The music has aged like fine wine.
Interview by George Cole
Photograph courtesy of Thomas Mancini
Most people in their seventies want to slow down, put their feet up, and take stock of things, but not Jason Miles. The award-winning programmer/producer/performer has not only moved to a new continent but published a new book; just released a new CD, formed a new band, and is about to embark on new series of gigs.
Miles has been active in the music scene since the mid-1970s, and his musical stock hit the stratosphere in the 1980s, when he became the programmer of choice for Marcus Miller. It led to Miles working on numerous projects including the seminal trilogy of Miles Davis albums, Tutu, Siesta and Amandla. In the jazz world, he’s also worked with Michael Brecker, David Sanborn, Al Jarreau, Joe Sample, George Benson and Grover Washington Jr, to name but a few. Miles has since branched out into production and performance, producing around a dozen albums as leader, including tribute albums to Weather Report, Grover Washington Jr and Ivan Lins. He’s also the man behind the Kind of New and Global Noize projects.
Jazz Views: You’ve recently moved home with your wife Kathy from the east coast of America to Portugal. A lot of people at this stage in their lives would be happy to sit back and relax.
Jason Miles: You have to do what’s best for you. I think that by moving here, we have a good chance of extending our lives and living a better life. It’s far more affordable – we’re paying less than half of what we were in the States for things like gas, electricity, telephone and internet. And then there’s the cost of Medicare in the US. The food is also cheaper and more wholesome over here. Transportation costs are less. The list goes on.
JV: Isn’t there a danger of being cut-off from the jazz scene in the USA?
JM: You mean all the smooth jazz? Then there are the cliques who only hire their own people for jazz festivals. Jazz festivals that don’t pay that well. I’m ahead of the music. They’re playing a form of jazz that to me doesn’t make any sense. Which composer has written a great song in the last ten or twenty years? Why are we constantly going back to the classics? Why can’t people write great songs like that today?
JV: What do you hope to achieve musically, in Europe?
JM: I’m trying to bring the sensibilities that I learnt in the New York scene, and create the vibe over here – the vibe that I learnt from Miles and the many other great musicians I worked with. I’ve brought a very strong legacy over here; a very strong resume and there are not many people who have got that. I’m discovering some young musicians. I’m thinking about a project and playing Brazilian music with a group of musicians I recently met – it’s something I want to investigate. I’ve already met two of the biggest stars on the Portuguese music scene, [guitarist] Rui Veloso, and the Brazilian musician Alçeu Valença. Everyone has really embraced us.
JV: You have published your memoirs, The Extraordinary Journey of Jason Miles: A Musical Biography
JM: I was in the front row of the [music] scene from 1975. Good things happened; bad things happened. Some of the ups were incredible and some of the bad was really down. I met Joe Zawinul in 1974. I wanted to play electric keyboards and synthesisers. I knew I was never going to be a Bill Evans or a McCoy Tyner or a Richard Tee. I remember a lot of stuff. I wrote down all the dates. I remember things because they are so vivid. Someone like Marcus Miller [who wrote the forward to Jason’s book] was going from note-to-note and so didn’t have time to absorb what was happening – Marcus says this in my book.
I would tell people stories and they would say that I ought to write a book. I think I have the credibility. There’s this guy Jason Miles – you might not know him, because he was kept in the background too much. I think what he contributed was important, because along with Miles and Marcus, he helped to write the sound of modern jazz. It made the sound of the music in the 80s credible, because it could have been really cheesy. My approach to the synthesiser was different from other people and so I could deliver something different and which got deep into the music. Marcus was writing music that had depth, and so you created depth and layers that had a musical meaning.
I raised money to put the book out and it’s had a good reception – it received an honourable mention in the 2023 Jazz Journalists Association Awards. Now I’ve put together a one-man show that ties the book and my playing. I’ve been doing this [making music] for 50 years and this is music that is relevant and current and stays with the philosophy that you need great melodies to make great music.
JV Michael Brecker was a big part of your life.
JM: Absolutely. I was there when Michael went electric with the EWI [Electronic Wind Instrument] that blended acoustic and electronic. I was there from the beginning and helped him a lot with synthesisers. He’s in a lot of stories and I have more stories about him.
JV: So, we could see a second volume of memoirs?
JM: I am planning one, and even have a title that I’m keeping to myself for now. It will concentrate on my relationships with people. I’m well into it already. Kathy and I are also planning a coffee table book. We have incredible slides of Miles, Flora and Airto, and others.
JV: You’ve just released an EP Miles to Miles.
JM: It was in 2000 that over the phone, I played Michael Brecker a tune I had written. He loved it and asked me to send it to him. There were no MP3s then, so I had to FedEx it to him. He said it was the kind of stuff Miles would do and that I should do an album of this music. Someone else suggested that I do a live concert of the music and so I went into a studio and recorded the music live with a band. Years later, I’m clearing out my stuff and I find the two-track of the session, and it sounds great. It’s just been sitting there all this time. I find the master disc from the session and think ‘I should put this out,’ and that’s what I’ve done, along with a live recording. We decided on an EP rather than an album. The music has aged like fine wine.
JV: What are your plans for playing live again?
JM: I’ve put together the Jason Miles Electric Quartet. No sax, just guitar, bass, drums and keyboards. The other members are guitarist Nir Felder, bassist Reggie Washington and Patrick Dorcéan on drums. I went for a guitar rather than sax because I want to be able to really play these melodies and have some tight rhythm behind them, and you can’t do that with a sax. We’re playing Jazzahead in Bremen this spring, and Novi Sad Jazz Festival in Serbia in September. We are also hoping to return to Ronnie Scott’s [Jason played there in 2018]. There has been a lot of interest in my music.
JV: Any other plans?
JM: I’m working on a lot of music and that includes some of the stuff I first heard when I moved to New York in the 70s and went to a club called Mikell’s, where you had people like Don Grolnick, Will Lee, Joe Beck, David Sanborn and Chris Parker. I’ve been researching the music of Burt Bacharach and come up with an arrangement for ‘Walk On By.’ I’ve composed a dedication to Joe Zawinul, and a project I want to develop is to explore the early music of Keith Jarrett, the Gary Burton/Keith Jarrett era from his Impulse! days.
JV: One of your many projects was the album Celebrating the Music of Weather Report. As we talk today; the jazz world is still reacting to the death of Wayne Shorter. What was your reaction? [Before answering, Jason plays an excerpt from the Wayne Shorter composition, ‘Beauty And The Beast’ from the 1975 album Native Dancer, a collaboration between Shorter and Brazilian musician Milton Nascimento].
JM: Wayne was almost 90 years old. He went through some incredible times, like the death of his wife Ana Maria. We should all be so lucky to live to 90 and have the kind of life like he had. You have to feel sad of course – it’s a very sad occasion, but at the same point, he was here, we had him, and he made incredible music that will be around forever. There’s so much Wayne out there – his career is really well documented. Yes, he wrote some abstract stuff, but he’s also left us some incredible melodies.
Look at his work with Weather Report. For me, Heavy Weather is one of the most perfect albums. I’ve got pictures of me with Wayne and Joe Zawinul – we used to hang out. Wayne was such a beautiful cat. We were lucky to have him. Younger artists need to build on his music – he was a true musical warrior.
For more information visit Jason Miles’s website
Click here to read our review of Jason Miles, Kind of New – Miles to Miles.