Ron Miles wrote most of his new album, Rainbow Sign, as his father was passing away. It was the summer of 2018, and as Miles puts it, his relationship with his dad was transitioning as well. “I became more of a caregiver to him,” says the prominent jazz cornetist and bandleader. “I was so happy that we made it all the way around, and that he was able to know before he passed just how much he was loved.” That’s why Rainbow Sign feels so endearing: it scores the journey from Earth to eternal peace.
Miles remembers his dad being a lifelong mentor and friend on whom he could always rely. “I didn’t know how to drive until I was 30, so when I would come back from a tour, my dad would always come pick me up,” Miles recalls. “Then, near the end of his life, he had a job as a janitor. I would help him out from time to time. It was one of the best times of my life. We’d ride in the carts and we’d clean up this office building for a few hours, just me and my dad.”
The song “Custodian of The New” is partially based on those latter years with his father and Gabriel being a custodian of The New Covenant. In listening to the track, with all its meter changes, one can feel a strong sense of fellowship, of two men sharing space and relishing each other’s company. You hear it in the exquisite brass work, within the interplay of fluttering bass and guitar chords (Thomas Morgan and Bill Frisell), elegant piano keys (Jason Moran), and sharp drum fills (Brian Blade). It’s a loving convo that you don’t want to end.
Compared with Miles’s previous album, I Am A Man, which was written a month after Donald Trump’s stunning victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and reflected the country’s uncertainty, Rainbow Sign scans a bit more reflective: it arrives to a nation in crisis once more, yet this time it’s exacerbated by a global pandemic and social unrest. Instead of leaning into the despair, Miles crafted an album that’s meant to assuage all the madness happening outside. “I think one of the things that we found as we got closer to the recording of Rainbow Sign is just how the election gave license to all these people to speak their hatred in an unfettered way,” Miles says. “But now, it’s just full on.”
Conversely, Rainbow Sign is a riveting spiritual document equally inspired by colorful arches: author James Baldwin’s nonfiction book The Fire Next Time, and an old folk song from the 1920s. “Rainbows deal with renewal, and also the title, there’s a Carter Family song called ‘God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign,’” he says. “Rainbows also show up in The Book of Revelation, when Christ comes back and his skin is like jasper. We see people in these kinds of boxes — like ‘he’s black, brown or white,’ but when Christ shows up, it’s like ‘we don’t know what this brother is.’ Jasper’s got a whole bunch of colors, like a rainbow. Sometimes, our limitations can inform what we can see. And when they finally got to see Christ, it was more than we thought we could ever see.”
Rainbow Sign perfectly captures that aesthetic. On the surface, it seems like an easygoing record made for quiet reflection beneath overcast skies. Dig deeper, and one finds strong ties not only to jazz, but to the blues as well. To Miles, blues music conveys the freedom that’s eluded Black Americans for too long. “It’s the first music that really gets to the point for Black people about possibilities,” Miles says. “Before that, the possibilities were very limited: you could go to heaven, but you weren’t going to travel. With Rainbow Sign, we have music that is true to the blues, yet it reflects the times we’re in right now while still showing us what’s possible.”
Miles achieved this with the help of a stellar group of musicians, who all converged in New York to manifest his creative vision. “They’re my favorite players on their instruments,” Miles says. “If I had to make a Mount Rushmore of every instrument, those brothers would all be in there: Brian and Bill, Jason and Thomas. They are just the greatest band I could ever hope to play with.”
At times, members of the crew were there to make sure Miles stayed the course, reassuring him in moments when he thought a song was going too far. “‘The Rumor’ was one of those, I wrote that and was like ‘I don’t know,’” Miles recalls. “I have a serious sweet tooth in music. I remember playing it for Jason like, ‘check this out.’ And he said ‘oh no, brother, we’ve got to do this.’ These brothers are always so supportive in that regard. I love me some Bee Gees, Jackson 5 and so on. That’s the stuff I grew up on, so it shows up in these songs in some way.”
The first song written for the album was “Like Those Who Dream,” a brooding slow-burner and Rainbow Sign’s epic 16-minute opener. The last track completed was “Queen of the South,” which, according to Miles, was informed by Ethiopian pop. Indeed, one can hear traces of Ethio-jazz legend Mulatu Astatke’s Afro-Latin Soul period of 1966, and the vaunted Ethiopiques series, which celebrates the country’s obscure soul and groove music from yesteryear.
Rainbow Sign, which marks Miles’ debut for Blue Note Records, is an outpouring of all the music Miles would listen to as a young boy growing up in Indiana. He’d spend countless hours listening to the radio; throughout his home, his parents listened to everything from Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, and Curtis Mayfield, to Stevie Wonder, Hank Williams, and Max Roach. Miles got deeper into jazz when he started crafting his own music, first studying flugelhorn player Chuck Mangione and trumpeter Maynard Ferguson in the 1970s, then other iconic trumpeters like Clifford Brown and Miles Davis. That led to an affinity with free jazz collective Art Ensemble of Chicago and classical composer Igor Stravinsky. Miles is still just as adventurous, and all the music he’s consumed has resulted in his latest masterwork.
“I hope listeners are able to find their truth in it,” he says of Rainbow Sign. “That when they hear it, it’ll make them think of something, make them feel something that’s special and unique to them. Wherever you are in your journey, hopefully it’ll speak to you in some way.”