Recording of January 2021: Rainbow Sign

Ron Miles: Rainbow Sign
Ron Miles, cornet; Jason Moran, piano; Bill Frisell, electric guitar; Thomas Morgan, bass; Brian Blade, drums.
Blue Note (CD, 2LPs). Ron Miles, prod.; Colin Bricker, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics *****

If Ron Miles lived in New York instead of Denver, he would have become a jazz star long ago. With Rainbow Sign, his 12th album as a leader but his debut on a major label (at age 57), now's his time—or should be anyway.

Miles led the same stellar quintet on his last record, I Am a Man, in 2017, and he has played with these musicians several times, in different combinations, as a leader or a sideman. The results have always been at least intriguing and at times inspiring. (I particularly like Bangs, the curiously little-known 2017 trio album with pianist Jason Moran and guitarist Mary Halvorson.)

On Rainbow Sign, the quintet hits a level of supreme ensemble prowess. The epically long opening track, "Like Those Who Dream," is basic blues—but listen to how they bend and shape the form, each player seamlessly shifting from melody to harmony to rhythm driver, one carving a straight-ahead path, another cutting dissonant jags, still another probing counterpoints that join the two or stretch their distance, the whole piece verging on collapse, until, suddenly but naturally, their lines converge and they play a phrase or whole bars in unison, and it's breathtaking. The sequences of tension and resolution, played out over and over, sounding different each time, are remarkably satisfying and subtle too: If you don't pay attention, you might not notice the complexity; it seems like just a nice, relaxing tune.

The next track, "Queen of the South," which Miles has said was inspired by an Ethiopian pop song, achieves an unassuming, stately air. The deceptively titled "Average" is a darkly romantic waltz. The title tune is a crisscrossing amble, mathematical in its precision yet seemingly so casual. Other songs (all of them written by Miles during a visit home while his father was dying, but there's no melancholy here, just unsentimental joy for life) exude the vibe of a spiritual, a folk song, a mid-tempo rom-com with a dark twist. The final tune, "A Kind Word," starts with a nod to The Beatles' "Dear Prudence" then shifts into a heady, meditative muse. Never, throughout this journey, does the music or the band lose its grip on a sense of swing or at least a bead of the blues, and usually there's much more than a bead. (One caveat: The album begins with a loud, ugly bleat. It lasts about 10 seconds; wait it out.)

Miles blows cornet with a plangent, golden glow, mainly in the midrange, but he can veer into smears or rocket up the octaves when he wants. Moran and Bill Frisell, two of the most versatile musicians on the scene, play off, against, or in tandem with each other with clairvoyant cool. Brian Blade (best known for his work with Wayne Shorter and Mark Turner, but he has also backed Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan) intensifies the rhythm, doubling the beat or splitting it into atomized particles. Morgan (a regular with Frisell, but he has also played with Steve Coleman, Paul Motian, and others) lays down the time but twists it, too. There's a limber feel to this music, but the interplay is insouciantly tight. If there's a more inventive quintet right now, stretching the boundaries of mainstream jazz without breaking the frame, I haven't heard it.

Colin Bricker, a Denver-based engineer, recorded the session on 24/96 ProTools, through custom Avalon pre-EQ inputs and Lynx A/D converters, at New York City's Sear Sound studio, home of golden ears and vintage microphones: hundreds of them, many with tubes. Miles blows into an RCA 77DX ribbon mike, which burnishes his colors. A pair of Neumann U67s and an AKG C12a cover the piano. Frisell plugs into an Ampeg Gemini guitar amp. Eleven mikes—Neumanns, Sennheisers, and Coles—surround the drumkit. Tube compressors are employed here and there.

In other words, this is not a "purist" recording. But Bricker mixes the tracks so shrewdly that it sounds whole and present, at once mellow and hard-driving with plenty of air and depth. Greg Calbi of Sterling Sound did the mastering and, for the LP, pressed the lacquers. (The LP sounds better than the CD, but the CD sounds very fine, too.)

Rainbow Sign isn't merely the Recording of the Month: it's also, so far (I'm writing in late October), 2020's jazz record of the year.—Fred Kaplan

jimtavegia's picture

That is rare. Just ordered the CD. Can't wait.

MFK's picture

Had a listen all the way through, really great! Thanks for the review as Ron Miles was unknown to me. Merry Christmas to all.

Allen Fant's picture

An excellent review- FK.
This is a strong runner for Jazz Album of 2020.