There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The reason there’s so much carping about neo-trads is because jazz fans and artists have always celebrated the music’s vicissitudinary qualities. There is an undeniable place for musicians working with and stretching the tradition of the mainstream, as artists as diverse and accomplished as James Carter and Jackie Terrasson prove, but the other tradition—that of extreme exploration, personified by Miles Davis and John Coltrane—still lingers. Trumpeter Ron Miles plays in the spirit of Davis’ ’70s work, using drones, dissonance, and distortion to stake his claim in jazz’s increasingly unclear idiom. The music of both composers is funky and abstract, but where Davis’ works were open-ended, Miles’ compositions are succinct. Miles’ groove comes from the understated but forceful playing of drummer Rudy Royston. He drives the title track with an edgy “Funky Drummer” beat, and on the album opener, “Finger Palace,” chomps down on Todd Ayers and Farrell Lowe’s meaty dueling guitars. “Palace” is a defiantly original track, featuring concurrent multiple time signatures, metallic guitar riffing, Miles’ Davislike playing, and an organ that breaks down all the commotion to reveal a gospel-tinged blues number. “Howard Beach” begins as a sinewy, noirish soundtrack, until bassist Artie Moore begins a vamp recalling Prince’s “Sign O’ the Times.” On the modal drone of “Boy Gone,” Miles quietly delivers economical, lyrical melody lines at once beautiful and aching, before the track builds into a tense midnight excursion through the psyche, Miles’ muted trumpet slicing through the claustrophobic darkness. Despite cavernous and unbalanced production, which leaves the guitars sounding more like bees than chainsaws, My Cruel Heart is likely to be filed next to Graham Haynes’ Transition as one of 1996’s best out-jazz albums.