On new album, Denver jazz cornetist Ron Miles draws inspiration from ‘circuit riders’

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Ron Miles with Bill Frisell and Brian Blade
Ron Miles, Brian Blade, and Bill Frisell (left to right).

The music of Ron Miles, the Denver cornet player, is rooted in jazz, but he’s just as comfortable playing a song by Hank Williams as he is covering Charles Mingus.

Miles once said his favorite band growing up was the Archies, a made-for-television cartoon band. So it’s no surprise that he found a musical soul mate in Bill Frisell, the no-boundaries Seattle-based guitarist who spent his formative years in Denver. They’ve been making music together since 1994, and their latest collaboration is called, "Circuit Rider." The album, recorded in Denver, also features New Orleans drummer Brian Blade.

New York Times music critic Nate Chinen praised the music on "Circuit Rider" for its “sense of possibility that rings of the American frontier.”

The title of the album refers to traveling preachers who would go by horse from town to town in frontier America. Miles sees himself as a kind of musical circuit rider.

“The idea of spirituality in music has always been really important to me,” he said. Indeed, Miles, who was raised as a Catholic, is considering becoming an Episcopal priest. He’s currently going through the church’s “discernment process” to determine his possible role in the church.

“I feel a pull to serve, and however that works its way out of me,” he said. “And part of that is having faith in this process … I’m being as open as I can, and just letting it kind of shake out as it does.”

Interview highlights

On his musical relationship with Bill Frisell

“We’re friends, and I think in some ways are peers, but I still view him as a great mentor…. [Working with Bill] is like having your picture taken with Tyra Banks. Everyone says, ‘You two look beautiful together.’ But she’s so beautiful, you can look like anything! And Bill’s that way, too. He plays so great that you play something, and he makes it sound much better than you ever dreamed it could sound. He’s a supreme accompanist and a supreme soloist.”

On making music with longtime colleagues

“There’s something about the new, just getting together, that you can never duplicate. The very first time you meet someone, the very first time you kiss someone. The very first time you play music with people together. That’s very, very special. But there’s something about being married for 20 years, or being in a band for a long time … that is really wonderful and quite special. And I do cherish that amongst these musicians and the other musicians I’ve had longstanding relationships with.”

On music and spirituality

“The idea of music and spirituality has always been a big deal to me. And particularly the idea of musicians using their instrumental music as a vehicle for spiritual expression and making a difference in the community. I always like the more messy versions of it, like Albert Ayler, or Charles Mingus, or John Coltrane, as opposed to the more formal ‘Christian rock,’ or ‘Christian jazz,’ or ‘Jewish jazz,’ or whatever. I kind of like it where it’s a little more abstract, that maybe people who are really religious can’t stand.”