Denver-Bred Ron Miles and Bill Frisell Are Among the Greatest Collaborators in Jazz

Two of the best jazz musicians Denver has ever produced, cornetist Ron Miles and guitarist Bill Frisell, are sitting across from each other at a table in the back corner of Dazzle Restaurant and Lounge's showroom in mid-September. Last night, they both played here with guitarist Dale Bruning, Frisell's mentor and former teacher, and they'll play another two sets tonight.

When Frisell speaks about the decades he's known Miles, he chooses his words thoughtfully, sometimes trailing off before starting again. He tells the story of a cassette tape he got from Miles, delivered by their mutual friend, producer Hans Wendl. Along with his music, Miles included a note asking if Frisell wanted to record with him. The guitarist couldn't make the time then, but he wrote Miles a postcard (which Miles has since had framed) expressing admiration for his horn playing.

That sound, that unmistakable Ron Miles sound, is rich, full-bodied and lyrical. Frisell remembers exactly where he was the next time he heard it. He was driving up a hill in Seattle when a Duke Ellington song played by Boulder-based saxophonist Fred Hess came on the radio. A trumpet solo cut in, and Frisell knew immediately who it was.

When he got home, he found the tape with a phone number on it. Frisell called Miles and they talked for a long time. They learned that they both knew Dale Bruning and that they both went to East High School.

"Just from that conversation I knew we had to play together," Frisell says.

On October 8, 1994, Frisell and Miles played their first show together at the Ogden Theatre with Dale Bruning, bassist Artie Moore and drummer Rudy Royston. That show was the start of a two-decade-long musical kinship that extends to both artists' recordings. The younger Miles saw his time in a few of Frisell's bands in the mid-'90s (starting with the Quartet project, which also featured violinist Eyvind Kang and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes) as something of an apprenticeship -- something that was never part of his formal music studies at the University of Denver and the Manhattan School of Music. "When I came up in the '80s, it was almost like you didn't have to apprentice anymore," says Miles. "It was like you were supposed to get a record contract at twenty, get your own band and go out there and do that. It got a little lost.

"There's a reason you apprentice with somebody. You see them put sets together. You seem them weeks on end, playing songs and dealing with stuff. You can't learn it in school, you can't read about it in a book, you have to go out there and do it. So, my time to do that was being in his band."

Miles says he's learned lots of specific things from Frisell about the logistics of writing and performing music. But, he says, "more than anything, it's just about how to be a musician and be authentic and have integrity." He turns to Frisell. "You know, how you treat people on the road and all that stuff. Lots of stuff."

Now, Miles is the one serving as a mentor for young players -- he's been a teacher at Metro State University since 1998 and is the coordinator of jazz studies there. According to Frisell, that's always been a role he was suited for. "I never thought of you as an apprentice," says Frisell with a laugh. "No, he's been my teacher the whole way. And I still want to stop all this rigmarole and just sign up for his jazz history class.... He always felt like a master to me." Most people would consider both players masters. They've played with plenty of others who fit that description at Dazzle, including drummer Brian Blade. The three players have symbiotic styles: They are each somewhat understated, minimalist and Zen-like, but together, they are capable of delivering fierce musical climaxes.

"I believe we share similar sensibilities for life itself," Blade says via e-mail. "The music is part of that life mission. Sharing with each other and finding joy in that process of rendering and submitting to the moment gives me, and hopefully the listener, fulfillment that is a gift from God."

The three first recorded together on The Sweetest Punch (a jazz-centric companion album to Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach's Painted From Memory) in 1999. It wasn't until Miles's 2012 album Quiver (which includes two live songs recorded at Dazzle) that they would record again.

They returned to the venue for two nights last October to work on Miles's new album, Circuit Rider, which comes out October 14 on the German-based jazz imprint Enja. After the shows, the group cut the album in two days with local engineer Colin Bricker at his Mighty Fine Productions studio.

The album's title refers to the groups of traveling clergy who rode across America's frontier on horseback 250 years ago delivering the gospel. Miles encountered the circuit riders in an Elliott Smith song, "Coast to Coast," which includes the line, "There's a circuit rider that comes every fifth Sunday."

Miles sees musicians as the circuit riders of today. "Folks kind of come through -- like Bill's here now.... Somebody else will be through in a few weeks. And it filters around, and it really contributes so much [when] musicians come through and drop their thing on the scene for a second. It's very inspiring."

The record features a couple of covers, including a pair of Charles Mingus songs, "Reincarnation of a Love Bird" and "Jive Five, Floor Four" along with Jimmy Giuffre's "Two Kinds of Blues." But Miles also wrote five original tunes for it. They're steeped in American folk traditions, gospel and jazz, and he wrote them with Frisell and Blade in mind.

"The thing is, they're both great players of song, and so my job really is just to write some memorable songs and let them go," says Miles. "I really didn't go in and write too many ideas about how they would play the groove...but in a general sense I just try to provide really, really good songs, because I know they're brilliant songwriters."

When the time came to record at Mighty Fine Productions, the three musicians played facing each other. "You're just listening, and if you can't hear somebody, you just play softer," Miles says. "You're right there, really connected."

On Circuit Rider, it's clear that these three musicians are connected. There's a certain ego-less, humble sensitivity about the disc, but there are also dynamics. For this group, it's about more than just playing notes on a page. Frisell says that Miles is "always coming from inside the music," and that could easily be said about Blade and Frisell himself as well. In fact, it's a skill Miles said he picked up from Frisell. "He's shown us so much of what the possibilities are, of not only a composition but of really being inside the music," says Miles.

For Miles, that idea is partly about being secure in time and harmony, but "it's also about having a really great imagination," he adds. "And I think that those two guys have just marvelous imagination. I think one thing that they do is they not only hear what they're doing, but they hear what you're doing, what you're about to do or what you might want to do. It's all part of that, which makes it why everybody wants to play with them all the time."

Blade thinks that Miles's and Frisell's music speaks to exactly who they are, "their imagination and humor and contemplation. I know that knowing more about certain artists of any form can sully the art itself if there is some contradiction, but that is not the case with Ron and Bill. The more I know them, the more I admire them and hold them in high regard as human beings. They embody the beautiful sound of the music."

The depth of Frisell and Miles's musical kinship can be heard on the new album, and the two Denver-bred artists will surely share both the stage and the studio again.

"He has such an effect on everybody in the band," says Frisell of Miles. "I've played with the same people, the same song when he's there and when he's not there, and there's an incredible power, like a rhythmic clarity power, in everything that he plays. It sort of just brings everything into focus.... I'm talking about one of those things that gets almost beyond. You can't really analyze it. He puts a spell on things."

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon