Transcendent Cornetist Ron Miles Makes Blue Note Debut with Familiar Elite Quintet on ‘Rainbow Sign’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

When this writer first heard Colorado-based cornetist Ron Miles it was with the bluesman and fellow Coloradoan Otis Taylor with whom Miles appeared on at least six, if not more, of the trance blues maestro’s albums. Not long after, however, I heard Miles as a sideman on Bill Frisell albums and later as a leader of his own albums on Yellowbird where he played with the same cast he enlists here for his Blue Note debut Rainbow SignBrian Blade (drums), Bill Frisell (guitar), Jason Moran (piano), and Thomas Morgan (bass). It’s as fine a lineup as one could gather in a supporting four players, most with long shared histories, making it a true testament to Miles’ artistry.  

If you are new to Ron Miles, the first thing you’ll likely notice is his crystalline tone. Most players of his ilk would play the conventional trumpet or flugelhorn, but Miles plays a one-of-a-kind, brushed gold Monette cornet in G, not the usual B-flat trumpet that most players use. He says the sound is a little deeper, and the pitch difference makes the horn more challenging to play. But, in mastering this instrument, he has indeed developed his own signature sound. Another aspect you may detect is that Miles doesn’t engage in many long solos, preferring instead to ride on top and moving the music around the group and varying the melody and harmonies much in the manner of the Wayne Shorter Group, Miles’ model and another group where Blade is the anchor.

Miles wrote most of this album as his father was passing in the summer 2018, serving as caregiver in his dad’s later days. As such, the album has a deep spiritual underpinning. Compared with Miles’s previous album, I Am A Man, recorded with these same players, and written a month after the 2016 U.S. presidential election and reflective of the country’s uncertainty, Rainbow Sign scans a bit more reflective: it arrives in a time of crisis once more, yet this time it’s exacerbated by a global pandemic and social unrest. Instead of leaning into the despair, Miles crafted an album intended to be an antidote to the madness we all feel. Rainbow Sign is a riveting spiritual piece influenced by author James Baldwin’s nonfiction book The Fire Next Time, and an old folk song from the 1920s. “Rainbows deal with renewal, and also the title, there’s a Carter Family song called ‘God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign,’” he says. He goes on to cite other biblical references.

Another thread, not surprising given Miles’ long association with Taylor, is the blues. To him blues music conveys the freedom that’s eluded Black Americans for too long. “It’s the first music that really gets to the point for Black people about possibilities,” Miles says. “Before that, the possibilities were very limited: you could go to heaven, but you weren’t going to travel. With Rainbow Sign, we have music that is true to the blues, yet it reflects the times we’re in right now while still showing us what’s possible.” In this sense and in the reflective tonality of the album, though quite different texturally, it bears some similarities to the fine Blue Note release earlier this year, On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment, from trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.

The first song written for the album was “Like Those Who Dream,” a brooding slow-burner, the  epic 16-minute opener, imbued at the outset by Morgan’s bowed bass before stretching into  a piece that features stunning turns for each member. and Rainbow Sign’s. The last track completed was “Queen of the South,” positioned second, which, according to Miles, was informed by Ethiopian pop. Indeed, one can hear traces of Ethio-jazz legend Mulatu Astatke’s Afro-Latin Soul period of 1966, and the vaunted Ethiopiques series, which celebrates the country’s obscure soul and groove music from yesteryear. The track “Average,” featuring expressive exchanges between Frisell and Moran, is also a reflective piece that leads into the slightly more joyous and eminently peaceful title track.

The song “Custodian of The New” perhaps the liveliest track, with several meter changes is partially based on those latter years with his father, emblematic of two men sharing space and relishing each other’s company. You hear it in the exquisite cornet tone, within the interplay of fluttering bass and guitar chords, elegant piano notes, and sharp drum fills.  Prior to that “Rumor,” already released as a single, features plenty of Frisell’s signature guitar work that colors so many of his folk song interpretations. Miles infused the tune with pop overtones that he reverts to occasionally, expressing a fondness for the Bee Gees, Jackson 5, and the like. The nursery rhyme entitled “This Old Man” surely had his dad in mind and carries the gentle spirit of the children’s song. “Binder” is a briskly moving tune, another colored by Frisell’s guitar and Moran’s glistening keys as Morgan and Blade march steadily, the piece allowing brief solos from each member. The album closes on the upbeat “A Kind Word.”

Interestingly, though a decade apart in age, both Miles and Frisell attended Denver East High School. Since the mid-1990s, the two have developed a tight musical partnership that spans, with this one, eleven recordings. The interplay between the two is palpable. Given that Morgan is Frisell’s “go-to” bassist and that Blade is widely considered one of the top drummers, it’s not at all surprising that the music blends together so well. Much of its beauty lies in subtlety and there is a conscious absence of showmanship, consistent with their shared histories of playing together and speaking the same musical vocabulary.

The quietly, ever-adventurous Ron Miles delivers yet another gorgeous gem, leaving one to wonder what took so long for Don Was to sign him to Blue Note. But, then again, Bill Frisell hasn’t been on the Blue Note roster long either. One gets the feeling both will be there for a good long time.


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