In conversation with ron miles & bill frisell
By Ted Panken
In 1975, not long after he left the Berklee School of Music, Bill Frisell heard a recording by Carlos Santana that would permanently impact his musical production. “Santana played this incredible sustain sound that sounded like a trumpet,” Frisell said recently. “I was trying to play like a horn player; I wanted to sound like Miles Davis. So I got a distortion thing. Then I was listening to pianists and admired how they could hold notes down and let them ring. Back then, there was a little cheap delay that had a cassette tape in it which sort of did what my little digital delay does for me now—that piano-y sustained thing.”
In point of fact, Frisell’s recorded output includes surprisingly few encounters with pianists, although his three duo performances with McCoy Tyner on the 2008 release Guitars [Half Note] are highlights of the release. But over the past decade-and-a-half, Frisell has incorporated the trumpet into his compositions through the distinctive tonal personality of Ron Miles, a fellow son of Denver.
In August, Miles made a rare New York appearance as a leader, performing a three-night mid-week run at the Jazz Standard with an A-list group headlined by Frisell, but also including bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Matt Wilson. On the final day, Miles and Frisell joined me at WKCR to discuss their musical relationship.
You’ve been playing together now for how long?
BF: I actually just got a poster from the first gig that we played. Was it 1993?
RM: It’s when Justice was a baby, so, yes. 1993.
As Bill once described it to me, you sent Bill a cassette, Bill heard it and didn’t have a chance to hear it immediately...
BF: I’m not sure if I’ve ever told Ron about this. Did I ever tell you, Ron?
RM: I don’t know.
BF: You sent me this cassette, which came to me second-hand, through Hans Wendl, our now-mutual friend, who told me, “There’s this guy; I wanted you to hear this, and maybe play on a recording.” All I knew was that the cassette was by some trumpet player who lived in Denver. I listened to it, and it sounded really cool. It was unique—it knocked me out. But I never talked to you. I told Hans, “Just say hi to him, and sorry, I don’t have time,” blah-blah-blah. Whatever. It didn’t work out that we met at that time.
A couple of years went by, and I’m driving... I remember the exact spot. I’m in my car, in Seattle, downshifting to go up a hill, and on the radio they were playing a record by Fred Hess, the saxophonist, and it was a Duke Ellington tune, “Chelsea Bridge” or something. Anyway, it was music by people I didn’t know, and there’s a saxophone solo and then a trumpet solo—and it was like, “It’s got to be that guy.” I knew it was Ron from having heard the cassette a couple of years before. It knocked me out again. Then I thought, “I’ve got to call him up.” I went home and found the cassette, which had your 303 area code number on it, and I called you. We ended up talking for a long time, and it turned out that we went to the same high school, and knew a lot of the same people. For example, Ron was close with my main guitar teacher, and played with him. It was this instant thing, just from that conversation, and the feeling was, “Man, we’ve really got to play.” Then Ron asked me to come to Denver and play, whenever that was, ‘93...
BF: Was that too long a description?
No, it was great. Very thorough. Ron, does Bill’s account roughly corroborate with your recollection?
RM: Yes. At the time, this record label was interested in me, and they asked me who I wanted to be on the record. I’m from Denver, and I didn’t know what record labels did, so I thought, “Well, let’s see...I like Bill Frisell,” and I started going down my list of the musicians I really loved. They said, “Why don’t you call them and see if they’ll be on your record.” Then I made up little cassettes and sent it to everyone. It never really panned out, although Bill actually did write me a postcard. Not long after, I remember coming home from school, and my wife said, “Bill Frisell is on the answering machine.” I was like, “What?!” It was one of those moments. A friend of mine got a call from Miles Davis once, and that tape...
It wasn’t a fake Miles Davis.
RM: No, it was really Miles Davis. It was a kid from Greeley who was playing saxophone. It was that kind of moment. I listened to the tape, and it was really Bill Frisell, and I called him. I just couldn’t believe it. Bill’s sitting here, so I won’t embarrass him too terribly much, but to stand on the bandstand with him on so many nights has been an unbelievable blessing, and I’ve learned so much through these years.
Do you share, in a generalized way, any aesthetic principles or sensibilities or ways of thinking about music that make you well-matched?
RM: I’ll dive in first. I think that we both like to be in the band as much as possible, and that we both like to keep the song going as long as possible. That’s really the thing, as opposed to showing that you can do something, or giving a dissertation on the history of jazz or whatever is supposed to happen. You play a song, and you try to keep the integrity of the song going as long as you can. Sometimes you step out and sometimes you step back, but you’re always present with everybody on the bandstand all the time. I mean, individual expression, of course, but the sound of the band is what seems to be important. I think we both share that.
BF: I hope I do, because you sure... Ron is one of the deepest accompanists I’ve ever played with. He knows how to get from the inside of whatever is going on and support everybody else. That’s pretty unusual. Trumpet you think of as the one instrument that’s probably the most out-front, and Ron can do that for sure, but he’s really coming from the deepest center of the music.
Ron, you used the phrase, “a dissertation on the history of jazz.” I gather that quite a bit of jazz history actually has passed through the high school that you both attended, from Paul Whiteman, Jimmie Lunceford, Bill and yourself, other musicians...
BF: Fletcher Henderson’s brother...?
RM: Well, Horace Henderson certainly lived in Denver for a long time, but I don’t think he went to the school.
It’s called East High School?
RM: Yes, and I guess originally it was just Denver High School when Wilberforce Whiteman, who was Paul Whiteman’s father, was a teacher there. I think Andy Kirk went there, too, actually.
Were both of you aware of that lineage when you were attending high school?
BF: Not me. I just wanted to get out of there as fast as I could! But looking back, in the school I had the feeling of having this community of musicians, of musicians being together, and I try to keep that with me. The students were like a cross-section of the whole city. Like a lot of American cities, Denver is divided according to race and people’s economic situations, but that school is right in the middle, so everybody was there. So were all together, and it was cool.
It sounds like there was precedent for that earlier in the century, if both Jimmie Lunceford and Andy Kirk attended when Wilberforce Whiteman was teaching. There’s an institutional power that accrues to that kind of history and tradition, in some way or another.
RM: I think so. When I came, the school had a purely musical tradition, as a school where music was always first. In 1981, when I graduated, it was right in the period when Maynard Ferguson was having Conquistador and “Theme from Rocky”—and East was the school that didn’t do that kind of stuff, that did music, talked about dynamics and subtlety. It was a real beacon. I remember feeling so fortunate to go there. I was deep into Maynard, just like everybody else, but I certainly appreciated getting a chance to have my teacher say, “Well, if you’re into Maynard, maybe you should check out this record, Dinah Jams,” with Clark Terry and Clifford Brown, and Max Roach playing with Maynard. That was an awakening. At that point, I was aware of Bill Frisell, like everybody else, through Downbeat magazine. I knew he had been in Denver, and though I didn’t know him personally or anything, I felt that connection, like, “Wow, he went to East High School.” We felt a sense of pride about it.
Bill, did you have a Eureka moment like that early on, such as Ron just described?
BF: Actually, I was playing clarinet in the school band and also playing guitar, trying to play blues and whatever pop music. There was an all-school talent show, and these girls were doing a dance routine to the recording of Wes Montgomery’s “Bumping on Sunset.” I’d never heard of Wes Montgomery. But the band director said, “Well, you play guitar, right? Here, I’ll give you this record, and can you learn this song?” He thought it would be cooler if they did it to a live band. So I went home and heard Wes Montgomery for the first time, and tried to sort of mimic it. Luckily, it wasn’t “Airegin” or some other tune like that. It was a bridge between the music that I could deal with, and then this whole other world. So I learned that song, played it at the all-school show with these girls, and we were a smashing success. Then my buddies, the bass player and the drummer, we became kind of the hippest rhythm section in the school, and started backing up singers and stuff. It sounds like I’m name-dropping, but from junior high all the way through high school I was in the school band with Philip Bailey and Larry Dunn and Andrew Woolfolk, who went on to be in Earth, Wind and Fire. Anyway, it was cool!
Bill left Denver, went to Berklee and to New York and had many travels. But unless I’m mistaken, Ron’s path puts the lie to the adage that you need to come to New York to develop your musicianship. You developed into a world-class jazz musician pretty much staying in Denver, or am I incorrect?
RM: Actually, I went to school in New York, the Manhattan School of Music, for my first year of graduate school. I studied with Ray Mase, who now teaches at Juilliard, and leads the American Brass Quintet, and also with Bob Mintzer. They were great. The year I was there, Buck Clayton came to school, and Red Rodney, and Art Farmer. I mean, golly, just to hear them... The band director was not a fan of my playing.
RM: To put it mildly. He would literally yell at me every day, because I was really, at that point, greatly influenced by Lester Bowie and Miles Davis. I still am influenced by them! And he was not a fan.
He knew better.
RM: He knew better. He would always tell me, “Red Rodney is coming or Art Farmer’s coming, and they’re going to tell you what’s what.” They came and were totally supportive. They were like, “Well, he’s of a generation where that’s what he should probably be into.” I was sad, but I guess they heard that I hopefully would get good at some point. After that, I got a teaching assistantship back in Colorado, so I came back and kept working on my stuff. There’s music everywhere. We get a chance to go around (I know Bill does), and in every community you find people dealing with some music, or trying to.
Ron, in what ways has playing with Bill inflected your sensibility about musical expression?
RM: For one thing, just getting a chance to hear Bill and Joey Baron and all these folks up close, to see how they work on their music, and how dedicated they are. It’s not like they just fall out of bed and play. I mean, they work at this stuff, and they’re really serious. When I came up, particularly in the ‘80s, there was almost an impression, because all these folks my age were getting record contracts, that you could skip the whole thing about being an apprentice with a master musician, that you could just show up and do it right away. I think that false sense has lost us a lot—because you really do learn—everything. How to put together a set; learning from Joey about how to get quick-dry clothes on the road and not fill up a huge suitcase; seeing how musicians interact; giving them freedom and also structure. I’ve learned all those things in Bill’s band, not to mention learning a great deal about harmony and those sorts of things as well.
Had you been on the road much before you started going out with Bill?
RM: Not much. I was in the Duke Ellington band off and on for a year. But that was a very different thing. We were doing the hits, and there wasn’t a lot of room for creative blowing. It was more of a recreative band. But it was best big band I’d ever played with in my life, so just getting exposed to that was great.
Which trumpeter were you channeling?
RM: Well, I didn’t get many opportunities. I was kind of the low man on the totem pole, so most of the time I got whichever part everybody didn’t want to play! But every once in a while, I would open my book, like on “Mood Indigo,” which had Cootie Williams’ name in the left-hand corner. I was amazed at the part, because there was no melody written and no chords. It just said, in words, “Play the melody,” and then it had some whole notes that Ellington wrote for background parts. Getting to talk to those guys was great, too. Just being on the road with Mercer Ellington and getting to talk to those guys was a great learning experience.
I get the impression, which may be completely unsupported by fact, that you’ve made a transition over the last decade to 12 years from being a functional musician playing in many different situations to one with a much more finely honed sensibility towards what you want to express.
RM: Twenty years ago, I was certainly trying to find my way in the musical world. I was playing lots of classical music, playing lots of different types of jazz, lots of repertory music. But even at that point, I was hoping to find common ground between that and being a modern musician. To get from Jelly Roll Morton not necessarily the specific things that involve New Orleans music, but the idea of balancing composition and improvisation. From Louis Armstrong about not having to play eighth notes to create a melodic line through a phrase, even though the harmony is changing. I tried to take those abstract concepts to see if it would lead me to a place where I could generate some creative music. I was always looking to do creative music. I wasn’t always succeeding. I’m still not always succeeding!
Bill, were you at any point doing these sorts of journeyman gigs or playing in a lot of different functions? It seems you’ve been in a position to be in creative bands at least since you joined Paul Motian in 1981.
BF: Riding up to the station, I was talking to Ron about how it seems like in the last few years, I’m doing my own music so many times, and it’s almost a safe place to be. I definitely spent a lot of time playing in other people’s bands and dealing with other people’s music, playing a wedding where in the moment you’d have to try to act like you know a song you’d never heard. But in the last twenty years or so, it seems it’s been more and more focused on my own stuff.
Can you speak towards your own compositional process? Is it inspired by the musicians you play with?
BF: When I’m actually writing the music, it’s more that I’m alone in my room, just letting my imagination go. I’m not really thinking about what it’s for. I accumulate material, and bring it to the musicians later. I’ve been spoiled, because I can write the most minimal, simple melody, give it to Ron, and he’ll take it seriously and immediately make something out of it. When I write and arrange music, the line can blur, because I’m counting on all the people I’m playing with to bring their own thing to it, but at the same time I’m trying to set up a framework that establishes a world we’ll enter into and everybody knows where we are. But I like it when it evolves and changes. It’s crucial that it change all the time, that people can find other things in it.
Ron, is the music you’re performing this week tailored to this configuration of musicians—Frisell, Reginald Veal and Matt Wilson—or does it draw on a longer history of compositions by you?
RM: Well, this particular band has no limits, so anything is possible. But I try to think of songs that would be fun for us to play that we could say something on, but are also challenging. A couple are older songs, but most are recent. What Bill was saying about composition is another thing I’ve learned from being with him. Composers can get into an ego thing, like, “I wrote this and I’m going to write all this stuff.” Sometimes, though, it’s good to give people enough material to tell them what they really need to know, but still leave them room to express themselves. That’s why we play this music and why we love listening to this music, is the possibility that something that we never thought could happen, might happen. If you over-write, it can limit the possibilities. But that can happen if you under-write, too. Bill has always been masterfully balanced.
Another specific thing is giving musicians the whole score. Bill might have been the first person I played with who didn’t just give you your own part, but gave you a score with everyone’s part. Then you could see what everyone else is doing as opposed to just being locked into your own thing—you could really be part of all that’s going on. That was huge, and I see more people doing it. I think a lot of it is through him—people who studied with Bill at Banff, who I see doing it later on.
At the time Bill met Ron, he was beginning to investigate a lot of American vernacular roots music; things we put titles on like blues and country, which emerge from American popular culture of your parents’ generation and your own formative years. Having now played a lot of this music in Bill’s bands, Ron, as a musician with a deep jazz and classical background, someone who’s used to playing a lot of complex music, can you discuss the satisfactions of addressing these more elemental emotions or musical content? You’re twelve years younger than Bill. Were you yourself very involved with popular music as a kid?
RM: When I started listening to music, my first bands were like a lot of folks. I loved the Jackson Five and I loved the Archies. The Jackson Five were actually real, and the Archies, of course, weren’t...
It’s good that you can admit this.
RM: Yes! Those were my favorites. But once I started to play the trumpet, I stopped listening to popular music altogether. I was aware of Thriller and Purple Rain and those things when they came out, but not really. Or the Police—I didn’t listen to them at all. Then at the end of college, when I was about 22, I started listening to that music and found I really liked it a lot. One of the first records I heard that Bill was on was Power Tools, with Shannon Jackson and Melvin Gibbs. What was the pop song you guys covered on there...
BF: Oh, it’s the one they played in that ghost movie... Was that the one?
BF: I can’t remember.
RM: But it was striking how beautiful it was and what an emotional connection it made to me. Bill was the first person who started to do pop songs that I really knew, like “Live to Tell.” Again, I was struck by just how emotional it was, and I thought I should look into a way to do that. I think it requires us to be real selective in what we pick. Earlier generation classic pop songs, like Gershwin songs, were written from a place where the composers played instruments also, which lent itself towards instrumental interpretation of them, whereas many of the generation of songwriters who came up in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s may have accompanied themselves on guitar, but it’s really vocal music—the lyric changes a bunch, but sometimes the melodies don’t change pitches enough to be instrumentally interesting. But as long as we choose selectively, and reinterpret and arrange the music, the pop tradition is really rich, because it does speak to our contemporary times on many levels. A hint can really bring the audience in, quite beautifully.
Bill, talk about your process of selection, how you assimilate and absorb these older songs. Your set might include “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” or Sam Cooke’s “Change Is Gonna Come,” then you might play a Charlie Christian transcription, or something with a Malian vibe—many flavors.
BF: It happens in different ways. Sometimes it’s something that’s part of my life, something I’ve grown up with that I’ve heard thousands of times, and I’ll just remember, “Oh, that’s...” Those things are already in there. Then also, I’ve been playing “A Change Is Gonna Come.” I hadn’t heard it in a long time, and my wife, Carole, heard it one day, she told me I should play it. After she said that, I was on a long flight, and I had it on my portable CD player, and I listened to it about 100 times, over and over again. I’ve been playing it ever since. Sometimes I’m in my car and I hear something on the radio that seems would be a good song.
Is the process by which you treat these songs intuitive? Apart from playing guitar, you also famously incorporate a lot of electronics into your flow. So a level of what you do is highly sophisticated manipulation and intertwining between your fingers and your feet, but it never seems to get in the way of expressing the emotion.
BF: Hopefully not. All these songs you’re talking about are so rich on so many levels. There’s the words—more and more, I’m getting inspiration from the lyrics of these songs. That gives you a lot to work with when you’re just playing the melody. Sometimes I’ll associate a song so much with the sound of the singer. If it’s Sam Cooke—what an unbelievable voice he has. Or even Bob Dylan... I shouldn’t say “even.” Bob Dylan’s voice, there’s a sound. Or Hank Williams.
You once mentioned trying to elicit the high nodal quality of Hank Williams.
BF: Yeah. Recently, I’ve been playing “Lovesick Blues.” He does this sort of yodeling thing, which is hard to do on a guitar, but I’m trying to copy that. I get off a lot on trying to match that vocal inflection that happens. There’s so much music out there. We’re floating through this ocean of music, and everywhere you look there’s something. There’s not enough time to get to it all. You just keep grabbing it.
Is that notion of transcending the instrument important to you? Are you conscious of that in your tonal projection, or in the ways in which you state the melodies?
RM: Very much so. I don’t even listen to the trumpet very much, and yes, I try to think of functioning as a singer as much as I can in the band, whether it’s a background singer or a lead singer. Yes, I try to get the instrument out of the way as best I can—I mean, as an amplifier for the emotions.
It takes a lot of work to get to that place, I guess.
RM: I think it does. It’s still a work in progress, I must tell you. I sometimes fall victim to not succeeding, but I certainly try.
Interview notes: Ron Miles and Bill Frisell were interviewed on WKCR by Ted Panken on August 14, 2008.