RON MILES: I AM A MAN, Friday, Feb. 1, 8 p.m., $10–$25, Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium, Durham; dukeperformances.duke.edu
“There’s no real reason to keep doing records just to do them,” says jazz veteran Ron Miles, waxing practical about the crowded marketplace in these tumultuous times.
A cornetist and trumpeter who has previously recorded with Ginger Baker and Elvis Costello in addition to maintaining a steady creative collaboration with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, the Denver-based Miles stands by that ethos and walks the walk too.
“We have to be discerning as artists in what we put out,” he says, “And I feel like this was a statement.”
His critically acclaimed, late 2017 album as a bandleader, I Am A Man, is anything but slight, containing that all too rare combo of sociopolitical heft and superb fulfillment. Recorded at Mighty Fine in Denver and released via Germany’s Yellowbird label, the album project stemmed from witnessing The Movement for Black Lives from the perspective of a fifty-something African-American parent of college-age children. Conceptually and creatively, he aimed to bridge civil rights themes with corresponding musical traditions, a shared history too often bisected in our way of thinking.
“I was drawn to the idea of blues, the legacy of the blues, and triumph over despair,” he says of his inspirations for I Am a Man. “That was really the genesis of the record.”
Given Miles’s role as a professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, where he regularly teaches a jazz history course, that knowing approach proved altogether natural. He cites blues icons Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith as foundational to the project’s aims, as well as later greats of the jazz form like Ornette Coleman. Beyond the characteristics of that twelve-bar progression, listeners assuredly will pick up on elements of free jazz or post-bop throughout I Am A Man, as well as other subtler or seemingly less obvious touchpoints. Such is to be expected of a beautiful musical mind like Miles’s, as he’s spent nearly four decades of his life devoted to his chosen instruments and to composition.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m being a little self-referential,” he concedes, somewhat unable to shake his influence on his own work as a songwriter. “Most of these composition books are full of stuff that never sees the light of day.”
Friday’s show at Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium marks the live debut of I Am A Man, as played by a quintet featuring all but one of the original musicians from the recording’s ensemble. Joining Miles onstage as they had in the studio are drummer Brian Blade, pianist Jason Moran, and the aforementioned Frisell, with bassist Scott Colley standing in for Thomas Morgan.
“They are my favorite players on their instruments ever,” Miles insists. “It’s a blessing to get to play with them. We’re all song players, singers of song. So when we get together, I think of it like a choir.”
In particular, the interplay between Frisell and the bandleader comes off especially meaningful and proficient, the product of some twenty-five years or so of their ongoing alliance.
“We still challenge each other,” Miles says. “He plays some stuff that just scares the dickens out of me sometimes.”
Acknowledging that the majority of his quintet features artists that others in jazz actively try to emulate, he counters that they’re not resting on their laurels or perceived catalog tropes. Despite the expectations that engineers or sometimes even critics project onto Frisell or Miles, they are unbound explorers of songcraft and technique, bound to disappoint anyone hoping for a redo of what either of them did back in the nineties. In contrast to the preceding trio recordings Miles did with Frisell and Blade, he wrote the basis for the material with the expanded quintet in mind. “Orchestrationally, it had more parts,” he says. “I hear more voices, not just the instruments.”
Though cognizant of how the respective players worked and sounded together on earlier projects, Miles remained open to surprise. That state of mind rewarded him in the studio with double bassist Morgan, who, unlike the others, he’d never worked with before.
“I really couldn’t have predicted what he played. It was so perfect, what he did,” Miles says.
Another factor in making the I Am a Man recording sessions flow exceptionally well came from a lack of ego in the space, according to Miles.
“Everybody’s comfortable not having to play,” he says. “It’s constantly moving and everybody steps forward or back.”
It’s little wonder that he’s already actively plotting another album with the same band, hinting that some of those tunes may very well crop up during the Duke performance.
With the group’s masterful execution of his vision on this record—and soon to be recreated in a live setting—I Am A Man truly honors Miles’s forebears, not the least being the African-American workers of the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike. Prompted by pay concerns and perilous working conditions, the latter of these horrifically exemplified by the February deaths of two of their peers by trash compactor, their protest highlighted racial strife at a crucial time. The struggle drew Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. there to support the workers and to draw national attention to their cause. Tragically, the divided city proved the site of the leader’s assassination that April.
“I was five when he died,” Miles recalls. “I remember on the black and white TV seeing Coretta [Scott King], and what it felt like in the community at that time.”
Acutely aware of that history, he sees a clear lineage between the lessons of King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis with the issues and conditions persisting today.
“There’s this constant use of distraction to get you off point and off message,” he notes.
In addition to the audio, I Am A Man joins a creative civil rights legacy on the visual side, too: Miles received permission to use conceptual artist Glenn Ligon’s 1988 reinterpretation of the sanitation workers’ signage and slogan, and was not charged for the privilege. Out of respect for the strikers, Miles had made it a point not to use their photos in conjunction with the album artwork, knowing full well that such documentation exists in no small part due to the government attempting to identify and out them.
“Everyone was putting everything on the line,” he says, drawing parallels to contemporary race relations. “Standing on the shoulders of these giants, we can figure out a way to make it through this part now.”
Concerned deeply with the push-pull of sustained goal-oriented protest over well-meaning yet ephemeral activism, Miles ultimately presents I Am A Man like a question, or even an outright challenge to humanity.
“Black Lives Matter and this current administration gives us a chance to see if we really believe what we say,” he explains. “Are these just empty platitudes we say to make ourselves feel better, or do we really believe in these ideals?”
Thank you Gary Suarez for this fair portrayal of Ron Miles’ current music. As a Denver-area resident, I’ve enjoyed many of Ron’s live performances and they are invariably amazing. Anyone considering going out to hear him live should not hesitate–you will be glad you went!
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