Marcus Miller: Renaissance Man

Pheralyn Dove BY

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[Editor's Note: On Sunday, November 25, 2012, All About Jazz learned that Marcus Miller sustained non-life-threatening injuries during a bus crash on the A2 highway in central Switzerland. Unfortunately, the driver was killed in the accident. Online sources report that the bus was carrying 13 people, including two drivers and the 11 members Miller's band. The cause of the crash was not immediately known. AAJ sends condolences to the victim's family and loved ones, as well as healing thoughts for everyone involved in this horrible tragedy.]

A renaissance can be defined as a reawakening, a rebirth, or a resurgence. So it seems appropriate that bassist Marcus Miller would choose Renaissance (Concord, 2012) as the title for his latest CD, given that he has been at the helm of musical revivals and reinventions since he became a prominent figure on the scene, beginning with his precocious emergence as a teenager.

Renaissance is an expedition of 13 diverse tunes. A myriad of musical styles and moods are represented, however an overall feeling of cohesive ensemble playing permeates. Instrumentalists and vocalists give way to full technical and emotional expression without appearing competitive or gratuitous. While the album sets an improvisational tone that is associated with jazz, it is also a contemporary blend of rock and pop, with tinges of rhythm and blues and funk. Whether the musical riffs are buoyant or arduous, quirky or pensive, the spirit of the project shines through as inspirational, thoughtful and exhilarating.

An Eclectic Mix

Miller's "Detroit," the up tempo leading tune on the CD, exudes the feeling of being on a journey, charged with all of the verve and energy that accompany an adventure. Miller's bass is the driver, with enthusiastic companions along for the ride: Maurice Brown on trumpet, Alex Han on alto saxophone, Kris Bowers on piano and Fender Rhodes, Adam Agati on guitar and Louis Cato on drums.

Across the spectrum, another vista revealed on Renaissance is "Setembro (Brazilian Wedding Song.)" The Ivan Lins and Gilson Peranzzetta composition, which features Gretchen Parlato and Ruben Blades on vocals, is a dreamy love poem that channels the sensual melodies, rhythms and syncopation indicative of Afro-Brazilian music. Miller gently glides along, alternately playing the fretless bass, acoustic bass and bass clarinet.

"Goree," which features Miller on bass clarinet as well as bass, is a reverent homage to Goree Island, the place that has become a symbol for Africans who were forced into slavery and shipped to the Americas as human cargo. The remake of "Slippin' Into Darkness," the tune popularized during the 1970s by the group WAR, is elevated beyond a straightforward translation through Miller's innovative arrangement featuring punctuated bass lines and telling solos blended into an undeniably funky groove. The cats definitely sound like they're having fun on this one. In another twist, Dr. John's distinctive vocals come as a refreshing surprise on Miller's version of Janelle Monae's "Tightrope."

Marcus Miller—RenaissanceProphetic Observations

In conversation about Renaissance, Miller says the theme emerged from his travels throughout the world over the past few years. He's been everywhere: crisscrossing the United States, flying over to France and other parts of Europe, going to Africa, Australia, and Japan. He said his observations point to a sense that people everywhere are in a state of convergence—that a reemergence is about to take place.

"Everybody's getting ready to step into the next phase," Miller explains, "and with Renaissance I'm trying to describe it in a musical context. Where we are is real, it's reality, however it's a transitional period, like we're on the edge of the next wave. I mean, Twitter's all the rage now but will it even exist in five years? What music is better suited to that mentality than jazz? It probes, queries, questions, adapts, absorbs and it has been doing this for years.

"For me, traveling is such a rich experience," the two-time Grammy Award-winner continues. "I think every American ought to see the world. I've seen levels of poverty and wealth that would make your jaw drop. I was on an island, a French territory near New Zealand, New Caledonia, which is mostly populated by Black people—Aborigines—and they're into the music. They were onto the Renaissance vibe. They were into the music as much as New Yorkers are into the music. Music is powerful when you travel. As musicians, we can communicate on a level that even some ambassadors can't. We can play music and when we're finished, we're all a family. Music speaks to commonalities. We're certainly ambassadors."

Extraordinary Career Trajectory

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 soul—music 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 painting—like 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.

Recording Aesthetics

"With Renaissance, what I really wanted was to return to some of the older values," Miller says. "I'm really excited about this band I have now and wanted to capture the band in its essence of live performance. For me at this point I thought it was important to get back to that aesthetic." In addition to trumpeter Brown, alto saxophonist Han, pianist/keyboardist Bowers, guitarist Agati, and drummer Cato, the album also features veteran keyboardists Federico Gonzalez Pena and Bobby Ray Sparks, guitarist Adam Rogers and trumpeter Sean Jones.

When asked about his favorite tune on the CD, Miller replies, "I like "Redemption." When I wrote that song I recognized I had the center of the album. I intrinsically knew that tunes would go before it and after it. The song represents where I'm at right now." He also mentioned he felt good about his decision to close the album with a tribute to Michael Jackson, a beautiful solo bass rendition of "I'll Be there."

Business Savvy and Sage Advice

Exemplifying Miller's international lifestyle, Renaissance was mastered by Darcy Proper at Wisseloord Studios in Hilversum, Netherlands. It was mixed by David Isaac, Taka Honda and Bruce Miller. All of the music on Renaissance is produced and arranged by Miller; he also wrote eight of the 13 tunes and served as executive producer, along with Harold Goode and Harry Martin. As an executive producer, Miller was involved in the coordination, funding and project management of Renaissance.

"The producer on an album project is like the director of a movie. The job is to get the best performance out of all the artists. The executive producer is somebody who helps make that production possible. I've always paid attention to the business side," Miller says. "When we did Tutu, I had to submit a business plan. Miles respected and appreciated that about me. These days no one has the luxury of just being an artist and waiting for somebody else to make them a star. You have to get out there, utilize technology, hook up your social media. Nowadays if you spend all your time practicing and ignore the other side—you'll end up being a community musician. You have to find a balance to get your music out in the world."

It's not easy, he admitted. And it's not new. "Mozart had to figure out how to get paid so he could eat," Miller says. "Beethoven had to figure it out—they also had to find somebody to help pay their bills." Sage words indeed, from a musical master who has obviously taken his own advice: a true-to-life "Renaissance" man.

Selected Discography

Marcus Miller, Renaissance (Concord, 2012)

Marcus Miller, Tutu Revisited (Dreyfus, 2011)

Marcus Miller, A Night in Monte Carlo (Concord, 2011)

Marcus Miller, Tales (PRA, 1994)

Marcus Miller, The Sun Don't Lie (PRA, 1993)

Miles Davis, Tutu (Warner Bros., 1986)

Luther Vandross, Give Me the Reason (Epic, 1986)

Photo Credit

Mike Stemberg

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