Marcus Miller: The Man of Many Hats
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.