Ron Miles, Bill Frisell and Brian Blade – Circuit Rider [TrackList follows] – Enja

Ron Miles, Bill Frisell and Brian Blade – Circuit Rider [TrackList follows] – Enja/Yellowbird Yeb-7745, 56:40 [10/14/14] ***1/2:

(Ron Miles – cornet; Bill Frisell – guitar; Brian Blade – drums)

When jazz fans think of the name Miles, it’s often Miles Davis. But there is another Miles who also makes memorable music with a clear identity. That would be Denver cornetist Ron Miles. Miles has the faculty to craft deceivingly simple tunes which are cunning, complex compositions which frequently have a vibrant Americana mood: sometimes folk-ish, other times imbued with gospel influences, with everything permeated within progressive jazz. Miles’ latest outing, the almost hour-long Circuit Rider, charts a path similar to his previous release, 2012’s Quiver, and showcases Miles’ signature style and sound. An important measure of his accomplishment comes from Miles’ team members, guitarist Bill Frisell (a longtime friend whose partnership with Miles goes back to the mid-‘90s) and drummer Brian Blade. Both were also integral to the success of Quiver.

On Quiver, Miles deftly blended jazz traditionalism with modernity. He echoes the same mannerism on the eight tracks on Circuit Rider, but in subtler ways and in more contemporary circumstances. As they did on Quiver, the trio mingles originals and covers, always with camaraderie and unassuming virtuosity. On Quiver, Miles, Blade and Frisell reached back to the 1920s and beyond for inspiration, but here they don’t stray past the late ‘50s, as they include two compositions by Charles Mingus and one by Jimmy Giuffre. The other five were penned by Miles. A sense of history also is reiterated with the album’s title, which refers to horse-riding clergy who took the Scriptures to remote locations of the American frontier. Miles observes 21st century jazz artists are this era’s equivalent, “We, as musicians, are traveling Circuit Riders preaching every day at any place available and are always on the move.”

Miles allows each piece to carefully expand and proceed, as needed. While there is an impression of musical economy, there is also an appreciation of letting each player take the music where it can go. The nine-minute opener, “Comma,” is an effective example. A self-contained, drifting tone infuses the arrangement, with Miles’ efficient cornet notes indicating the itinerary. Meanwhile, Frisell layers some open-ended, rippling guitar lines which at times are expectant of something positive on the horizon (like distant sunshine after a winter storm) and near the finish, the guitarist glides unobtrusively into dissonance. It’s uncanny how Frisell underscores Miles’ climbing lines with complementary, harmonic chords, like a pianist. Blade follows the evenly but variable development with innate precision. Miles’ spiritual side is offered during the unsettled “The Flesh Is Weak,” where cornet and guitar amble through a wavering melody before Frisell maneuvers into a recurring theme. Blade uses that repetitive route to present loosened, rhythmic patterns which at the conclusion impart a persistent, percussive characteristic. The title track, rather than mirror a Nashville or western aspect, is an upbeat, bopping number with a pointedly percussive property, where Frisell’s notes bend to the rapid, rhythmic fluctuation. While Frisell and Blade hold down the lower end, Miles soars to the upper register of his cornet. His swinging persona brings to mind some other players, including Giuffre.

The threesome puts Giuffre firmly into the limelight on the closer, a relatively, straightforward and almost ten-minute rendition of “Two Kinds of Blues.” Giuffre did this in 1957 with guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Ralph Pena. Giuffre’s version was wistful. Miles, Frisell and Blade retain a parallel emotive essence, but are more lighthearted and afford room to tease amusingly with the melody. Frisell applies some opulent octave work, while Miles is sensitively responsive on cornet and Blade appends some advanced percussive portions into the rhythmic course. The two Mingus translations are equally animated. “Jive Five Floor Four” (which Mingus later retitled “Free Cell Block F, ‘Tis Nazi USA,” and can be found on the 1975 Changes Two record) is necessarily sparser than Mingus’ large band original, and is a bit more beat driven, due in part to Blade’s flexible, New Orleans second-line beat. Frisell presents nimbly abstract lines while Miles occasionally also does some somewhat unconventional cornet alchemy.

Listeners may be more familiar with Mingus’ “Reincarnation of a Lovebird” (from his 1957 LP, The Clown). Mingus fashioned a twisting tune with a 1940s feel and a multifaceted arrangement for his big ensemble. Frisell, Blade and Miles renovate the piece as a relaxed, blues-balanced cut. Miles and Frisell swap the front role with the sort of confidence which only enduring acquaintanceship can muster. Blade keeps the beat and rhythm sympathetically elastic and dynamic. There’s also a blues tint to Miles’ near nine-minute “Dancing Close and Slow,” which also has a country music disposition thanks to Frisell’s amiable, rural guitar runs and Blade’s casual pace. Frisell inserts some extensive six-string excursions accentuated by Miles’ melancholy notes. Colin Bricker mixed and recorded this material, while Hans Wendl produced the session. The result provides a warm atmosphere and detailed auditory nuances which help display the affable affinity between guitar, drums and cornet. Roger Green’s academically-inclined liner notes emulate Stanley Crouch’s scholarly writing, although a tiny font makes reading the text a challenge.

TrackList: Comma; Jive Five Floor Four; The Flesh Is Weak; Dancing Close and Slow; Circuit Rider; Reincarnation of a Lovebird; Angelina; Two Kinds of Blues.

—Doug Simpson

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