americana.

RM: I think that's exactly right! I told those guys on Blossom that I wanted our love for that music to be just no holds barred; I said, "I just want it to be incredibly soft and incredibly hard, all of it in there."

The original idea was to do all the music as a quartet record and to have a double quartet record. We even recorded some of the songs from Blossom as a quartet, but the quartet's relationship to pop music isn't the same as the people on Blossom. Rudy's on both of the records, though; he's the person who always fits!

I remember the guitarist Roger Green came by one day and played the beginning of "Since Forever," and then it was like, "There we go!" I wrote all the tunes on the piano, so they were supposed to be piano tunes, but I heard what Roger did and it was like, "There we go! That's it!" Then I was ready, and I set about finding folks to play on Blossom. So the people on Blossom really were my band after that for a while, for the most part; the band was also called Blossom.

With the song "Since Forever," I'd never even heard the Byrds, but I imagined that that's what the Byrds sounded like. And it turns out they do sound like that, because everybody I've talked to says, "It sounds like something the Byrds would do," and I said, "Yeah, it does!" I just heard some kind of jangly guitar thing.

Ron Miles—Stone/BlossomBut, you know, the songs on Blossom are not all the same; they change meters, they move around in their subtle ways, but they're so tuneful that I really didn't want any of the compositional trickery or devices to be in your face. I wanted those things to almost not even be noticed. Same thing with "I Woke Up in Love This Morning," which I loved from the Partridge Family—it's almost unrecognizable on this record. When I arrange songs, for the most part, I just pretend like I wrote them, and so I wonder, "If I wrote this melody, what would I have done with it?" So all the chords on this tune are different from the original version, and there's this other part that's not even in the original that I thought would be nice to have in there. I thought, "This part would be better in seven, I think; it kind of flows." So that's the idea with that song.

The same thing with the Jackson 5 song "I'll Be There." Glenn Taylor came up with this beautiful pedal steel part, and that made the song jump off, and then I was home free from there. People were playing thumb pianos and all sorts of stuff; there's even a Casio trio at some point on the record, which was supposed to be my homage to "Dead Man Blues" by Jelly Roll Morton; that song has a clarinet trio, but I thought I'd have a trio of Casios and have it be my '70s love-rock mix with Jelly Roll Morton. No one gets the Jelly Roll Morton reference at all when they hear it: "What? Something's buggy; it's Casios." And it is; it's a Casio trio. So that was really fun to do.

With the quartet record Stone, again it was all recorded in the same room, live with no amplifiers, no headphones, just us playing. And so that allowed that record to be what it needed to be; it didn't have to try and be that other thing on Blossom. And the pop sensibility that some of the musicians brought to Blossom could also be its thing, too; people didn't have to feel like they had to go over to the music on Stone. And like I said, Rudy is cool either way; he's fine, no matter what.

AAJ: Another interesting feature on this release is that on Blossom you play the cornet throughout the whole record.

RM: Yeah, I think I switched in the middle, after we did the quartet record. I played this really heavy Monette trumpet, and it was just so heavy that I switched to the cornet. I always loved the cornet, and so we made that switch, which corresponds with the music we were making at that time.

I must have played the cornet for seven years exclusively, and now I play a trumpet with my cornet mouthpiece; it gives me a little bit of both instruments, which I like. I switched to cornet when I started playing with the singer Madeleine Peyroux; it was right around that time.

AAJ: Did you just take up the cornet at that point, or had you played it previously?

RM: I played it occasionally, and I always liked it, but you know, if you're playing in a section of trumpets, the cornet maybe doesn't work so well. But at the point I was recording this album, I pretty much realized I wasn't playing in sections too much anymore; I was the only one there, so I could play cornet if I wanted!
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