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Marcus Miller: The Man of Many Hats

By Published: April 28, 2008
Marcus Miller 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.

Marcus Miller "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."


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