The professor wears high-top sneakers. One's black, one's white; both look well-broken in. It's the kind of statement trumpet player Ron Miles seems fond of making: No big deal, it just is--but doesn't it look really, really good? Miles is sweet-tempered and rumpled and always thinking, in his quiet way, and his music is like that, too: When he goes to work, it's some of this and some of that, but, boy, doesn't it just sound really, really good? As a working musician and as a professor at Metropolitan State College, Miles makes his most profound statements in the most direct way: by just playing music.
These days, though, one of the few words he would use might be "shhhhhhh." He describes his current combo, a drummerless trio with pianist Eric Gunnison and bassist Kent McLagan, as a toned-down acoustic chamber-jazz group that emphasizes free interplay and is not driven by the relentless beat of percussion. It's something he's wanted to experiment with for a while, but even for a quiet guy, cooling out can be daunting.
"At first," he says of the change in direction, "it was just scary to do it. The beats give you safety." Getting the right players for the job helped; in Gunnison and McLagan, he found two musicians with a gift for listening to each other, while giving and taking seamlessly in an organic way. Gunnison says working with Miles has been a great experience, one in which individual expression dances on a shoestring of structure. "Ron always encourages you to play the way you play--to bring your own thing to the music," he says, adding that the result is unlike anything else he's done. "Ron's so committed to his own music," Gunnison says. "That's really unique these days. He's not swayed by others."
Locale seems to have something to do with the distinctive qualities of the ensuing music, and Miles says he's perfectly content to live and work in Denver rather than having to toe the line in L.A. or New York. "Being out here, you develop in a different way," he says. "It's more individual. In New York you have to do so many different things, you get to be more professional at lots of different styles. But here you can do a little more of your own thing. It's not so style-conscious."
Of course, that's not to say that Miles hasn't had his share of the national limelight. A veteran of two major recordings of his own, as well as gigs with guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Ginger Baker, Miles goes into the studio this summer to record a CD of the new trio's music and will also join Frisell again to work on a project rumored to include Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach. It's just that he's happy where he is. "Once you go, it's like 'Oh, I've gone there,'" he says matter-of-factly on the subject of touring. "And I like it here just fine." Besides, the family man adds, it's hard as a father to explain to a three-year-old why Daddy has to be gone for a month at a time.
So the professor stays. Denver's underrated but fine pool of jazz musicians offers plenty of opportunities to work in a shifting and eclectic range of styles. It's a generous community with an open attitude that suits the restrained yet evolving Miles. For one thing, everybody's got to make a living, so idiosyncrasies are taken in stride.
During a stint playing with the Duke Ellington band under Mercer Ellington's direction, things weren't as easy for Miles. Though he liked playing in the big-band format, it wasn't rewarding musically, and because no one was quite sure what he was going to play given the chance, he didn't get many opportunities to solo. "The trouble was that Duke wasn't there anymore--so what do you do? Do you play just like Cootie Williams?" he says. "Everybody in the band thought I was totally nuts--only a couple of guys would even hang out with me. They must have thought I was going to go postal on 'em."
Nobody's going postal here, though--there's too much music to be made. The Ron Miles Trio, which has already played out a few times around town, brings a more fully crystallized product to the public Friday as part of a jazz series sponsored by the Creative Music Works and the University of Denver's Lamont School of Music. The group hopes its audience will pick up on the nuance of what's happening on stage. "The drummerless format is more intimate," Gunnison explains. "Everything is acoustic, and you don't have to overplay to match the level of the drums. You get into the subtleties of acoustic instruments--you really hear the beautiful sound of the acoustic bass."
The new music, a melodic blend of composed and improvised sections, depends almost entirely on what's happening in the moment. "First there's a mood being set, then there are the specifics," Gunnison says. "Like, I'll listen for what notes Kent is choosing, or I'll think, 'What's Ron doing with the melody that I can complement with my playing?' We all do that." And that's the beauty of it. "There are no gimmicks," Gunnison adds. "It's a genuine experience."