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Remembering jazz trumpet player Ron Miles, a thinking person's improviser

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a remembrance of trumpet player Ron Miles. He died at age 58 at home in Denver on March 8. Miles had recorded with such leaders as guitarist Bill Frisell, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, pianist Myra Melford and jazz rock drummer Ginger Baker. But Kevin says Ron Miles' own recordings showed him off best. One way or another, Kevin says, Ron Miles followed his own path.

(SOUNDBITE OF RON MILES, BILL FRISELL AND BRIAN BLADE'S "BRUISE")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: The first thing to know about Ron Miles is he was a Denver man all the way. It's a jazz custom that musicians from all over move to New York to get noticed and validated. Keeping distance from the apple can make you less famous but may foster independent thinking. Some trumpeters aim to blow you away with their imposing technique. Ron Miles draws you in. He liked trumpet or coronets' warm, middle register. As improvising soloist, he seasoned clear developments with little plot twists.

(SOUNDBITE OF RON MILES, BILL FRISELL AND BRIAN BLADE'S "TWO KINDS OF BLUES")

WHITEHEAD: Denver Post jazz critic Bret Saunders says Ron Miles' music sounds like Colorado when you're outside - wide open, lonely and vulnerable. For the record, Miles did spend a year studying at the Manhattan School of Music in the 1980s, and early on, he could be a little flashy. But he was always a thinking person's improviser, teasing little motifs while giving a solo overall shape. Here he is on his Denver album "Witness," 1989, with Art Lande on piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF RON MILES' "OUR TIME")

WHITEHEAD: Good as he sounded in a straight jazz setting, Ron Miles heard something else. For a player with a warm, intimate sound, he worked a lot with electric guitar. It spoke to the pop and folk strains he was drawn to. A professor as well as student of American music, Ron Miles played obscure Ellington, The Carter Family's "Wildwood Flower" and many shades of blues. A Ron Miles melody might hint at ragtime, a sea shanty or John Philip Sousa's peaks and valleys cornet showcases. This is "Circuit Rider."

(SOUNDBITE OF RON MILES, BILL FRISELL AND BRIAN BLADE'S "CIRCUIT RIDER")

WHITEHEAD: Ron Miles with his core 21st-century collaborators - guitarist Bill Frisell, who also grew up in Colorado, and drummer Brian Blade. They could play a folky tune straight or kick it like a roadhouse combo and made a pair of fine trio records in the 2010s - "Quiver" and "Circuit Rider." On Ron Miles' last two issued records as leader where he plays cornet, that trio had become a quintet adding pianist Jason Moran and bassist Thomas Morgan. Miles' circle was growing, and his quintet's meditations on racism and mortality were a step forward like he was tapping into something still deeper.

(SOUNDBITE OF RON MILES ET AL.'S "LIKE THOSE WHO DREAM")

WHITEHEAD: Ron Miles from his final album "Rainbow Sign," a good one to remember him by. His projects over the last few years included a reunion of the '80s Denver band Jazz Worms and saxophonist Joshua Redman's quartet - "Still Dreaming." Also the garage band-y (ph) album "New American Songbooks, Volume 1" with guitarist Mary Halvorson and Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier, they cover tunes by, among others, Fiona Apple and 1920s stride pianist James P. Johnson. Ron Miles sounds especially feisty on that one. It's the kind of genre-blurring mix of old and new he loved to be part of.

(SOUNDBITE OF GREG SAUNIER, MARY HALVORSON AND RON MILES' "SNOW MORNING BLUES")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." Ron Miles died March 8 at the age of 58.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how NATO expanded across central and Eastern Europe to the Russian border after the collapse of the Soviet Union. That's at the heart of Putin's grievances with the West and why he's been so determined to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. Our guest will be historian Mary Elise Sarotte, author of the book "Not One Inch." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF GREG SAUNIER, MARY HALVORSON AND RON MILES' "SNOW MORNING BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.