Marcus Miller: Plucking Plateau

November 5, 2012
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CHANGE HAS BEEN AN INTEGRAL PART OF THE career of Marcus Miller the musician for hire. He’s gone from young New York City session ace to Grammy-winning producer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist for such divergent talents as Miles Davis, Luther Vandross, David Sanborn, and Aretha Franklin, to sought-after film composer. So, the instantly identifiable voice of Marcus Miller the solo artist—forged on his ’77 Fender Jazz Bass over eight studio and live albums since 1993— ha s been both a welcome contrast and a comfort. But the four years since 2008’s Marcus have clearly had an impact on Miller’s muse, and the end result is nothing short of striking.

 

Renaissance is a departure on several fronts. Leaner, lighter production enables the focus to fall on Miller’s blazing young band: saxophonist Alex Han, drummer Louis Cato, keyboardists Kris Bowers and Federico Peña, trumpeters Sean Jones and Maurice Brown, and guitarist Adam Agati, with guest turns from Rubén Blades, Dr. John, Gretchen Parlato, and Adam Rogers. To fuel their fire, Miller reached deep to come up with retro-leaning, soul-resonating compositions rich in nuance and twists. Couple that with his always-inspired recasting of a handful of cover songs from across the musical landscape, and the Brooklyn-born bassist’s latest ranks among his very best.

Perhaps the real revelation on Renaissance’s 13 tracks is Miller’s work on fretted, fretless, and upright bass (dig his doghouse elocution in all registers). Marcus has joined the exclusive club of his frequent tour mates Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, seemingly able to play anything that comes into his mind without technical limitations and with complete emotional conviction. The ideas flow from his fingers with such ease, it’s only upon re-listening that you realize the range of techniques and degree of difficulty required to fl y so far and free. Also in common with the aforementioned masters is the way Miller leads and guides his eager ensemble with his instrument. Whether playing a bass line, sharing a melody, or supporting a soloist, there’s a constant sense of coaxing and challenging that brings out the best in all parties. We spoke to Marcus in Los Angeles and Paris to fi nd out what led to his urban renewal.

 

 Renaissance marks a new direction for you. How did you arrive at this music?
After my previous studio album, I wanted to go in a different direction—but that can be difficult to do when your life isn’t moving in a different direction. So I put myself in some new situations: I did a live album with an orchestra, and I did SMV with Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten and a Miles tribute tour with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. All of those experiences sort of cleansed my palette and opened me up to fresh inspiration. But the project that most immediately led to this CD was the 18 months I toured with Tutu Revisited. I had gotten a young band in place, hoping they would add a new flavor and help me update this [Miles Davis] music from the past, and that’s exactly what happened. I was really enjoying the energy, so I thought it would be nice to take my time and compose some strong material for these musicians, to showcase the sound we found and developed on tour. I ended up calling the album Renaissance because we’re recalling a time when it was all about the musicians interacting with each other, and the feeling and magic that was a result.
 
 
 
 
 
 

How did you approach this new sound as a producer?
It was a reboot for me there, as well. When I started producing in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was hard to do a well-produced record; you really had to know your way around the studio. So I developed skills in that area, and on some of my albums I was playing the production as much as I was playing the instruments and the music. You could take my records and turn them up in your Jeep, with all the 808s [sounds from a Roland TR-808 drum machine] banging around! At this point, I’m not as interested in that. The focus on this CD is just the compositions and the performance, so it’s much more immediate sounding. I tried to focus on making the writing clear and making sure there was nice balance between the way it feels and the way it makes you think.

 

“Redemption” is striking for the urgency and ambiguous tonality of the bass line, as well as the call-and-answer role of the bass in the bridge.
That fractured sense is intentional. “Redemption” is about how in tough economic times you can really lose your spirit and get beaten down. So, you have to look deep within and figure out what makes you valuable and unique. That’s why the tonality is vague, to represent searching for that goal. And the bass line is pushing and encouraging, saying, Don’t stop. Keep looking—it’s in there; everyone has their special qualities. Ultimately it’s a song of support and hope.

As for the bridge, when we first ran it down someone in the band said, “Oh, we’re doing jazz!” I smiled because to me, my music is all the same, just with different accents—you accentuate the harmony here, the groove there. Now I’m realizing some people didn’t hear the harmonies on my previous albums due to there being other aspects of the mix that grabbed their attention. That’s one of the benefits of stripping down the sound on this CD: It’s just the composition and the band. My music is always a combination of R&B, funk, and jazz; this record presents a different blend of those ingredients.

 

 
“February” is indicative of the role your bass plays throughout the CD, moving from melody to bass line to countermelody and back to melody, as well as both supporting and leading the soloists.
I was trying to find an integrated, organic way to lead this young band. A lot of cats think all you have to do is step out front, play the melody, and have everyone follow, but I was looking for a different way to lead and command; I wanted to be more of a supporter who occasionally comes in and comments on what’s going on, and then every once in a while, when it’s necessary, take over and play the melody or suggest an improvised direction. The bass is such a beautiful instrument in that it can go under the music and support from there, or sit on top of the music. I tried to show the whole bass picture with the way these songs are constructed.

“February” itself reflects the creation of the CD. Late winter is when everything is cocooned, yet there’s plenty of growing and developing going on beneath the surface. I was writing this music during that period, excited to reach springtime and unwrap it for the band, and see how we would arrive at the finished product. It’s about possibilities; that’s the feeling I was going for.

“Jekyll & Hyde” typifies your ability to musically blend widely contrasting sections.
Originally it was called “Wayne Hendrix.” The first part reminded me of an Art Blakely & the Jazz Messengers soul-jazz melody. Then, when I decided it was time to change the channel and I wrote the next section, it reminded me of the kind of rock Jimi Hendrix and his Band Of Gypsys would play—sort of soul-rock. During a mix session, my engineer, Dave Ward, said, “When do we get to that Jekyll and Hyde tune?” I liked that title better, so I changed it. At the end of the song, I tried to make both sections come together by playing the soul-jazz part with a hard-rock edge. What really drives the tune, though, is the melody. I wanted to find notes that really get in your bones. I watch people at the sessions, like when they’re packing up afterwards, and see who is humming what—or, the next day, who’s still humming the tune. And sometimes they’ll tell me, “Man, that tune is on my damn nerves; I was humming it all night!”

What’s the stylistic influence of “Interlude: Nocturnal Mist” and “Revelation”?
“Mist” is a beautiful piece written by Luther “Mano” Hanes that I played on bass clarinet for Israel & New Breed’s A Timeless Christmas CD [Sony, 2006]; I thought I’d cover it on bass here. It leads into “Revelation,” which is my compositional answer to “Mist.” It’s in 6/8, and harmonically it reflects Trane during his Crescent [Impulse, 1964] period, with songs like “Alabama” [Live at Birdland, Impulse, 1963], which are sort of based on a simple minor triad. But then Alex Hahn starts opening up the tonality in his saxophone solo, and in response I begin commenting intently from below.

Your signature placement of a bass anthem and a hit-song cover can be found in “Detroit” and War’s “Slippin’ Into Darkness.” I have a collection of bass lines in my head that Marcus Miller’s ’77 Jazz Bass plays a real “renaissance man” role on his latest CD, showing fluency in bebop upright-speak, soul and funk finger and thumb grooves, blues-rock riffing, and machine-conversant hip-hop strides—as well as delivering lead and countermelodies in a rainbow of vocal and horn dialects.

Example 1 shows the opening groove/melody of “Detroit.” Use the ghostnotes that precede the upbeat Bb and C at the end of the bar 1 and the beginning of all four endings to help you firmly nail those accents. Also, be mindful of the up-and-down thumbing required in the 3rd ending. Overall, Miller advises, “sit back just a tad.”

 
 
 
 
Example 2 contains the bass-and-horns unison melody 5:50 into “CEE-TEE-EYE.” Although there are no supporting chords, Miller wrote the lines by experimenting with extended harmonies over the song’s B minor tonality; for example, beat two of bar 1 outlines a C#7(#5) chord. See if you can analyze some of the other tonalities he implies. Says Marcus, “I wrote it for the horns, but after showing it to them on bass in rehearsal, I decided to play it, too. The key is to get your fingerings first and play it in time; then listen to where the horns push and lay back, and try to match their phrasing.”

Finally, in an exclusive to BP readers, Ex. 3 is taken from “Rebop,” a solo-bass bonus track on overseas releases of Renaissance. Miller wrote and dedicated the piece to his upright influences Paul Chambers and Sam Jones. The excerpt begins at the 0:12 mark, which is the second A section of the AABA form. Listen for how well Miller cops ’50s-style post-bop phrasing. “If you play all of the eighth-notes the same way, eventually it sounds corny, so those guys would push every fourth note or so, to break it up. Check out records with Paul and Sam soloing, as well as cats like [pianist] Wynton Kelly, and dig their phrasing.” Also catch the interesting way Marcus implies the chords in bars 6–8, using only two notes at a time. He adds, “I’ll be putting up a video clip of me recording ‘Rebop’ on my website.” I’ve been using for 30 years, and I don’t realize it until I see some clip of me playing one while trying out a bass. Then I go, Wow, I’d better make a song out of that. “Detroit” came from one of those bass lines, just a funky tune named for a funky place. And “Slippin’ Into Darkness” is another bass line that has been with me for a long time. I remember being on gigs where the audience wasn’t responding to jazz and we’d break out “Slippin’,” and everything would be fine, so I thought it would be fun to record. We went in an jammed it out, and I edited it down from a 15-minute track. Like “CEE-TEE-EYE,” later on the CD, it has a sort of Oliver Nelson-meets-CTI vibe.

You cover a recent hit in Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope.”
What I dug was how she took what sounded like old New Orleans boogie-woogie and made it into something new. I thought I could accent the New Orleans aspect, so I got Dr. John to hang out with me and told him I wanted him to rap on it. He said, “I’ve never rapped before,” and I said, “Don’t worry—I’ll show you how!” We messed around in the studio and you can hear him really enjoying himself. I played the main bass line on a Kolstein Busetto Bass, and I overdubbed some electric bass melodies and solos.

You flip Ivan Lins’ Brazilian standard “Septembro” in an interesting way.
[Keyboardist] Federico Peña and I started playing that on the Tutu tour, and I thought, let’s record it, but with an Afro-Cuban slant, using Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca” bass line. We brought in Rubén Blades on vocals, who was amazing and told some great stories between takes, and Gretchen Parlato, who sings so beautifully—rhythmic and breathy at the same time. I found a wonderful old French upright at [L.A. music shop] Stein on Vine that had a great sound for the “Manteca” vamp section, and toward the end of the track I thought it would be cool to use it to trade riff s with my fretless bass.

Your version of “Mr. Clean” perfectly suits the sound of your young band.
There’s definitely a musical and spiritual connection, because while most people know Freddie Hubbard’s version [Straight Life, CTI, 1971], for me this is the signature song written by one of my key musical mentors in Jamaica, Queens: the late Weldon Irvine. He would put together gigs for kids like Omar Hakim, Bernard Wright, and me, and he’d tape them and make us listen back, in his Chevy Nova. He’d say, “Why did you change up right there?” And I’d say, “I guess I was bored.” And he’d say, “Well, you screwed up the whole song because you’re young and don’t have the attention span to hold the groove!” Of course, my band is much more musically mature, but I try to take on the same guiding role. We were playing this song on the road last year and we had a day off , so we went to a rehearsal studio and worked it up. In the middle, we just stop and go to a new key and feel, but then we turn on a dime back to the original.

There’s an appealing simplicity to your solo take on the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.”
I was doing a bass clinic in France shortly after Michael Jackson died, and I played this version on the spot. It’s just the bass line and the melody, with hardly any chords, which represents how I heard it as a kid: just Michael’s voice and the bass. My assistant reminded me about it, and I thought it would be a good way to end the CD. I used a Boss Loop Station to create the looped changes I blow over at the end. We have video footage of me recording it, which I’m going to put on my website.

What inspired your bass clarinet/upright/fretless feature “Gorée”?
We did a gig in Senegal, and we visited the island of Gorée, just off the coast of Dakar, which is where they kept slaves like cattle in these little houses for three months, to make sure they were fit before shipping them to North America. I wrote the song about the feeling of walking through one of the houses, as the tour guide described daily life there. It was emotional thinking about the horrible conditions and what lay ahead for them overseas, but there’s also a positive side that reflects my being an African American who is able to return and share my music with Africans so we can all continue to grow and build together, culturally. I used bass clarinet because of the somber, inherent sadness of its tone, and I recorded the track on fretless, but then I went back and overdubbed the first half on upright when I realized that’s the sound I was emulating on fretless.

The song’s B section represents the hope. Really, the whole CD is about a new beginning. I see it happening all over the world in my travels; everyone is turning the page, starting to look at things a little differently, thanks in large part to the social media revolution. We’re on the edge of an exciting period, and I want my music to reflect and inspire that.

What can you reveal about your upcoming Sirius XM Radio show, and what else lies ahead?
I was among the guest hosts for tributes to Miles, Herbie Hancock, and Luther Vandross, and the Sirius folks said it was time to do my own show. They have a straightahead jazz channel and a smooth channel, so I want to fill the gaps with the music that falls in between. I also want to do interviews and have some shows on the history of the bass. Aside from that, the rest of this year we’ll be touring the U.S. and abroad in support of Renaissance, and I’m going to do another Miles tribute run with Herbie and Wayne. Looking ahead, I’m thinking about doing a concept album under a project name, utilizing guest vocalists—yet another new direction.

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