Pictures of Marcus Miller often show him wearing what is almost a trademark porkpie hat. Truth is, the extraordinary musician wears many hats, some of them simultaneously.
He's proven himself a master of the electric bass in any setting from jazz to pop to funk to R&B, always with a rich, soulful sound. He's also a stellar producer and arranger, having been involved in a variety of projects for stars and megastars including Miles Davis, Luther Vandross, Roberta Flack, Wayne Shorter, Al Jarreau, Kenny Garrett and many more. His composing skills have been on display through many of those artists and on his own recordings.
Then there's the movie scores, which started with 1990's "House Party" and blossomed into an impressive list of films starring folks like Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Halle Berry and Matthew Perry. He spent a dozen years as a studio musician warrior, contributing his superb bass skills on more than 400 records for the likes of Joe Sample, McCoy Tyner, Mariah Carey, Paul Simon, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Frank Sinatra, and LL Cool J and so many more. (Often doing session after session with little or no break).
He's a Grammy winner. Hell, he's a winner. Period.
Miller, as affable as he is intelligent, handles it all during a time when the music industry and recording industry are in a state of flux, to say the least, as major recording labels and the "old way" of doing things become increasingly insignificant and musicians both fret and wonder about how it all will settle out. Toss in the rigors of touring, as well as raising a family (four children), and it's enough to fill more than one plate. But Marcus Miller spins around the sun and rotates on his axis despite the industry maelstrom. He wears all of his hats exceedingly well.
"You've got to be efficient and you've got to have people helping you to keep your schedule together so you don't drop all those eggs you juggle.," says Miller, 48, a New York City native transplanted to the Los Angeles area.
Out of it all comes his latest project, a CD on which his aim is to show different sides to the music within him, providing a vision of where he stands today. It's titled simply Marcus
, self-produced on the 3 Deuces label and distributed via Concord Records. It was recorded about a year ago and released in foreign markets last year. It hit the U.S. in March.
Miller took time out in April to discuss his recording and career from his LA-area home, where he hoping at the time that the UCLA Bruins would do his city proud in the NCAA men's basketball Final Four. (Sorry, Marcus). He's proud of the new CD and was about to start touring in support of it and was deep into the never-ending process of promoting it. All the while he's looking ahead, with a new CD partially complete already; this one a bass album teaming him with Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten. He even hinted that some time in the future people may be hearing him a bit on acoustic bass.
"I do a broad range of things," he says about the new disk. "This one I decided to open it up a little bit more. On this one, you hear some jazz and R&B and some spoken word. A little bit of everything. I thought it was time to show people a little bit more of what I'm about and I thought that might be a good way to do it is to name it Marcus
. This is where I'm at."
Indeed, there is a range of influences on the record, with guests including Keb' Mo,' Corrine Bailey and David Sanborn.
"With Keb' Mo,' he was my neighbor in my studio. He was down the street. We'd be running back and forth borrowing guitar picks and stuff like that," explains Miller. "We were always threatening to do something together. I thought this would be a good project to work together on something. I called him and said, 'Come over, man. I wrote a track. ("Milky Way.") Come listen to it.' He said, 'Man, this track sounds like it's from outer space .'
"With Corrine, I was in the middle of recording the project and I heard her voice on the radio. She was singing her hit, 'Girls Put Your Records On.' I was so struck by the uniqueness of her voice. So many voices in pop and R&B sound so similar. To hear something that jumped pout at me was really exciting. I reached out to Corrine to see if she would be interested in doing something together. That's how it happened."
Others are regulars in Millers band, except for Sanborn, with whom Miller has recorded many times over the years. "I was working on a couple songs and said, 'Dave would be great for this.' I don't really try to put somebody on [a project] for their name. I put them on because as I'm working on the music, I can imagine their sound. The music dictates it more than, 'I'd like to have this guy's name on the album.'"
The CD touches a lot of areas. "Blast" is a total funk vehicle highlighted by Miller's pulsing bass. But he doesn't play everything he knows. It isn't Charlie Parker licks with a bass. Keith Anderson adds lively funk sax. "Funk Joint," shows Miller's bass at a more leisurely jaunt. A stroll through the streets. "Free" is an upbeat, melodic soul vehicle, with the sweet voice of Bailey (who also graced Herbie Hancock's Grammy-winning River: The Joni Mitchell Letters
on the title cut, "River.") Sanborn adds his signature sound, mixing superbly with her voice and the melody. That's always been his thang
and he does it with grace. "Milky Way" with Keb' Mo' is an R&B vehicle that finds the pop/blues artist in good voice. The song sounds like something from Sly and the Family Stone's heyday, with Mo's vocal line taking interesting twists that Sly's (lower) voice would sometimes take on his more intriguing melodies.
"When I Fall in Love" exhibits Miller on bass clarinet, on which he is becoming more assured. He caresses the sweet ballad, warm and mellow, then his electric bass takes over on a brisk improvisational trip, followed by Gregoire Maret's pristine and dexterous harmonica, which Miller has been employing in his touring band to goods results. All three meld for the ending. Miles Davis' "Jean Pierre" is a showcase for Maret as well as Miller and the familiar theme is carried out in fine fashion. Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" sticks to the original tempo and moves sprightly, with Miller's thick and resonating bass lines as the major voice.
Some listeners may not pick up the jazz elements, but they're there. Miller, even though he has the training, chops and experience to hit any jazz thing, has never been all about that. But he doesn't deny his jazz roots. They contribute to the overall sound of his recordings, and they are a big part of Marcus Miller: Bassist.
As a guy who has come through jazz, "I'm always trying to push it, stretch it, see if I can find some notes that haven't been played. The mentality is always jazz. What can I do this time?" he says. "Every time you hear my band play, even if we play the same songs it's going to be different, because we improvise all the time. I think my spirit is more jazz ... What happens with jazz is that it opens you up. If you're a jazz musician, you have the tools to do whatever else you want to do. It's just that you have to be able to hear in that different mode. Music is all the same thing. If you're playing R&B you have to be able to accent that rhythm. You have to find that trance-like state that people find when they listen to R&B.
"The jazz thing really opens it up and gives me more ideas that I can then incorporate into the funk. A lot of the guys who invented funk were jazz musicians. James Brown had a bunch of jazz guys in his band. Parliament Funkadelic had a bunch of jazz guys in their band, because it was basically the same guys in James' band. So, there's always been a relationship."
There are a few cover tunes on the recording, but much of it is written by Miller. With everything else he's involved in, finding time to compose would appear difficult. Especially in that it is a creative endeavor, not something that can be cranked out in perfunctory or robotic fashion. He says it's a matter of being efficient with one's time. But if the muse strikes, he may just find himself running with it.
" If I'm on tour, and they're setting up the equipment for a show that night, I'll be in my hotel room working on music. I've missed a couple of sound checks in the afternoon because I had a good idea that I didn't want to let go. I wanted to continue to develop it during the day. So I tell my band, 'Check me out, man. Make sure my bass works," says Miller with a light-hearted chuckle that dots his conversation. "Because I've got to get this tune together. So it becomes a real crazy balancing act."
Says Miller, "composing is different at different times of your life. When you're working on your first record, it's easy in one respect because the songs that you have on your first record are probably songs you've been writing all your life. I've heard people have songs on their first record that they wrote when they were 15 or 16 years old. At least they got their first idea when they were that young." After that, "it becomes a different kind of writing. When you're on your ninth album, that becomes still a different kind of writing, because you don't want to repeat yourself and you want to keep growing. So continuing to be a composer is a challenge."
Composing is something Miller has done for many years, starting at a young age. The Brooklyn-born musician grew up in a musical family and played various instruments, primarily clarinet, before ever picking up the bass. His father played piano (he was a relative of famed pianist Wynton Kelly) and he tinkered with that too. With no real formal bass instruction in school, he concentrated on clarinet and dabbled a bit with the that. "I played a bunch of instruments trying to find where I was most comfortable. I enjoyed music so much that it was fun trying out all those instruments," he says.