Marcus Miller: Renaissance Man
While Miller is primarily identified as a bassist, his artistry expands way beyond the limits of a musical instrument. And even with his allegiance to jazz, he can't be confined to any one particular genre. He possesses expansive talents that appear to be boundless. His amazing trajectory has landed him in continuously overlapping stints as a recording artist, multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger, composer, band leader, mentor, educator, prolific film and television score writer and extraordinary live performer.
Miller, who is 53, has appeared on more than 500 recordings with nearly countless musical giants including singers Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Chaka Khan, and Elton John, pianists McCoy Tyner and Joe Sample, rapper Snoop Dogg, saxophonists David Sanborn, Grover Washington, Jr. and Wayne Shorter,, guitarist Eric Clapton and drummer Steve Gadd. He has collaborated with artists in the realms of jazz, pop, rock, rhythm and blues and rap. From singers Aretha Franklin and Frank Sinatra to trumpeter Miles Davis, and from singers Luther Vandross and Carly Simon to pianist Herbie Hancock, Miller has displayed his virtuosity and versatility with the best of the best.
"When you look at how much work he's done over the years, with so many different people, it's mindboggling," says J. Michael Harrison, host of WRTI-FM's The Bridge. "Being able to connect with so many people is huge. Talk about going to school; what an incredible opportunity to learn. And you can hear all those opportunities in his music. When I think of Marcus Miller, I think of the word "funk"you can definitely hear that. But you also hear a melodic vibe. You hear the richness that comes with focus and hard work. All of that is felt in his sound."
Born in Brooklyn on June 14, 1959, Miller comes from a family who encouraged his pursuit of a musical career. His father, William Miller, played the organ and directed the choir at the family's church. Pianist Wynton Kelly, who appeared on Miles Davis' monolithic Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), is William Miller's first cousin. A young Marcus Miller displayed proficiency on the clarinet, piano and bass guitar by the age of 13. By 15, he had turned professional, working regularly on the New York City music circuit, playing for keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith, and flutist Bobbi Humphrey. He soon established himself as a highly sought-after session musician, and was a member of the Saturday Night Live band from 1978-1979. While Miller's jazz roots run deep, his collaborations in rhythm and blues are legendary. He wrote, produced and recorded on more than two-dozen projects with Luther Vandross. As an instrumentalist, Miller has broken ground with his advancement of slapping and thumb techniques, and has expanded the musical lexicon of the fretless bass.
Fellow bassist, as well as multifaceted artist and impresario Warren Oree remarked that: "Marcus Miller is an example of someone who goes beyond the instrument. By that I mean he's a great composer as well as a musician. He doesn't stay in one category. He kind of looks at music like I do: it's music. You don't have to put labels on it. The way I like to break it down, and I think Marcus would agree too, is playing music from your soulmusic from your heart. Marcus Miller is an example of someone who goes beyond the instrument. By that I mean he's a great composer as well as a musician. One of the tunes he's most noted for is "Tutu," which he introduced to Miles Davis."
"Tutu," which was welcomed with high praise and wild success, is the title track of 1986 Miller-produced Warner Bros. recording that emerged as one of Miles Davis' career-defining projects of the 1980s. The iconic recording project was documented in an acclaimed National Public Radio (NPR) series.
"How I made Tutu was really like making a paintinglike painting on a canvas, one layer at a time," says Miller, explaining that the tracks for each instrument were laid down separately in the studio. Conversely, Renaissance was recorded with the entire group in the studio at the same time, a method which is not practiced as much today, yet was the hallmark of masterful recordings during a bygone era.