A serene, reverential glow passes over Ginger Baker’s weathered countenance when the rhythmic catalyst of the renowned electric blues trio Cream discusses his musical director and chief soloist, trumpeter Ron Miles. “Ron Miles is a gentle genius, a quiet and unassuming man who becomes a giant when he plays his horn—he’s been a pleasure to know and a joy to work with.”
“Ron has his own sound,” enthuses long time collaborator, Bill Frisell, who features Miles prominently in his working ensembles (and on such acclaimed Nonesuch recordings as 1996’s Quartet, and the 2001 release Blues Dream), and teamed with Ron for an intimate series of lyric duets on the trumpeter’s first Sterling Circle recital, Heaven. “He knows the history, but he’s not a copycat,” the guitar innovator observes. “He can play anything but he always sounds like Ron Miles.”
With his warm, richly nuanced sound, a broad pallet of sweet and sassy brass articulations, an exploratory harmonic sensibility and a provocative rhythmic approach, Ron Miles is every inch the musical giant and musical collaborator Ginger Baker makes him out to be. Yet for many listeners outside the Denver area, Ron Miles is still something of an unknown quality. This leads one to wonder why cutting edge musicians like Baker, Frisell and clarinetist Don Byron hold Ron Miles is such high esteem?
It is because for this gifted trumpeter-composer, jazz is a state of mind, a matter of conviction—a design for living—deeply rooted in the sundry traditions that make up our common musical heritage—what Duke Ellington characterized as black, brown and beige. Jazz, as represented by Ron Miles and his new band on his second Sterling Circle release Laughing Barrel, does not necessarily signify any one style of music, but rather a great tent, where he and his exciting new band (guitarist Brandon Ross, bassist Anthony Cox and drummer Rudy Royston) are defining a distinctive contemporary approach to compositional long forms and song forms—animated by their very personal strain of collective improvisation.
And while Miles’ warm, burnished tone and the trumpet-guitar-bass-drums instrumentation he employs throughout Laughing Barrelrecalls the classic Art Farmer Quartet of Live at The Half Note (with Jim Hall, Steve Swallow and Walter Perkins), Ron’s new quartet is not defined by their hard boy lineage. Because while the music they fashion on Laughing Barrelis clearly rooted in the African-American experience, it reflects a variety of influences besides swing and bop: everything from the blues of Jimi Hendrix and Robert Johnson, to roots gospel and country sources. Lyrical and song-like by turns, Laughing Barrelnevertheless bristles with supple harmonic touches, bold textural strokes and the kind of ever shifting poly-metric canvas that has long distinguished Ron Miles’ rhythmic conception on his critically acclaimed outings as a leader—Distance For Safety (Eye Witness, 1986), Witness (Capri, 1990), My Cruel Heart (Gramavision, 1996), Woman’s Day (Gramavision, 1997) and Ron Miles Trio (Capri, 1999)—and throughout his breakout performances with Baker and Frisell.
Why a Laughing Barrel? “The first time I ever saw that expression was in the writings of Ralph Ellison,” Ron explains. “He related how when the slaves felt the urge to laugh, they didn’t dare laugh outwardly, so they literally had to put their head into a barrel, and let their laughter out that way. If there’s a connecting thread between Heaven and Laughing Barrelit’s that once again I’m functioning more as a singer than as the featured soloist—I chose to leave a lot of room for [guitarist] Brandon Ross to really stretch out, because he’s a such a dynamic soloist, and can reference an incredibly wide range of sounds and stylistic expressions.
“These songs are really hard to improvise on, because jazz players have developed a very extensive chromatic vocabulary, and when approaching such decidedly diatonic song forms, it’s a challenge to play melodically over those structures. It’s like listening to Charles Rouse’s playing with Monk: he is always refashioning the melody—he’s never just running changes. Monk, Herbie Nichols and Sonny Rollins all have a very strong thematic component to their music; it’s almost like a subtractive approach, with a strong emphasis on the melody, rather than an additive approach which many guys take in blowing long chromatic passages over chord changes.”
Two of the most beguiling examples of this approach may be found on Ron’s arrangements of “Parade” and “Sunday Best,” both of which extend a long sinuous melodic line over an ever-morphing mélange of metric shifts and harmonic changes. Ron and the band mine this golden vein of Americana with a folksy, storytelling touch that recalls such rustic anthems as Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin’,” Oliver Nelson’s “Hoe Down,” Steve Swallow’s “The Green Mountains,” John McLaughlin’s “Open Country Joy,” Dave Holland’s “Back Woods Song,” Pat Metheny’s “Bright Size Life,” Bill Frisell’s “Rambler” and Bela Fleck’s “Big Country.”
“I really feel a kinship with Americana and what that word represents—music with a really heartfelt heartland feeling elicits a strong emotional response in me. It’s not something conscious on my part—those songs just kind of come out. And I have a real feeling for those harmonies and melodies.”