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Marcus Miller: America's AmBASSadoor

Jim Worsley By

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Getting phone calls from South Africans thanking me for writing "Tutu" and hearing how much support and encouragement that song gave them when they were fighting against apartheid is a very special feeling. —Marcus Miller
Marcus Miller is most often described as a jazz, funk, soul, fusion, and R&B bassist. As much as that is accurate, it is a description that falls well short of the mark. Miller is a high-end musical sponge who manages to incorporate today's cultures and rhythms into his compositions, layered within the framework of sound he has polished over the past four decades.

He is perhaps best known as a musician in connection with Miles Davis, David Sanborn, Luther Vandross, and Herbie Hancock. Within the industry, he is acclaimed and in high demand for his arranging, producing, and compositional skills. Over the years, Miller's substantial journey has led to genre-defying excellence in music and character defining excellence in life.

The same passion and enthusiasm he has for music is found in his concerns for humanity, communication, and education. The following is a recent dialogue that illuminates Miller's passion. It was a joyous conversation that touched on the past, the present, family, history, our world, and, of course, music.

All About Jazz: Just last night you were performing at the Hollywood Bowl with Herbie Hancock and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. I believe that it was a one-hundredth-anniversary celebration for the LA Philharmonic.

Marcus Miller: Exactly, the one-hundredth-anniversary of the LA Philharmonic. They had a few different artists performing with the orchestra. Katy Perry, John Williams, and Herbie Hancock among them. With Herbie, we did an orchestral version of "Rock It" with a rhythm section. It was pretty cool. You've been to the Hollywood Bowl(stated as an assumption, not a question).

AAJ: Yes I have. It's a special venue.

MM: Very cool, very nice. Then we are headed to Kuwait tomorrow to do two gigs with Herbie. Every once in a while Herbie will ask me to play a few gigs, and I love to do it. It's nice sometimes to just be the bassist and not have to worry about the whole leadership thing.

AAJ: I can understand that. The Kuwait shows will be more of a traditional quintet?

MM: Yes, that's right: guitarist Lionel Loueke, drummer Trevor Lawrence Jr. , and keyboardist/saxophonist Terrace Martin (in addition to Hancock and Miller).

AAJ: Do you find it somewhere between challenging and interesting to merge the set-in-stone arrangements of an orchestra with the improvisation and inventiveness of jazz?

MM: The secret is with the conductor. If you can have a relationship with him, and he understands how improvisation works, it really comes down to as simple as when we get to the letter D, have the orchestra stop playing, and we will let you know when it is time to start playing and resume with letter D on the charts. So we can open up a window, is what I call it, to improvise and do our thing. And then we give them a cue they can come back in with the orchestrated set arrangements. So, it's really having a series of windows and opportunities to let the band improvise before the orchestra continues. It's really the same as with a big band. Big bands play arrangements but there is always an area for a solo. Sometimes the big band will come in with a little lift underneath the guy's solo. But yeah with an orchestra that is the first thing you have to figure out. It doesn't take long because when you are at your first rehearsal you will have your first train wreck. You take a break and figure out how to resolve the issue. It's not as difficult as before because a lot of the orchestra members now have a familiarity with jazz. Before, there were some pretty tall walls between the two disciplines. Now you have guys coming over and saying that they really like what you did with this or that.

AAJ: I've had the pleasure of seeing and hearing you play live several times. That includes at least three dynamic shows well into the past with David Sanborn, Hiram Bullock, and Omar Hakim. Firstly, if you could comment on your innate chemistry with Sanborn, and also is it true that you and Hakim went to high school together?

MM: Yes, well, I'll answer the second part first. Omar and I met in high school. We went to La Guardia school at the time. La Guardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts was split into two campuses. One was for musicians and dancers, and the other for musicians and artists. Omar and I both went to the one for musicians and artists. Our campus was uptown in Harlem. Since then they have consolidated the two and they are at Lincoln Center. Omar was an amazing drummer even back in high school. None of us could believe how good he was, and I basically just attached to him. He introduced me to a whole set of talented musicians that really helped my development.

AAJ: That would be back when you all were playing in your basements?

MM: Yeah man, we had a group called Harlem River Drive that was pretty cool. We both did a lot of playing and developing together. Then I was playing with Mike Mainieri. You know that guy, Mike Mainieri?

AAJ: Yes, plays the vibes.

MM: Yes, and he was getting ready to go to Japan and play with a guitarist named Kazumi Watanabe. He asked me to recommend a drummer. I told him that he needed to hire my boy Omar. He said that he didn't have a lot time for auditions and asked me if I was sure. Mike ended up loving Omar. They played together for a while. That led to Omar becoming part of Weather Report. So then I had a lot of connections of my own, and we were able to help each other with our careers. In terms of David Sanborn, coming from New York the guys I grew up with, you were judged by how complete of a musician you were. You really had to put in your time. You had to be deep into the song. The straight-ahead jazz, the Latin, the Caribbean, etc. If you were limited to one or the other, it was kind of a mark against you. One of those categories is that you need to know how to make pop music with some depth to it. For us, it was really the complete wing. If you could sneak some really interesting harmony into a song that appealed to a lot of people, like Duke Ellington, like Stevie Wonder, that was the ultimate. So for me working with Sanborn I took that kind of mentality to it. So, it was going to be funky and all that, but if you wanted to look deeper into the music there were going to be some interesting things that could appeal to you on a deeper level. So, Sanborn was the perfect voice to create that kind of sound. In the eighties, I had access to three of the most incredible voices of that era. I'm talking about Miles Davis, David Sanborn, and Luther Vandross. All three of them were very influential with their instruments. Of course, by instrument I mean Luther with his voice, Miles with his trumpet, and David with his sax. As a composer, it was an incredible period. Just to be able to write something and know that the guy that was going to be interpreting the melody was a genius.
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