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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

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