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Ron Miles: Jazz Gentleman, Part 3

Florence Wetzel By

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AAJ: So there's a long interlude from Stone/Blossom to your next release, Quiver (Enja, 2012), which is coming out this year. In the interim you were involved with many, many projects, such as playing in Brandon Ross' group Harriet Tubman, playing in pianist Wayne Horvitz's group Gravitas Quartet, traveling to Thailand for the Bangkok Jazz Festival in 2009, playing with guitarist Charlie Hunter at the Telluride Jazz Festival in 2010, performing composer Gil Evans' arrangement of Juan Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez" in Germany in 2012—but that's another interview altogether! So let's just jump forward to your new release, this time a trio with Bill Frisell and the great drummer Brian Blade. When did you first met Brian?

RM: Well, Brian and I played on a record of Bill's called The Sweetest Punch (Decca, 1999), which is a record of Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello's music. That's the only time we had played together, but I would see him from time to time on the road, and he would always say, "It would be great to play together!" Obviously I didn't have to say to him, "It would be great to play with you," since everybody wants to play with Brian! I would say that, too, of course, and I always thought, "Wow!"

Bill and I had talked about doing another Heaven record, but maybe having somebody else join us, and we said, "Let's see if Brian will do it." Then Brian said he would, so we said, "OK, let's go ahead and make that happen." Then same kind of thing: I set about getting some music together with the idea of this trio in mind. So that was the groove there.

AAJ: So three tracks were recorded live at Dazzle Jazz in Denver, and the rest were recorded in a studio in Denver with producer Hans Wendl. Both Brian and Bill were here for a while, and you did a few concerts as well as a master class at CU. So what was your experience doing this CD? It sounds like you guys really got to spend time together during the process.

RM: That was the great part of it. Bill and Brian are both incredibly busy, but they also really wanted to make the music as good as possible, so Brian wrote me and said, "Hey, maybe I could show up a week early and we could play a bunch." Then the week turned into only a few days, but that was really the way they wanted to approach it, so we set up this master class at CU and played before we went into the studio. I think we had a rehearsal day, the class at CU, and then two days in the studio. So that was the idea there.

And again, those two are just so quick at everything. They hear everything, and they know what to do, so the key was just picking some songs that would be really fun for them to play. So that's what I tried to do.

AAJ: You have six of your own compositions, and you have three interesting covers: the song that bandleader Paul Whiteman wrote and cornetist Bix Beiderbecke played, "There Ain't No Sweet Man Worth the Salt of My Tears," Duke Ellington's "Doin' the Voom Voom" and composer Henry Mancini's "Days of Wine and Roses." How did those particular tunes jump out at you?

RM: Well, "Days of Wine and Roses" we recorded when we were here at Dazzle. Bill and I had played that song a lot over the years, and that night at Dazzle we played a bunch of music, just trying stuff out, and some of it was really hard. I think we were about to do an encore, and I said, "Do you want to do something hard or something we know?" And they said, "Let's do something we know." I said, "OK, let's play 'Days of Wine and Roses.'" I think we only did the song that night; we didn't even do it the other night. So that was the choice there.

"Doin' the Voom Voom" was a song that Don Byron does with his Bug Music group. I toured with Bug Music quite a bit over the years, and that was always my favorite song. We did a long tour in the UK, and we played in Australia, and Don had this presentation, "Bug Music for Juniors"; he would have these Warner Brothers cartoons playing, and we would play along with them and do some of that music, then he would talk about Duke and the bassist John Kirby and stuff. "Doin' the Voom Voom" was so great, and I always kept that in the back of my mind. Finally I decided, "I'm going to figure out how to learn this song." So I got my headphones out and got pencil and paper, and I wrote the song out as best I could; I think I did a pretty good job figuring out what "Doin' the Voom Voom" was. So that seemed like a good choice for this record. Also, the form is really neat; it's not just a head with solos, it's got an extended form with different sections. I thought that would be fun for the trio to sink their teeth into.

"Ain't No Sweet Man" was recorded by the Paul Whiteman band, and Bix was in that band, and so was the singer Bing Crosby. Our connection to the song has a couple parts; Paul Whiteman's from Denver, so there's that, and then there's Bix Biederbecke, of course. He's so masterful, and Bing, too. In the original version of the song, there's this thing that Bix and Bing Crosby both had, a mix of this "voodeo do"-ish thing with a soulful thing; it was really such a beautiful mix they were able to accomplish. I listened to a bunch of versions of this song that people have done since then, and it always seemed to be more "voodeo do"-ish than anything else. I played the original song, and I transcribed it, but I felt like to really get something going, I had to just go back and change it. So I changed all the chords and added a little riff for Bill to play, and that seemed to push the song more into a zone where we could do something with it. Because I didn't want it to be, "Oh, you're doing old-timey music." I wanted it to be a living, breathing thing. I really like the version that we were able to come up with a lot.

AAJ: So in addition to these three covers, six of your own tunes are on this, and it's interesting that three tunes are portraits: "Queen B," which you said at Dazzle is for your daughter, Justice; "Mr. Kevin," which is for Kent McLagen; and "Rudy-Go-Round" for Rudy Royston.

RM: Actually, there's four; there's also "Guest of Honor." That's another portrait, too; it's a little bit of a long story, so I'll see if I can make it not so convoluted! Because all these songs have multiple reasons; sometimes when you're explaining the context of a song you say, "It means this, but it also comes from there, too." I think that sometimes people talk about autobiographical writers or confessional songwriters and what their songs mean, but then the writer's like, "Well, it's kind of that, but sometimes a song just needs a bridge." So some of the words might have nothing to do with the confessional part, but it just makes a better song.

So with "Guest of Honor," I'd been playing some with Jason Moran, and he had this trio with me and him and the guitarist Mary Halvorson—she's a master. And every time I'm around Jason, I'm always struck by his relationship to the African-American piano tradition. He's such a smart guy and such a great player; to me, he's one of the greatest piano players who's ever played, without qualification. And that just got me thinking back to the pianist Scott Joplin; for the longest time I've wanted to write a rag, but I've never been successful. But being around Jason and Mary got my mind kind of thinking, and then these two pianists asked me to write something for their wedding, so I was like, "OK." Plus my son's name is Honor, so all that was getting the song going.

Then I thought of Scott Joplin. His famous opera is Treemonisha. It's a really great story, but he also wrote a political opera before that called Guest of Honor—but we don't know what that sounds like because no one has the music for it anymore. We know Joplin was touring with this opera because there are playbills saying he's coming and playing it, but that's it. The story was about Booker T. Washington being the first African American invited to a State dinner at the White House, when Teddy Roosevelt was president, which was a huge political scandal at the time. So with Joplin, you get this sense that this guy was a revolutionary cat, touring this political opera, which at this time was fresh in everybody's mind. And this goes back to this whole avant-garde thing, about the history of this music always being avant-garde.

So all that came up with "Guest of Honor." Once all this came to my mind, I sat at the piano and wrote the piece out. And it was also about trying to figure out a way to play it, because in the '70s, Anthony Braxton and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams would do rag pieces; the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians] guys were kind of delving into that too, a little bit. So there's that whole connection with this song, too.

AAJ: So this release is coming out in the fall on Enja. That's exciting.

RM: Yeah, it'll be great, I'm looking forward to it. Hopefully we can play a handful of times. I talk to Bill and Brian occasionally, and they certainly would like to play together. We'll see if I can get in line behind saxophonist Wayne Shorter and everybody else!


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