A serene, reverential glow passes over Ginger Bakers 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 hornhes 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 1996s Quartet, and the 2001 release Blues Dream), and teamed with Ron for an intimate series of lyric duets on the trumpeters first Sterling Circle recital, Heaven. He knows the history, but hes 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 convictiona design for livingdeeply rooted in the sundry traditions that make up our common musical heritagewhat 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 formsanimated 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), Rons 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 leaderDistance For Safety (Eye Witness, 1986), Witness (Capri, 1990), My Cruel Heart (Gramavision, 1996), Womans 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 didnt dare laugh outwardly, so they literally had to put their head into a barrel, and let their laughter out that way. If theres a connecting thread between Heaven and Laughing Barrelits that once again Im functioning more as a singer than as the featured soloistI chose to leave a lot of room for [guitarist] Brandon Ross to really stretch out, because hes 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, its a challenge to play melodically over those structures. Its like listening to Charles Rouses playing with Monk: he is always refashioning the melodyhes never just running changes. Monk, Herbie Nichols and Sonny Rollins all have a very strong thematic component to their music; its 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 Rons 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 Colemans Ramblin, Oliver Nelsons Hoe Down, Steve Swallows The Green Mountains, John McLaughlins Open Country Joy, Dave Hollands Back Woods Song, Pat Methenys Bright Size Life, Bill Frisells Rambler and Bela Flecks Big Country.
I really feel a kinship with Americana and what that word representsmusic with a really heartfelt heartland feeling elicits a strong emotional response in me. Its not something conscious on my partthose songs just kind of come out. And I have a real feeling for those harmonies and melodies.