Denver music fans are well aware of Ron Miles's growing national reputation. But even they may be surprised to learn that the instrumentalist's presence in the area was a primary reason that Nate Wooley, one of the freshest young voices in jazz, moved to Colorado this past August.
Wooley--who, like Miles, plays the trumpet--is working on a master's degree at the University of Denver's Lamont School of Music. But he's also studying at the feet of Miles, whom he learned about several years ago by sheer happenstance. "I started to steer toward the more free side of things and the avant-garde at the end of high school when I got Ron's album, Witness, as a fluke," recalls Wooley, 23. "A friend of mine bought it for me for my birthday, thinking it was a Miles Davis album; she knew I liked Miles Davis, and she just saw the name 'Miles' and picked it up.
"I didn't know who he was, either," Wooley continues. "But it was that album that broke through for me--steered me toward where I wanted to go. I mean, I had a sound in my head, and Ron's album was the first thing outside my head that I had heard that actually sounded similar to that sound. It was incredible."
This discovery occurred in Oregon, Wooley's home state. He was born in Clatskanie, a small coastal town, and by the early Nineties had become a skate punk. "I skateboarded for a long time," he notes. "I quit about a year ago because my knees couldn't take it anymore, but I've actually been thinking about taking it up again, just to have something to take my mind off music for a little bit every day. I've always loved it." When he was riding the sidewalks, jazz didn't provide his soundtrack. But he believes the scene's influence can be heard in his current work: "That's the culture that I grew up in, and I know a lot of it comes into my music. The punk rock that's involved in the whole skater lifestyle is a part of who I am, and it comes across in the way that I play. I don't ever want to turn my back on that."
That Wooley also nursed an interest in jazz shouldn't come as that big of a surprise. "Aside from Clatskanie being a fishing village and mill town, there were a lot of artists in the community," he explains. "It's up on the Oregon coast, which is just really a beautiful, inspirational spot, so there are a lot of poets and people like that doing their thing. So these people were very supportive. Plus, my dad and my mom were both in my corner as well, even when I started to get into some of the more Ron type of things and sounds. My music wasn't something that they would put on to listen to in the car or anything, but they saw that it was what I needed. They saw that this made me feel good and that I was actually able to express my feelings through it. I've never been really great at expressing my feelings orally, through the spoken word; I don't seem to be able to articulate things that way. So that music was really the only way I could do it."
By the time he enrolled at the University of Oregon, Wooley's fondness for Witness had blossomed into an obsession with the work of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton and the like. Fortunately, he soon hooked up with several kindred spirits who shared his tastes. "There just happened to be five or six other people who were listening to the same things, leaning toward the same musical directions," he says. "During the five years that I was there, we just all kind of grew up together and formed a bond between us. We'd introduce each other to different players and concepts and talk about music. And that was really where everything started. I started coming up with ideas for the way I wanted to play."
Eventually, Wooley and a pair of classmates, bassist Eric Warren and drummer Charlie Dogget, formed a group called the Sangha Trio. The act's first recording--Frantically, Frantically Being at Peace, issued on San Francisco's Slippery Slope imprint--is a strong debut that finds the players paying tribute to the approaches of their mentors even as they struggle toward defining a more personal style. According to Wooley, the freshness of the disc has everything to do with the Trio's methodology.
"Usually there's no predestined compositional thing we're going for," he comments. "It's really kind of a game. One person starts playing--not thinking of anything, but just playing the first thing that comes out. From that, this person has a responsibility to build things. The other two come in either as a textural thing or as a solo voice--whatever is needed. We're all really into twentieth-century classical composers, so sometimes we'll just figure out a form as we go or a two-theme approach. Then one person will make a bold move, and it's up to the other people to react to it in whatever way they feel works best, whether it's going with or against it.
"Lately, though, I've actually been writing some tunes, with a lot of influence from the way Tim Berne writes," he goes on. "Maybe there's ten bars of written music, but with the improvisation, you have a twenty-minute piece. We've also been doing some standards--playing the first phrase, and then it's a free thing until we get to one certain phrase, and then it's a free thing again until the last phrase. And it's our job to create something cogent out of that so that one, people will know that it's a standard, and two, that we've created something new that is a personal thing."
Taking jazz to new places is one of Wooley's goals. "Jazz doesn't make much sense in this time, in the way that it is often played--a head-solo-head thing, just like it was forty years ago. I don't think that applies to this generation of people. I think people think on a more advanced, abstract level than that.
"Of course, I think the tradition is important," he adds. "You have to know the tradition to really be able to play with the spirit. But you don't have to take it verbatim. I think we have to incorporate all our influences. Because the music world isn't as clear-cut as it used to be, you might as well play what you want. That's what's going to be original. I mean, people have heard it all. Jazz has gone just about as far as it can, I think, until someone comes along to change it. Maybe someone like Ron, who will knock it on its ear. But their music is going to be a combination of other things."
At first Denver seems an unlikely location from which to launch such a revolution. But Wooley is so sold on the city that he's trying to persuade Warren and Dogget to put down roots here, too. "I decided that I didn't need to go to a big New York school for my master's if I could be where Ron was," he remarks. "I mean, I really just want to get as much out of him as I can. I don't want to play exactly like him, and I don't think I ever could. But there's something about him and his music that is terribly inspirational, you know?