Ron Miles ‘I Am A Man’ (Enja Yellowbird) 4/5

Denver-based cornet player Ron Miles has something of a low profile in the world of jazz and is, perhaps, better known as a sideman who has graced many a jazz musician’s albums. The 2002 duet album, ‘Heaven’, with guitarist Bill Frisell, introduced Miles to an appreciative audience and subsequently, Miles has recorded as a leader in tandem with both Frisell and, more latterly with bassist Thomas Morgan, with previous recordings being the 2012 ‘Quintet’ album and the ‘Circuit Rider’ recording from 2014. This new album, co-produced by Miles and Colin Bricker, captures an outstanding line-up of musicians including Jason Moran on piano and Brian Blade on drums in reflective mode. If anything the subdued, introspective nature of the music and the calibre of the musicians involved might indicate either an ECM, or Nonesuch production, but it is in fact on Enja Yellowbird. The all-original compositions have a folk-derived influence and that, allied with the clean sounding cornet that Miles creates, makes at once for a hugely enjoyable and relaxed listening experience.

On the laconic opener and title track, the music hints at 1960’s Miles Davis from his freer mid-1960’s period, yet underneath it all an optimistic tone is struck. One of the endearing features of this piece and, indeed the album as a whole, is how piano and cornet operate in unison, with the inventive use of drumming by Blade throughout. Moody ballads are a feature of this album, with the hypnotic melody of ‘Darken My Door’, a clear highlight. Frisell is in his element improvising on ‘Mother Juggler’. The title track itself is in reference to a well publicised proclamation in 1968 from the civil rights era when African-American sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, protested at being mistreated by the management. Rooted in the socio-political demands of that era, the music has a timeless quality.

Ron Miles is one of a small coterie of jazz musicians who have found their own niche by both performing as artists and lecturing on the music they love, in his case returning to his native Denver, Colorado, in order to do so. Miles studied under both Lester Bowie and Ornette Coleman and first became a jazz musician during the 1980’s when a form of neo-bop was then in vogue. An eleven page lengthy set of inner sleeve notes is written by National Public Radio commentator Michelle Mercier who does a fine job of providing a biographical overview of Ron Miles. This all-original set of compositions is strongly recommended and may just creep into the end of year ‘Best of’s’.

Tim Stenhouse