Marcus Miller: The Man of Many Hats
“ The jazz thing really opens it up and gives me more ideas that I can then incorporate into the funk. A lot of the guys who invented funk were jazz musicians. ”
Pictures of Marcus Miller often show him wearing what is almost a trademark porkpie hat. Truth is, the extraordinary musician wears many hats, some of them simultaneously.
He's proven himself a master of the electric bass in any setting from jazz to pop to funk to R&B, always with a rich, soulful sound. He's also a stellar producer and arranger, having been involved in a variety of projects for stars and megastars including Miles Davis, Luther Vandross, Roberta Flack, Wayne Shorter, Al Jarreau, Kenny Garrett and many more. His composing skills have been on display through many of those artists and on his own recordings.
Then there's the movie scores, which started with 1990's "House Party" and blossomed into an impressive list of films starring folks like Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Halle Berry and Matthew Perry. He spent a dozen years as a studio musician warrior, contributing his superb bass skills on more than 400 records for the likes of Joe Sample, McCoy Tyner, Mariah Carey, Paul Simon, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Frank Sinatra, and LL Cool J and so many more. (Often doing session after session with little or no break).
He's a Grammy winner. Hell, he's a winner. Period.
Miller, as affable as he is intelligent, handles it all during a time when the music industry and recording industry are in a state of flux, to say the least, as major recording labels and the "old way" of doing things become increasingly insignificant and musicians both fret and wonder about how it all will settle out. Toss in the rigors of touring, as well as raising a family (four children), and it's enough to fill more than one plate. But Marcus Miller spins around the sun and rotates on his axis despite the industry maelstrom. He wears all of his hats exceedingly well.
"You've got to be efficient and you've got to have people helping you to keep your schedule together so you don't drop all those eggs you juggle.," says Miller, 48, a New York City native transplanted to the Los Angeles area.
Out of it all comes his latest project, a CD on which his aim is to show different sides to the music within him, providing a vision of where he stands today. It's titled simply Marcus, self-produced on the 3 Deuces label and distributed via Concord Records. It was recorded about a year ago and released in foreign markets last year. It hit the U.S. in March.
Miller took time out in April to discuss his recording and career from his LA-area home, where he hoping at the time that the UCLA Bruins would do his city proud in the NCAA men's basketball Final Four. (Sorry, Marcus). He's proud of the new CD and was about to start touring in support of it and was deep into the never-ending process of promoting it. All the while he's looking ahead, with a new CD partially complete already; this one a bass album teaming him with Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten. He even hinted that some time in the future people may be hearing him a bit on acoustic bass.
"I do a broad range of things," he says about the new disk. "This one I decided to open it up a little bit more. On this one, you hear some jazz and R&B and some spoken word. A little bit of everything. I thought it was time to show people a little bit more of what I'm about and I thought that might be a good way to do it is to name it Marcus. This is where I'm at."
Indeed, there is a range of influences on the record, with guests including Keb' Mo,' Corrine Bailey and David Sanborn.
"With Keb' Mo,' he was my neighbor in my studio. He was down the street. We'd be running back and forth borrowing guitar picks and stuff like that," explains Miller. "We were always threatening to do something together. I thought this would be a good project to work together on something. I called him and said, 'Come over, man. I wrote a track. ("Milky Way.") Come listen to it.' He said, 'Man, this track sounds like it's from outer space .'
"With Corrine, I was in the middle of recording the project and I heard her voice on the radio. She was singing her hit, 'Girls Put Your Records On.' I was so struck by the uniqueness of her voice. So many voices in pop and R&B sound so similar. To hear something that jumped pout at me was really exciting. I reached out to Corrine to see if she would be interested in doing something together. That's how it happened."
Others are regulars in Millers band, except for Sanborn, with whom Miller has recorded many times over the years. "I was working on a couple songs and said, 'Dave would be great for this.' I don't really try to put somebody on [a project] for their name. I put them on because as I'm working on the music, I can imagine their sound. The music dictates it more than, 'I'd like to have this guy's name on the album.'"
The CD touches a lot of areas. "Blast" is a total funk vehicle highlighted by Miller's pulsing bass. But he doesn't play everything he knows. It isn't Charlie Parker licks with a bass. Keith Anderson adds lively funk sax. "Funk Joint," shows Miller's bass at a more leisurely jaunt. A stroll through the streets. "Free" is an upbeat, melodic soul vehicle, with the sweet voice of Bailey (who also graced Herbie Hancock's Grammy-winning River: The Joni Mitchell Letters on the title cut, "River.") Sanborn adds his signature sound, mixing superbly with her voice and the melody. That's always been his thang and he does it with grace. "Milky Way" with Keb' Mo' is an R&B vehicle that finds the pop/blues artist in good voice. The song sounds like something from Sly and the Family Stone's heyday, with Mo's vocal line taking interesting twists that Sly's (lower) voice would sometimes take on his more intriguing melodies.
"When I Fall in Love" exhibits Miller on bass clarinet, on which he is becoming more assured. He caresses the sweet ballad, warm and mellow, then his electric bass takes over on a brisk improvisational trip, followed by Gregoire Maret's pristine and dexterous harmonica, which Miller has been employing in his touring band to goods results. All three meld for the ending. Miles Davis' "Jean Pierre" is a showcase for Maret as well as Miller and the familiar theme is carried out in fine fashion. Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" sticks to the original tempo and moves sprightly, with Miller's thick and resonating bass lines as the major voice.
Some listeners may not pick up the jazz elements, but they're there. Miller, even though he has the training, chops and experience to hit any jazz thing, has never been all about that. But he doesn't deny his jazz roots. They contribute to the overall sound of his recordings, and they are a big part of Marcus Miller: Bassist.
As a guy who has come through jazz, "I'm always trying to push it, stretch it, see if I can find some notes that haven't been played. The mentality is always jazz. What can I do this time?" he says. "Every time you hear my band play, even if we play the same songs it's going to be different, because we improvise all the time. I think my spirit is more jazz ... What happens with jazz is that it opens you up. If you're a jazz musician, you have the tools to do whatever else you want to do. It's just that you have to be able to hear in that different mode. Music is all the same thing. If you're playing R&B you have to be able to accent that rhythm. You have to find that trance-like state that people find when they listen to R&B.
"The jazz thing really opens it up and gives me more ideas that I can then incorporate into the funk. A lot of the guys who invented funk were jazz musicians. James Brown had a bunch of jazz guys in his band. Parliament Funkadelic had a bunch of jazz guys in their band, because it was basically the same guys in James' band. So, there's always been a relationship."
There are a few cover tunes on the recording, but much of it is written by Miller. With everything else he's involved in, finding time to compose would appear difficult. Especially in that it is a creative endeavor, not something that can be cranked out in perfunctory or robotic fashion. He says it's a matter of being efficient with one's time. But if the muse strikes, he may just find himself running with it.
" If I'm on tour, and they're setting up the equipment for a show that night, I'll be in my hotel room working on music. I've missed a couple of sound checks in the afternoon because I had a good idea that I didn't want to let go. I wanted to continue to develop it during the day. So I tell my band, 'Check me out, man. Make sure my bass works," says Miller with a light-hearted chuckle that dots his conversation. "Because I've got to get this tune together. So it becomes a real crazy balancing act."
Says Miller, "composing is different at different times of your life. When you're working on your first record, it's easy in one respect because the songs that you have on your first record are probably songs you've been writing all your life. I've heard people have songs on their first record that they wrote when they were 15 or 16 years old. At least they got their first idea when they were that young." After that, "it becomes a different kind of writing. When you're on your ninth album, that becomes still a different kind of writing, because you don't want to repeat yourself and you want to keep growing. So continuing to be a composer is a challenge."
Composing is something Miller has done for many years, starting at a young age. The Brooklyn-born musician grew up in a musical family and played various instruments, primarily clarinet, before ever picking up the bass. His father played piano (he was a relative of famed pianist Wynton Kelly) and he tinkered with that too. With no real formal bass instruction in school, he concentrated on clarinet and dabbled a bit with the that. "I played a bunch of instruments trying to find where I was most comfortable. I enjoyed music so much that it was fun trying out all those instruments," he says.
At about the age of 13, he picked up the electric bass for the first time. "Completely fell in love with it. But I never completely put the other instruments down. I really focused on electric bass, but I would go back and play my clarinet from time to time, or saxophone or keyboards. As my career has gone on, I've begun to bring those voices back. It's really a nice thing. I've been playing bass clarinet a lot. During my shows, it's such a nice contrast to go from playing the electric bass, which has a kind of percussive, metallic sound, and all of a sudden switch to bass clarinet, which is very warm, very wooden sounding."
Miller attended the High School of Music and Art, where he majored in the clarinet, receiving a well-rounded education. He notes, "I was playing the clarinet in school and playing the bass in the clubs and in dance bands and stuff like that."
"I listened to all those Motown records in the 70s and Stax Records. A group called Mandrill, which was a really popular funk band on the east coast. Sly and the Family Stone. At that time the bass was really driving the music. The drums weren't mixed in those days like they are now where they dominate the sound of the record. Back then the drums was just another instrument and the bass was the loudest thing. So I really got excited about those bass lines," recalls Miller. "Then later on I wanted to see what else was around in music, that's when I got into jazz. I started listening to fusion first. I listened to Stanley Clarke, Alphonso Johnson, Jaco Pastorious. Eventually I went back and discovered Ron Carter, Paul Chambers. By the time I was 16, I was into it all."
He later went to Queens College, majoring in music education, and continued on clarinet there while participating in the jazz ensemble. But he was still in high school, around the age of 15, when he began getting gigs. In college, Miller began to get more work on bass and he eventually left school.
"Back in those days, everybody needed a bassist, so there was a lot of work to be done. Plus, I lived in New York and was born and raised in New York. A lot of kids had to wait until they finished school and they had to move to New York or L.A. and start waiting tables until they could make a name for themselves. Since I'm from New York, I was already on the scene. By the time I was 16 or 17, I was already making a little name for myself."
Miller stuck to the electric bass, a natural voice. Fusion groups that dominated the jazz music landscape all had electric bass players and even Sonny Rollins had switched to the use of electric. His first gigs on a bit of a larger scale were with Bobbi Humphrey, a popular flautist in the 70s, keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith, I did some recordings very early with him; and drummer Lenny White, who had chosen to end his work with Chick Corea and Return to Forever. "I think those three things got me started in terms of people saying, 'Who is that guy?'" says Miller. It included making records as well as touring.
"With Bobbi Humphrey, we'd do gigs in D.C. and in Massachusetts, Philadelphia, Milwaukee. Not to far, but gigs around. I was in her band for about a year and then when was about to make an album for CBS. Ralph McDonald was her producer. I wrote a song for Bobbi and asked if she was interested in recording it for her album. She said she was, so she brought the song to Ralph and said, 'Here's a song a kid in my band wrote and I'd like him to play bass on it.' Ralph tolerated it. So I came in. It was nice, because I got to meet Ralph and Steve Gadd and Richard Tee and Eric Gale. They were all working on the record. That was very cool.
"I did the same thing about a year later. I wrote Bobbi another song. This time it wasn't such a spike, because Ralph said, 'He wasn't horrible last time. Let him come in again,'" Miller recalls with a chuckle. "This time I put a bass solo in the song. So I got to play for Ralph and those guys. A couple weeks after that session, man, my phone started ringing for studio session work. It turned out that Ralph had begun to recommend me to people. It took off like wildfire. Within six months I was working seven days a week, all day long."
Miller became a true iron man in the studios, adapting to all kinds of styles and all kinds of sessions. He became adept at thinking on his feet. He also had the chance to hone his skills in all genres under demanding circumstances, with the red light on signifying a take was being recorded.
"It was just one thing right after the other. Not a lot of sleep. It was almost like a big long dream," says Miller of those 12 years. "I'd finish a date for Dave Grusin for GRP and then have 15 minutes to get to a studio to do a Paul Simon date. Then from Paul Simon I'd go to Grover Washington or Roberta Flack. It was music all day long. It was music at a very high level. Not only was it at a high level, but it you had to get it together quickly because no one had time for figuring stuff out. It made you like a prize fighter. You're in tip top form and your reflexes are really quick. Plus, we had headphones on all day and you became really conscious of your sound, down to the sound of your fingers as you touch the fret board."
"It was real graduate school," he says of the experience. Part of the education was something he learned that later became a key part of what he tries to accomplish as a producer. Miller didn't squander anything of value.
"I learned back in those days that the song is everything. All you're really trying to do is put that song across. Everything else takes a back seat to that. A lot of musicians ruin their careers by walking into a session determined to do a certain thing or play a certain way or make a certain impression on a record without taking the song into account. But the best musicians, they were who they were and everything they played had a certain style to it, but they weren't concerned about that. They were concerned about: Let's make this song good or let's make this singer or the saxophonist or whoever we're accompanying sound good. That's really how I still do it. I try to make the music sound right."
It was during the whirlwind studio days that he encountered Miles Davis. It's a period Miller summed up as "unbelievable." The pair were a boost to each other's career. Certainly, the "Miles Davis" stamp on Miller's resume helped him, as it has all Davis' sidemen. But the legendary trumpeter also received a huge boost from Miller's talents. And the two remained lifelong friends.
Recalls Miller, "I was working with Luther Vandross and Aretha Franklin and all sorts of people. At one of the sessions I was on I got a note to call Miles. Bill Evans, a saxophonist in Miles' band, recommended me. Miles called me up and said, 'Hey, man, can you be in the studio in an hour?' I was like: Is this the real Miles Davis? There was no time to think, no time to prepare. I just showed up at the studio. Miles walked in. He was about three feet shorter than I thought he was going to be. I thought he was going to be about 8 feet tall. He was just so cool. He showed me two notes and said that was the whole song. I had to figure out from those two notes he gave me how to make a whole song out of it. I did. We didn't have time to discuss it because they were getting ready to press the record button.
"It was a beautiful experience. Just following your heart, man, and just playing from your soul. Her stopped the take a couple times: "What are you doing man,' you know. But eventually, he said he liked what we had. He asked me to be in his band."
Miller said the experience with Davis confirmed many of the things about music he had picked up along the way. "I already knew that I did my best job just reacting, rather than sitting around trying to plan things out. Also, when I was in his band, he really showed me how important finding the right notes is. If he couldn't figure what the right note was in a particular passage, he just wouldn't play it until he could hear it; rather than play a bunch of notes. When he finally realized he found something good, he'd play that note. He'd just take the horn from his mouth until he heard something great, then he'd play it. It's a really beautiful way to make music. Not being afraid of that space."
Miller left the band after about two years. In the 80s when Miles ended his long association with Columbia Records and moved to Warner Brothers, Miller decided to make an inquiry.
"I knew the guy at Warner Brothers, so I called him and I said, 'Look, man, I've been writing some music. Do you possibly think Miles would be interested in hearing something from me?' He said to send it. So I wrote "Tutu" and a couple other songs. That led me into a second relationship with Miles, where I was writing and producing him.
The disk proved to be a milestone for Davis' recording in the 80s. It was well received and even credited with giving Miles a boost the way Porgy and Bess and Miles Ahead did when Davis collaborated with Gil Evans. Miller was viewed as the next great Davis collaborator/arranger, creating beautiful music but in a modern setting. It created funky, but lush cushions that Davis used to weave his melodic trumpet and signature sound in and around. Miller played all the other instruments on Tutu, except the trumpet.
"What was beautiful is that he gave me so much responsibility. He say, 'Hey, that sounds great. Keep doing your thing. Let me know what you want me to play.' He would make suggestions from time to time, but he really put it in my hands. It was a tremendous honor," says Miller. "The next day after we recorded Tutu, I said, 'Man, I think this is going to be good.' I had a recording, a rough mix. I said, 'I hope this mix sounds as good this morning as it did last night.' That's pretty cool.
"Now the trick is to keep going, so that you take whatever you learned, whatever was confirmed during your stint with him, and go on and continue to make music that he would be proud of."
Miller had put his own recording on hold after a couple albums in the early 1980s, because I didn't have enough of a sense of who I was. I was so good at being a chameleon for everybody. It didn't feel like, as an artist, I was bringing enough to it. So I stopped. Then in about 91, after Miles passed, I said 'If I can't do it now, I'll never be able to do it.' So I jumped back in."
That period produced recordings including The Sun Don't Lie, Tales, Silver Rain, Free and M2 (M Squared), which won the2002 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.
After producing for Davis, which also included the outstanding Amandla things took off for Miller as a producer, for which he remains in demand. It's another thing about music that he enjoys; a challenge of a different sort, but one that enhances his musicianship.
"Producing is really about being the director of the movie. You've got to set the artist up, make him comfortable. You've got to find the right songs, make sure the songs are in the right key. Make sure the right musicians are accompanying the artist. Get them in their comfort zone so they can be who they are. It's almost like being a good studio musician, meaning you're just trying to song the sound good. You do whatever you can. Some producers, it's really about their sound and the artist kind of conforms to it. Sometimes I've done that, but most of the time it's a give and take. I bring certain elements to the music, hoping that the artist will have something to bring as well, and we can make something unique together."
If that's not enough, Miller still enjoys movie scores when the assignments arise. That career began when he was still living in New York.
"There was a guy named Reggie Hudlin, who is now the president of BET. He was just out of NYU film school. He called me up and said New Line Cinema just picked up his senior thesis to make into a feature film. He said he loved my music, was a big fan and I'd be perfect for the music. I said, 'I don't really do film scores.' He said, 'You'll have no problem. I'll send you the tapes. Figure it out. Let me know when you've got something.' I thought it would be fun to do this hip-hop movie "House Party." I actually had a ball doing it. Particularly when Reggie would come by the studio and throw ideas at me. We'd get in there and concoct all sorts of craziness. It was a completely different way to make music. I really enjoyed it."
With its success, he went on to do other films with Hudlin, "and then other people began to take notice. I had this other career going as well."
So he juggles all the eggs, as he says. But beneath it all is Marcus Miller the performing artist.
"If you were going to twist my arm and make me choose, I would choose playing, absolutely. What I love about not deciding is that it all makes me a better player. Being a composer, being a producer, being an arranger makes you a better player. As a producer or an arranger, you learn to hear the whole sound. A lot of musicians are not very good listeners. When they listen to music, if they play percussion they listen to the percussionist. Or if they're a singer, they listen to the vocals. If they're a guitarist, they just listen to the guitar. As a producer, you can't afford to do that. You have to listen to the whole sound. You have to listen as a normal person, meaning how is this music going to strike people who aren't musicians. Is it clear enough, saying what it has to say? Having to do that, when I pick up my bass it makes me play different. It makes me play more clearly. It makes me leave out a lot of notes that might clutter stuff up. I think it's made me a better musician.
"I wouldn't want to choose if I didn't have to. But at the center of it all, it's playing. Everything else is there to make the playing sound better."
So 2008 finds him working on the new CD with his fellow bass virtuosos, but also promoting Marcus. He notes that the promotion game for musicians in the new techno/Internet/MP3 era and beyond is not what it once was. It's time consuming, but still a vital part of the process.
"We take a lot more of it on ourselves," he says. "We've got a great partner in Concord Records, but we know that we've got to help them out. It's so difficult now. I've got people helping me with Internet promotion now, with radio promotion. We're going to think up some other campaigns that we can come up with to interest people in the music. I end up spending half my time making music and the other half figuring out how to let people know that it exists."
It would seem that end of the business could interfere with the creative process. But Miller doesn't look at it that way. He understands it, and deals with it. That kind of an outlook is a barricade to frustration.
"You realize it's always been a part of the process. It's just that we were insulated from it before, because we had record companies that would do that kind of thing. Now you realize that's the way it's always been and you have to take a lot more of it upon yourself. You don't have time to get frustrated ... You know what it really is? It's like advertising. They told me a long time ago you have to attack people from three sides. Where they see you on the radio, they see you on TV and then they maybe go to your website. And when they're there, maybe they see something they need to check out. You try to be everywhere you can at once."
Miller is sharp as a tack and seemingly unfazed by it all. He's got his shit together and in April was eagerly awaiting the road.
"We're going to do some gigs! Hit the road and play some music," he says excitedly. "We're hoping as we do these gigs and the record is out, more and more promoters will say, 'Hey, we need to get these guys.' We're hoping that we're going to build it. Get to a lot of places."
Miller has already been to a lot of places in a successful career that has more mountains to climb. Bet those mountains won't be a problem.
Marcus Miller, Marcus Miller (Concord, 2008)
Marcus Muller, Free (Sony/BMG, 2007)
George Benson/Al Jarreau, Givin' It Up (Concord, 2006)
Marcus Miller, Silver Rain (Koch, 2005)
Will Calhoun, Native Lands (Half Note, 2005)
Marcus Miller, The Ozell Tapes: The Official Bootleg (Telarc, 2003)
Luther Vandross, Dance With My Father (J-Records, 2003)
Kenny Garrett, Happy People (Warner Bros., 2002)
Marcus Miller, M2 (JVC, 2001)
Marcus Miller, Live and More (GRP, 1998)
Marcus Miller, Tales (PRA, 1994)
Wayne Shorter, High Life (Verve, 1994)
Marcus Miller, The Sun Don't Lie (PRA, 1993)
Ernie Watts, Afoxe (CTI, 1991)
Miles Davis, Amandla (Warner Bros., 1989)
Miles Davis, Tutu (Warner Bros., 1986)
McCoy Tyner, Double Trios (Denon, 1986)
Donald Fagen, The Nightfly (Reprise, 1982)
Miles Davis, We Want Miles (Columbia, 1981)
The Brecker Brothers, Straphangin' (Arista, 1980)