On his fifth album as leader, recorded roughly one year ago, Denver trumpeter Ron Miles returns to a classic trio approach for the first time since his 1987 debut, Distance for Safety. The trio -- and its subtle, patient beauty -- might surprise some listeners more familiar with Miles's cosmopolitan electric groups and his experimentation with the likes of the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble. Deep digging into the liner notes of various local records, however, reveals that Miles has played, albeit briefly, with everyone from progressive rockers Hail (1990) to smooth jazz purveyors Dotsero (1996) to kids' music group Lois LaFond and the Rockadiles (1998). And then there are his years of collaboration with guitarist Bill Frisell, a stint with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and many others. Miles's versatility, then, should come as no surprise.
For Trio, Miles teams up with pianist Eric Gunnison and bassist Kent McLagan, two of the most respected jazz players in Colorado. The production on this locally produced disc is a purist's dream, and it puts Miles and company's knack for finding the next notes in a fishbowl. If it wasn't already clear, Trio demonstrates that Miles's economies of scale require neither the repetition of swing nor the theatrics of fusion to enchant modern jazz fans. The opener, "Alarm," relies on a simple, descending melody wrapped with plenty of ivory curls from Gunnison. In its middle, "Bookworm" contains a barrage of blistering multiphonic-like smears from Miles and rumbling passages from McLagan. The nineteen-minute "Darken My Door" exhibits a complex, exploratory quietude in the Paul Bley tradition of highly listenable idiosyncrasy. A major theme develops only at the halfway point, but the extended song form is still made rewarding by Miles's exquisite shifts and bends, Gunnison's unbearable lightness on the keyboard and McLagan's willingness to interact melodically as well as rhythmically. A hot rendition of the Carter Family favorite "Wildwood Flower" precedes "Lullaby," where the crafted decay of notes falling away and the almost imperceptible vibrato of Miles's muted trumpet come across as prized, whispered secrets. Finally, "Will You Marry Me" has an earthy feel, perhaps because Gunnison and McLagan spend most of the song as an easygoing, intertwining duo before Miles enters to make good on their foreshadowing with some suggestive, classic phrasing.
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Having received the critical acclaim he deserved for penning six of eight compositions for larger ensembles on Ginger Baker's 1999 CD Coward of the County, Trio was a sensible next move for Miles. With its cool, improvisational feel and compositional inflections of grandeur, Trio successfully reminds us that Miles and his partners have the smarts and chops to supersize small combos.