Ron Miles has been a brass player on the scene for about 30 years. His primary association is with the versatile jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, in whose bands Miles has been a real voice — not just the trumpet player (or, more often these days, cornetist) but someone who carefully sings the songs, if instrumentally. He has also appeared on recordings by Frisell-linked musicians such as violinist Jenny Scheinman and keyboard wiz Wayne Horvitz, always bringing that sensibility: a tart, vocal lyricism.
In his music, Miles has developed a singing quality as well, one that seems always balanced by a sense of architecture. In my imagination, this has something to do with geography; though he was born in Indianapolis and spent a year, post-graduate, at the Manhattan School of Music, Miles has lived in Denver, Colorado for over 40 years. His playing has both the lyricism and majesty of the mountains that surround his home — there is a gorgeous architecture and weight to this music. (Please read Michelle Mercer’s excellent lines notes for I Am a Man, which also reflect this theme.)
I Am a Man is a beautiful, complex, mature work of art that achieves this balance with a natural-sounding care. On the one hand, Miles’s compositions are clean and songful: pleasing and cogent with a whistle-able appeal. On the other hand, he has set up harmonies, arrangements, and improvisational environments that encourage the assembled band to converse, explore, and discover.
The band is a knock-out, though they play with care and sympathy. Frisell is on guitar, his usual Telecaster set-up, but usually played with relatively few effects, in addition to acoustic bassist Thomas Morgan, drummer Brian Blade, and pianist Jason Moran. It is Moran who may surprise you, as his style and history are least closely linked to Miles and his recording history. But he fits into the band with careful (but not too careful) ease.
“Darken My Door” starts as a feature for Moran, setting him into a moody ballad space, no set tempo, as Morgan and Blade color around his statement of a dark Ron Miles melody. Moran moves through the tune and its harmonies like he wrote them, delivering a sumptuous four-minute statement that travels several moods, from fragmented to grand to the groove that invites Frisell and Miles in: a rolling alternation between measures of four and three that sounds as natural as ocean waves. The melody hypnotizes, Frisell’s solo comes through like light glinting around a set of mirrors, and then the composition returns to a solo by the leader that is built around a much busier set of licks and lines — which solo eventually moves into nearly-free abstraction, all while staying beautifully melodic. By its conclusion, this performance seems to have taken your ears through several new and wonderful lands.
Much of the music on I Am a Man could be said to exist in an ideally central place, with ECM-style introspective jazz on one side, classic post-bop on another, and the new jazz, with its shifting time signatures and complex structures on yet another. “Revolutionary Congregation” pairs cornet and guitar in unison for a graceful melody over a chiming accompaniment, and Miles’s improvisation begins as a fluid statement over that sliding, pleasant feel. But, a couple of minutes in, the rhythmic flow slows and breaks down. Exercising much more freedom, harmonically and tonally, Miles begins to improvise across an expressionist landscape — the guitar distorting, the rhythm turned to a gentle chaos, but all the musicians attentive to every detail, ultimately tailing it back to the very consonant theme. Ron Miles won’t be pigeonholed here, even if all this music is clearly the creation one person and his sensibility.
Frisell fans will love “Mother Juggler”, which begins with a richly reverb-ed lead by the guitarist over a stately triple-meter. Miles and Frisell sound beautiful playing in octaves once the whole band kicks in, followed by a bridge in slow counterpoint, with bass, guitar, piano, and cornet coming together, veering apart, then allowing the leader to create a new melody on this tender soundscape, followed by Moran briefly. “Is There Room in Your Heart for a Man Like Me?” also takes advantage of Frisell, who opens things on a hip two-note figure over which Morgan solos. This pulse is handed over to Moran, if altered, as muted cornet and guitar play a unison melody. The whole shimmering performance, however, is animated by that shaking groove, with Blade goading on each player with his stuttering instigation to push forward, to rise. And then the last three minutes lift off even higher: a new groove, Frisell in overdrive, the whole band improvising collectively. It’s my favorite moment on the record.
There is much else to love, however. “The Gift That Keeps on Giving” swings lightly, providing the session its most straight-ahead moment — Moran, in particular, sounding keenly like a veteran who has fully assimilated all of jazz piano from Monk to Andrew Hill and beyond. The title track “I Am a Man” has a hip, crooked walk of a tune, a funky saunter that is playful even as it inserts a melodic line that surges with a melancholy feeling.
What Ron Miles so well throughout this recording is exemplified by the title tune’s sweet and sour combination. When the band is grooving on that funky figure, you’d be satisfied with just that — it’s enough to carry a whole performance with a band this good. But Miles is a composer who is working on several levels at once — imagine those mountains in your mind. You climb, you reach a lovely spot with a great view, a picturesque lake sitting in a grove, but then there is another trail taking you up higher. This hiker on his journey — Moran’s fluid fingers on keys, Blade who does so much without calling attention to himself, Morgan always finding great notes, Frisell as a master of mood, and of course the cornet itself from the composer — move easily up, into the thinner atmosphere.
Ron Miles is a reminder that not all the music is about or around New York City or a city at all. This creative, improvised music comes from all over the U.S. and has traveled easily across the world. I Am a Man is titled for a cry by 1968 black sanitation workers in Memphis protesting mistreatment by management. The roots of the music — and of Ron Miles — come from a specific culture and place, from historical circumstances that we ought never forget. But the sensibility of this music is also expansive — it takes you up and around, it feels bigger than one place even though it necessary has its feet on the ground.