Marcus Miller: The Man of Many Hats
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.