A Miles Less Traveled

Not quite six months ago, the guitarist Bill Frisell set up shop at the Village Vanguard for a two-week run with a quintet. The trumpeter in the band was Ron Miles, a Frisell collaborator on and off for roughly the past 10 years. On one of the only nights that he wasn’t committed to playing the Vanguard, Miles led his own group just across the East River at Zebulon, a bohemian little café in a dark patch of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Prior obligations prevented me from catching that one-nighter, a fact that dismayed me then and still irks me now. I was interested to see what the trumpeter would do on his night off, after a full week of immersion in Frisell’s tonal world. And I was sorry to miss one of the rare occasions on which Miles, who lives in Denver, Co., headlined a gig of any sort in New York City.

Ron Miles is one of the finest trumpeters in jazz today, though his profile doesn’t show it. He didn’t finish among the top dozen horn players in the 54th annual Down Beat Critics Poll. Four of his six albums were released on Denver-based independent labels; the other two were issued by Gramavision and are now out of print. If you’re not a fan of Frisell, it’s possible that you’ve never heard his playing, or even his name, before.

There are many routes to obscurity for a jazz musician: musical or personal obstreperousness; an unreasonable visionary complex; insufficient talent or ambition; bad habits or bad luck. I’m fairly certain that none of these applies to Miles. In fact, aside from his decision to live in the Rocky Mountains rather than one of the urban jazz hubs, I can’t come up with a compelling reason why he should be anything other than a major name as a trumpet player, not far behind Dave Douglas, who won the aforementioned poll, and Wynton Marsalis, who came in second.

The funny thing is, Miles occupies a stylistic territory almost squarely between Marsalis and Douglas; he can convincingly evoke either one of them. This isn’t an indication of some stylistic pendulum—the notion that Wynton and Dave embody opposite poles as trumpeters has always been highly dubious to begin with—so much as a by-product of Miles’ thoughtful evasion. He’s hard to place, on the usual aesthetic scales: He branches straight out of a postbop continuum but works often without the clarifying guidelines of an idiom. Most of the time, he sounds like no one but himself.

His first recording was the 1990 album Witness (Capri), available on iTunes and worth the six bucks they’re charging. The title track, an original opener, draws nearly epic properties out of an Aaron Copland-esque major-key motif. (Marsalis worked similar harmonic terrain with “Free to Be,” on his recent Blue Note album The Magic Hour.) Miles also interprets songs by Thelonious Monk (“Ugly Beauty”), Billy Strayhorn (“A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing”) and Charles Mingus (“Pithecanthropus Erectus”). On the last of those three, he gradually ratchets his solo up from moody restraint to a keening catharsis, improvising almost freely, with uncharacteristic bluster.

The Gramavision albums that Miles made a decade ago, My Cruel Heart and Woman’s Day, are fine outings that can be found online, used, for bargain prices. This was the trumpeter’s period of greatest development, at least publicly. In addition to that pair of titles, he did a bit of solid sideman work in the ’90s: with his fellow Coloradoan, the tenor saxophonist Fred Hess; with Frisell; even on a Wyndham Hill recording of fairy tales narrated by Meg Ryan. He closed the decade with a pair of solid jazz efforts involving rock artists: The Sweetest Punch: The Songs of Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach (Polygram), with Costello and Frisell, and Coward of the County (Atlantic) by Ginger Baker, formerly the drummer with Cream.

Coward of the County was as much Miles’ album as Baker’s, maybe more so. The trumpeter served as musical director, contributing most of its compositions and leading the DJQ20, a Denver-based coalition of musicians like the bassist Artie Moore. The results are entirely appealing, ranging from the patient waltz “Megan Showers” to the pedal-point fusion of “Daylight,” which somehow aptly suits both artists. It’s only Miles’ trumpet playing that seems slightly unfinished, in retrospect; his work on the title track would sound much better several years later in a quieter arrangement, on a duet album with Frisell.

Frisell is probably one of the best things that ever happened to Miles. I’d argue that the inverse might also be true. The strangulated whine of Miles’ trumpet is the very first sound you hear on Frisell’s fine 2001 album Blues Dream (Nonesuch), and it has the effect of seizing and focusing attention, like a rooster’s crow at dawn. Miles has sounded just as gripping the handful of times I’ve seen him with Frisell, either in the quintet or in a larger group, with strings. The likely pinnacle of their partnership is Heaven (Sterling Circle), the album of duets; it’s recorded on an intimate scale, with the trumpet close-miked and arid, untouched by reverb.

Miles’ most recent release, Laughing Barrel (Sterling Circle), features a considerably different guitarist, Brandon Ross, along with the bassist Anthony Cox, a Minneapolis native, and the drummer Rudy Royston, a mainstay of the Denver scene. It begins with a gorgeous light-anthem, “Parade,” and proceeds through several variations on the unofficial theme of soulful restraint. There are other recent albums on which Miles plays more trumpet (two good titles under Hess’ leadership, on the Tapestry label) or inhabits an artier atmosphere (Way Out East on Songlines, by pianist Wayne Horvitz’s aptly named Gravitas Quartet). But none capture Miles’ generous warmth as well as Laughing Barrel, a modest album but one deserving of greater praise than it has received.

Whether or not Miles ever achieves chart-topping presence in the jazz press, or clout with the buying public, his influence has begun to be felt. (It has had a substantial impact on younger horn players like Shane Endsley, a Denver native turned Brooklynite who co-leads the band Kneebody.) And if there’s anything to be learned from Miles’ career, it’s that the absence of hype can be a kind of gift. The better gift, of course, would be an audience for his music. So go ahead: You know what to do

Originally published in October 2006

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