Review: Ron Miles – I Am a Man

Ron Miles is a cornet player with an easy melodicism and a deeply affective tone. I’ve thought of him as sort of a latter day Don Cherry, an association that’s been reinforced in my mind by having seen him in two settings where the connection was explicit: performing with the Bad Plus in their wild arrangement of Ornette Coleman’s classic Science Fiction three years ago and earlier this year with Joshua Redman’s band Still Dreaming, itself a tribute to the classic quartet Old and New Dreams, which included Don Cherry and Joshua’s father, Dewey Redman. As a band leader he’s proven to be one of the best and most consistently satisfying trumpet players around today. His last two albums, leading a trio with Bill Frisell on guitar and Brian Blade on drums, were exercises in telepathic communication. This new release, I Am a Man, adds two more musicians, pianist Jason Moran and bassist Thomas Morgan, yet somehow manages to create an even tighter package.

The trio albums wanted for nothing, yet the piano and bass here are like secret ingredients we didn’t realize we were missing. Jason Moran and Thomas Morgan fit right into the proceedings and manage to capture and extend something that made the trio so irresistible, the vibrant sense of interplay. In many bands with both a piano and guitar, one of the two instruments will lay out when the other one is playing in support. That is frequently not the case here where Frisell ornaments Moran’s comping with his own melodic lines. Thomas Morgan has been Frisell’s bassist of choice recently – the two released an album of duo work earlier this year – and his own lines dance around Frisell’s. The overall effect of the bass, guitar and piano is a web of melodies, a tight counterpoint, sounding balanced and composed even with all the improvisational elements.

The album is meant as something of a tribute to civil rights and the fight against injustice. The title comes from the signs black sanitation workers famously held protesting in Memphis in 1968 after a malfunctioning truck killed two employees. In the liner notes, Miles’ notes that the sense of triumph over adversity has long been a component of black American music. It can be hard to read instrumental music, but it is easy to see that sense of conquering hardship in a composition like “Darken My Door”, which sees a ruminative opening with just the piano and rhythm section leading into a brighter and more hopeful full band ending.

In his compositions Miles calls on a deep blues sensibility without getting too pinned down. None of the songs really follows a blues form, but they utilize that musical language to great effect. Jason Moran, who in his own music features outbursts of joyous energy brings a certain amount of bombast to songs like the title track while practicing graceful restraint elsewhere on the album. Miles leads with a strong sense of direction and almost spiritual clarity. He can improvise a far reaching melody cleanly and the band is listening hard and responding in real time. At its best the music is like a living thing, organic and breathing.

One of Ron Miles’ best. Five Stars