Ron Miles – I Am A Man (2017)

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During a time when the American civil rights struggle has new conflicts brought on by today’s polarized society, Ron Miles wants to remind us through I Am A Man (Yellowbird Records) that the fight is actually over the same things as it was some fifty years ago. Denver’s master composer, bandleader and cornetist Miles has made his third Yellowbird release not just music that’s “served up with angularity and superb group dynamics” but an extension of that with a forceful message.

“I Am A Man” was the rallying cry of Black sanitation workers in Memphis striking for basic human dignity through better conditions and pay following a fatal on-the-job accident that took the lives of two of them in February, 1968. That brought the attention of Martin Luther King, Jr., who went there to rally the beleaguered strikers but was tragically assassinated while staying at a hotel there.

Miles’ deep-seated sense of melodicism enables him to float across genres with such ease, he can sit in blues settings with Otis Taylor as comfortably as avant-garde ones with Myra Melford, much as Bill Frisell can record with Lucinda Williams one day and John Zorn the next. It’s this musical kinship (as well as long-time friendship) that’s resulted in these two ending up in so many recordings together, and sure enough, Frisell is present here, as is drummer Brian Blade, both of whom rounded out a highly unique trio featured in those prior Yellowbird records. This time, they are joined by other virtuosic musicians who effortlessly cross lines between almost all forms of music: Jason Moran (piano) and Thomas Morgan (bass).

It’s no small wonder that Miles not only conveys a missive without words, but also without combative music. It’s music with an easy outward demeanor but complexities beneath the surface, signifying the duality of man. The nonviolent but elegant, prideful tone of “I Am A Man” simulates the manner by which King encouraged the strikers to confront their adversities.

“Darken My Door” illustrates the freedom Miles gave his charges, who all received the entire scores for the music, not just parts designated for them. He left it up to the individual players to carve out their own tactics for contributing, and that empowered Moran to begin this track with a gorgeously flowing piano segment. Frisell’s own single line patterns glow with a warm effervescence and Thomas and Blade nimbly support him with a light touch.

“The Gift That Keeps On Giving” has that modern jazz swing, and Miles rides the vibe so gracefully, showing no interest at all in stuffing more notes than needed, only making the most of the notes that are chosen.

“Revolutionary Congregation” refers to Miles’ observation that “religion at its essence being revolutionary.” Harmonically, it’s a admirable example of his ability to be free and melodious at the same time, though the middle section is a rare detour into the unhinged. “Jasper” gets playful, especially coming from Moran’s piano, while “Is There Room In Your Heart For A Man Like Me” gently flows from a simple ostinato that evolves over this lengthened, collected group performance.

In his usual understated approach, Ron Miles deconstructs through his accomplished art the complex emotions of protracted strife from both within society and within a person, and makes compelling music from it. The added sense of purpose propels I Am A Man to the upper echelon of his discography.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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