Artist Blog

Aaron Wolf & James Miley: The Power of the Song – a Conversation with Ron Miles

Forward by James Miley:

Having already been a fan of his music for nearly a decade at the time, I finally had the chance to invite Ron Miles to appear as a guest artist at the Cuesta College Jazz Festival in 2004. His brilliant teaching and playing, combined with an immense generosity and instant connection with our students that weekend led to Aaron (who played saxophone in the big band at the time) reaching out to Ron a few years later as part of a project for one of his graduate composition courses at the University of Nevada, Reno. Upon hearing the tragic news of Ron’s passing, Aaron and I reconnected and he sent me a transcript of this wonderful conversation from 2006. I was reminded upon reading it of just how much Ron’s profound musical insight, wisdom, joy, enthusiasm, and openness both to music and to the world have influenced my own growth as a composer (and as a human being) over the years. Aaron and I have edited the interview for easier reading and are excited to share Ron’s thoughts with the ISJAC community—his truly original, band-centered and forward-thinking approach to writing and playing is on full display here, and his words are as relevant and impactful now as they were sixteen years ago.

Forward by Aaron Wolf:

At this moment, more than ever, I am acutely aware of the honor I had in having the following conversation with composer, trumpeter, improviser, and educator Ron Miles, the gentle genius who left this world at the age of 58, just this month.

 Ron’s sage voice stood out in every setting. As a composer, he was as equally sensitive as he was fearless. On the bandstand he performed with profound clarity, fire, beauty, intent, and honesty, all while perceptively improvising with the musicians around him. With a unique depth in trumpet/cornet timbre, along with his extraordinary lyricism, Ron was able to tell a vivid story with every single phrase. It was his unapologetic and visceral presentations of pop and folk soundscapes that guided me as a young composer who also grew up with that music always playing on the stereo at home.

Back in 2006, when my graduate composition class assigned a project to present an influential composer, I immediately thought of Ron. I reached out to him inquiring about the possibility of an interview, with the full understanding that his busy teaching and touring schedule might make such a conversation impossible. Yet his response to me was immediate, and with tremendous enthusiasm he engaged me in a phone conversation brimming with an energy and generosity as striking as his insights. Immediately after that call, I listened back to the recording and transcribed every word. I’ve read that transcript many times since, learning something new each time. 

After receiving the devastating news of Ron’s passing, I revisited this interview and realized just how important a connection it was at the time, and how profoundly influential Ron’s words and music have been for me over the years. I hope that this condensed version of the interview can offer something special to you as well.

 

A.W.  One of our final projects in my composition class is to research an influential composer. Rather than focusing on a composer of the past, I wanted to focus on a composer of today, and I immediately thought of you.   

R.M.  It’s so wild because school is so balanced towards history, of course, but I think it’s good to keep some ties to now, because that’s why we study history—to contribute to where we are. That is really cool. I am honored that you would think of me.  

A.W.  An album of yours that we listen to non-stop in my house is Heaven.

R.M.  Oh, with Bill! Gosh, I think of that album as like, taking a picture with Tyra Banks and people say, “Wow, you two look wonderful!” Playing duo with Bill Frisell is like that. He is so good that you can’t not sound good, too. It’s such a joy to play with him.

A.W.  I like the album so much because it feels like you are one person, as if you two became a singer-songwriter-guitarist-in-one.  

R.M.  There’s a new recording (ed. note: Stone/Blossom, released in 2006 on Sterling Circle Records), with more of a band, and that’s the comment that a couple people have had: “It sounds like a singer songwriter record,” which is something they didn’t like about it. But I really like songs. This goes for improvising too—the song is not just an excuse to blow (which, yes, is fun to do, too). I like the idea of continuing the song by improvising something as strong as the song itself.  

When you think about songs, a lot of them don’t have running eighth notes. They have whole notes, half notes, and spaces, and all sorts of different rhythms, instead. So, to see if you can communicate over a long period of time without always resorting to pyrotechnics—that approach can convey energy really nicely. That’s a lot of what we were trying to do with that record, and still trying to do.

A.W.  The album is so beautiful and lyrical. I hear words and poetry in those songs, even though there aren’t any. Is that something that we’ve maybe lost in the way we compose and improvise in jazz?

R.M.  In some ways I think so. But when we think about the past masters, Charlie Parker’s songs sound like the way that he improvised, Thelonious Monk’s songs sound like the way he improvised, and the same with Jelly Roll Morton. I think that we are still trying to apply old models to new songs, and this is one of the reasons we haven’t seen jazz go towards contemporary pop material. If you can embrace the spirit of what contemporary songs are like, you’ll find a way to improvise that works with that music. You can’t just say, “Ok, I am going to do this new song and apply Charlie Parker’s language to it.” As songwriters, the more we can generate a book of material, and then put a band together to play that material, the more it will generate a way of playing that works with those songs.  

A.W.  It’s been a challenge in recent years to find jazz bands who are truly together as a band. Has Jazz moved too much towards individuals just thrown together, and we’re missing bands who are a collective unit as a result?

R.M.  Well, I do think bands have been making a comeback, recently. And it’s really bands that have moved the music forward throughout history, as much as the history books would like to say it’s the individuals: You know, Charlie Parker did this and that… which he did, of course. But there were a lot of other folks who created the environment that allowed that music to work. In America, sometimes we are so star-centered; like in sports, it’s “Michael Jordan.” Yes, but there are also five people playing out there at any given time! I think it’s the same thing in music—everybody contributes to the band working.

A.W.  Can you mention a few of the performers, composers, or even songwriters who have most influenced your compositional development?

R.M.  In some ways they all go together, playing-wise and composition-wise. I really like musicians who play inside of the band, not on top of the band. A good example of that is Duke’s Money Jungle, my favorite trio record. There is such depth to the way they play together. I love Wayne’s (Shorter’s) current band so much because nobody really solos. Maybe for a minute somebody will solo, but not like an extended solo. That means anything can happen. When you set up the hierarchy of soloist and rhythm section, in a way you’re limiting possibilities. There is a soloist, and that person is on top, and you just have to work with that. But in Wayne’s band, anybody can be on top. Also, Wayne is such a great improviser—nobody else can play that way, the way he just can move in and out of the texture.             

That is a lot to me: composers who write and play that way, like Jelly Roll Morton, and Duke, and Mingus, Ornette, Albert Ayler, Wayne, and Bill, of course. Singer-songwriters like Prince, he’s huge, and such an amazing musician! Public Enemy had a big influence on me. Elliott Smith, Lennon and McCartney, Bad Brains, Nirvana. So much of that music has had a big impact on me—just the power of those songs.  

In jazz we tend to overplay and overwrite sometimes. I think we overplay just to keep our place in the music. But if we can get to a place where we are familiar enough with the forms that we don’t have to do that, then it immediately reduces the amount of stuff we play. If we play less, it allows others to play more. It allows us to hear more, too, because we aren’t playing all the time.  

I also think that we overplay and overwrite to prove something: to show that we can play over the changes a certain way, or that we can play a lot of notes fast. In pop music, especially with bands like Nirvana and other punk groups, they don’t try to prove anything. That’s not part of their vision. They’re presenting these songs, and you can either get with it or not get with it. I think that (as jazz musicians and composers) the more we can get away from that desire to prove something, the more we can really get to something.  

A.W.  So for the jazz setting, do you have a sense that we can connect to audiences in a bigger picture? 

R.M.  I think that is a very important question to be asking ourselves. There is a really good book by John Szwed on Sun Ra where he talks about the fact that musicians sometimes act like audiences are supposed to give it up to us, simply because we’re so good. But he says that the audience should never have to give it up to you for any reason. You can’t just say “I’m good,” you have to give them something. And that is so powerful, and scary too, because we hide behind, “Hey man, I’m practicing! They just don’t get it… I am doing all the right stuff.”  

We forget that the right stuff is only the right stuff if it helps to get something out there, something really valid, that really touches people. A smart audience recognizes that. So, practicing eight hours a day is good, but only when it leads you to some higher realizations about how practicing will result in some real music.  

A.W.  Can you recall a time where something clicked for you, in your awareness and process, that changed your development as a composer?

R.M.  When I went to Manhattan School of Music, I was in a combo with Bob Mintzer. He was a person who I had a lot of respect for. And, he really liked my songs, and encouraged me to do something with them. I had never really thought about being a songwriter before that. It made me get deeper into it and it led me down this road.  I left Manhattan to move home and form a band and try to play my own music. From that point on, I just loved playing with folks, and hearing the different ways people approached it all. I am always learning as a composer, like how much to write for folks, and how much not to write, because it really depends on the setting. You start to learn an amazing amount by being in bands and playing the same songs every night. You get a sense for how different people deal with the music, how they communicate.

A.W.  Do you go through periods in life where you seem to be more productive as a composer?          

R.M.  One year my wife took a vacation to visit her mom for a couple weeks. I stayed home, in my pajamas, and I’d just play and write all day, and watch U2’s Rattle and Hum over and over again—I was totally into that movie, and it would get my imagination rolling around.  Most of Woman´s Day was written then. So now, when the house is totally still, that will usually get the ball rolling.  

A.W.  Could you discuss any sort of compositional process that you do? 

R.M.  I sit at the piano, and my four-track usually comes into play after I start hearing things in some orchestrated form. With a lot of my songs, I will make a recorded version with just the trumpet and piano and listen back to it for a while. But with some stuff, for example the guitar-oriented material on Woman’s Day, with the power chords: power chords sound really good on guitar, but they don’t sound good on the piano. So, I’ll record guitar, bass, and drums on those myself and see if that does something for them. Then I drive around in the car and listen, to see if it holds my interest. Does hearing that chord progression one more time bug me? If there’s going to be blowing, then does it need a new set of chords? Does it need a new part in there? Does the super-chorus need to happen after the chorus and the verse? All that stuff.

A.W.  Does it help to play those other instruments in the writing process?  

R.M.  Yeah, it does a few things for me. For one, it allows me to hear it. But it also allows me to be in that person’s spot and get a sense about how it would be to play that part: Would it be fun and rewarding, or would it be a drag? Is this too much or not enough information? Imagining yourself in their spot— especially with the different personalities of improvisers—you want to give people information, but not lock them in. I think particularly of pianists in this regard. Too many voicings makes them too restricted with what they can do if the improvisation goes a certain way. But what if something is not really any kind of chord? It’s just this stuff. Bill does this all the time. He has lots of minor ninths in his music, and sometimes major and minor thirds and major and minor sevenths altogether. And he will just write that, and not say it’s any chord, because it’s really not. Playing all those parts on various instruments helps me figure that stuff out a bit.  

A.W.  Do your compositions develop in lots of different ways?  

R.M.  Yes, sometimes. But almost always, I will start with just a melody, and no bar lines. I usually write melodies that change meter over the course of the song, and I like the freedom to not think I am writing something in four, or that I am writing a waltz. I just write what it is, and if an extra beat or a lesser beat shows up, then I figure out how to bar it to make it work. Then, we have to learn how to play over it!  I try to never go into a song thinking that it is this feel, or that thing. It’s just a melody, and it starts to come together with the chords and the motion and the meter changes and whatever else.          

A.W.  I never would have thought of that.

R.M.  A big thing that reinforced that approach for me was starting to play with Bill and listening to a lot of “Old Timey Music” like the Carter Family, and also Robert Johnson and other blues folks. When you hear those records, the words dictate the meter. There are all sorts of 3/4 and 7/4 bars. All sorts of stuff shows up in there because the words demand it. So, I thought, “Gee, we play melody. Why not let the melody reinforce that for us too?” So, I started writing songs like that. At first I would write these complicated songs, and we would just make the blowing open to make it easier to play. Then I started playing with a bass player who suggested we blow over the actual form. And man, it was so hard! So we practiced and practiced until we could play over those forms, and that is how it is now.   

 


About the Artist

Ron Miles was a songwriter and cornet and trumpet player based in Denver, Colorado. He was born in Indianapolis in 1963 and moved to Colorado with his family in 1974. He recorded as a leader for Prolific, Capri, Gramavision, Sterling Circle, Enja/yellowbird, and became a Blue Note Records Artist in 2020. One of the finest improvisers and composers of his generation, he was revered by his fellow musicians and heralded by critics around the world. In addition to leading his own bands, Ron Miles performed in the ensembles of Bill Frisell, Mercer Ellington, Don Byron, Wayne Horvitz, Ginger Baker, Myra Melford, Joe Henry, Madeleine Peyroux, Jason Moran, Matt Wilson, Jenny Scheinman, The Bad Plus, Harriet Tubman, Ben Goldberg, and Joshua Redman. Also a gifted and experienced educator, Miles was a music professor at the Denver Metropolitan State University since 1998. Following his trio releases with Bill Frisell and Brian Blade, Quiver (2012) and Circuit Rider (2014), his recent quintet recordings, I AM A MAN (2017) and his Blue Note debut RAINBOW SIGN (2020), feature again Frisell and Blade, along with pianist Jason Moran and bassist Thomas Morgan.

 

About the Interviewer

Aaron Wolf is a Music Educator, Composer, and Performer, from California.  He received a BA in Performance from Berklee College of Music (’04), and MA in Performance from University Nevada, Reno (’07).  He was a faculty member at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, CA (’08-’14), and BASIS Independent Silicon Valley in San Jose, CA (’14-’21).  He has performed and recorded across the US, and currently resides in Quebec City, Canada, with his wife and children.

 

 

About the Editor

PIANIST/COMPOSER James Miley is a recipient of the IAJE/Gil Evans Fellowship in Jazz Composition and Professor of Music at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, where he coordinates the jazz and improvised music program and teaches classes in composition, improvisation, music theory, and music technology. He is a founding member of the Radiohead Jazz Project, and his music for big band has been performed in Europe and Asia, as well as by many of the top high school and university big bands throughout the United States. As a pianist, Miley can be heard with the jazz chamber group Bug (featuring saxophonist Peter Epstein), the Hashem Assadullahi Sextet with Ron Miles, and Dan Cavanagh’s Jazz Emporium Big Band on Origin Records. His most recent recording is with the free jazz collective Trio Untold, featuring Mike Nord (guitar/electronics) and Ryan Biesack (drums/percussion), available on PJCE Records. Future projects include an album of original music with pianist Dan Cavanagh and drummer John Hollenbeck, available late Spring, 2022.