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Marcus Miller: The Perfect Balance


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Marcus Miller is a master musician of calm wisdom and impeccable taste, whose talent has been exposed to the elements under different kinds of light through the years, only to magnify the evident supremacy he so gently seems to hold over the bass guitar in recent years. As a multi-instrumentalist of deep musical curiosity, he has also placed a difficult instrument like the bass clarinet as one of his most distinctive trademarks. His recordings are always surprising, and his soul remains wide open and well centered: you must never sacrifice what you believe in. His musical joy is in what he leaves behind for others to feel. This is his time and his place.

At age 51, he can recall recording sessions with Miles Davis that most can only wish they could have witnessed; and his balance of jazz, funk, R&B, and even rock, leave a trail of amazed fans every time he goes on stage. Some would call it genius.

Maybe that is why his new album seems to perfectly suit him: a symphony orchestra at his magical, absolute mercy, and the European city of Monaco as the perfect scenery for a concert that had guests Roy Hargrove and Raul Midon completing this circle of delightful trust. A Night in Monte Carlo (Concord, 2011) is an accurate display of Miller's arranging brilliance, where L'Orchestre Philarmonique de Monte Carlo is granted a beautiful importance in his scheme of things, right next to his band. Improvisation meets calculated structure, and they coexist and interact in harmony, giving each other the necessary wings to reach the sky.

Where a soprano's voice should be filling in for Puccini's notes, Miller makes his bass guitar speak ever so softly; where Sergio Mendes sang about "Más que nada" with a slower pace and a calm demeanor, the bassist asks Raúl Midón to speed and soul it up, while the orchestra embraces the challenge with natural calmness; and then, where Miles Davis created an everlasting tune with "So What" and Bill Evans gave it that almost mystic intro, Miller orchestrates what was already strikingly perfect, his band illuminating the whole world with bright lights. This doesn't happen every day.

Jazz and classical have met before, but maybe they never felt so close. This is an album of dreams come true, an album of growth and commitment, an album of open hearts and hard work. Miller has taken the world by the hand once more, and is whispering in everybody's ear how important it is to keep music alive and well.

All About Jazz: It's a little strange sometimes when I see jazz musicians doing anything that has anything to do with classical music, because both genres are supposed to be opposites. So how does it fit into your world, in what you do? We know you do so many different things, but where did this particular album come from?

Marcus Miller: There is a man in charge of the arts in Monaco, director of the arts, and his name is Jean-René Palacio. One day he called me and told me that they were doing the Monaco Jazz Festival, and he wanted to know if I would be interested in doing a concert with the Monte Carlo Symphony Orchestra, and I have been doing many different things, a lot of growing year after year, opening up, and a lot of touring with my band, and the music was growing, I really thought it would be nice to switch it up. So I had done a gig with other bass players, I got with Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten, and it was very different. And I also got together with some younger musicians and we revisited the album Tutu (Warner Bros., 1990) of Miles Davis...so I thought "this is perfect, I have never done this before."

I have worked with orchestras a lot but only when I am scoring movies, but I have never done it where I am mixing my music with strings; I thought it'd be nice. I also thought it'd be nice because I realized that a lot of times when I am writing music, my music or for other people, I am imagining orchestra sound, even if I am not using an orchestra, using the piano and synthesizers, that kind of simulates the real thing. So I figured it would be nice to not simulate it this time, and I told him that I would be interested.

I think the biggest difference between classical musicians and jazz musicians, is that improvisation is such an important part of being a jazz musician, and classical musicians don't get a chance to improvise that much. So if you treat it with respect when you work together, it can work. The orchestra was very respectful towards us, and I was very happy and grateful for everything they brought to the mix. It was a very nice situation and you have to just remember that improvisation is part of it and might throw them off, so if this section is, let's say, sixteen bars long, and the saxophonist gets hot, you have to remember that you have fifty five people that you have to let them know that we're going to extend this section. So we had to work out some tools for that, but once we figured that part out it was very nice.

AAJ: And you guys were rehearsing for three days only...

From left: Alex Han, Marcus Miller

MM: Yes, we didn't have a lot of time. You know, it's very expensive to do something like that, so they wanted me to send the arrangements early, so that they could be prepared, but I was doing a million projects, and I was writing very fast, and they were calling me, "we need the music." So I finally got it to them in the last minute. But I wasn't worried, because I know these things, once you get everybody in the same room, everybody can feel each other's spirit, and that's what happened. When we got in the same room everybody relaxed, because everybody was kind of nervous, kind of worried, but I already heard the sound completely in my head, so I wasn't really nervous about it.

AAJ: And was the result as you were hearing it in your head?

MM: Yes. I knew that I could hear the sound in my head and the only intangible was going to be the energy that everybody brought to it. I remember thinking "I hope everybody brings like a good, incredible energy, and I hope the audience brings that too," because that's really a big part of this whole thing. Because the musicians, my band, with Roy [Hargrove] and Raúl [Midón] included, they were excited, and the audience was really hot. And they all came together very nicely.

AAJ: These were your own arrangements for a symphony orchestra?

MM: Yes. I thought about my catalog, I thought about my songs, songs I have been associated with for years, things I wrote for other people, or albums that I produced for other people, things that I wished I had an orchestra when I was doing it the first time, and this time was the real thing. So there was "Blast!," the first song on the CD, with an opening line that is crying out for that big sound, and it was so lovely to hear it with the orchestra. It was the first thing we played, and the audience didn't know what to expect when we hit them with that; they were blown away. It was beautiful.

The thing I love about these opening lines is that when people are in an orchestra they think about a lot of things, happening at the same time. This line is going this way and that line is going that way, and instead of that, in this first song here, everyone in the orchestra was playing the same thing. I learned in orchestration class that the biggest sound you can create with an orchestra is everybody playing the same thing at the same time. So that's how we started, and we went from there. I think the effect as really nice.

AAJ: It almost sounds as if "Blast!" was always meant to sound like this, with a symphony orchestra.

MM: Sometimes when I hear the original version now, I am like "where's the orchestra?" [laughs]. It sounds like it was meant to be. When I did the original version I didn't have an orchestra at my disposal, I usually don't. And you try to create that big sound with big synthesizers, and it gets close, but there is nothing like fifty or sixty people playing the same thing together. You can't synthesize that, and it sounded so natural. It sounded like it had always been, and that was special.

AAJ: The orchestra sounds so passionate, almost as if they were finally allowed to "play."

MM: When we were rehearsing, the first rehearsal everyone was a little stiff, because no one knew whether it was going to work, and no one knew anybody else, and we collided with each other on the first couple of songs. And when we took a break, everybody in the orchestra got in line because they wanted to shake my hand...and it was so different from when I was working with Luther Vandross, with members of the orchestra that were all so nonchalant, and they were from like the Lincoln Center or the New York Philharmonic, and were just doing that to make some extra money or something like that; but these people in Monaco were very excited, so from that part on, I would walk through the aisles when they were playing to make a connection with everybody.

So, by the time those three days were over, although three days doesn't sound like a lot of time, by the time they were over, we were all very much friends, and everyone was so free to put some passion and express themselves in their parts. I really try to write music that would give the orchestra space; and I think you can hear that, and hear the individual passion from the true player, so it really worked well.

AAJ: Puccini and "Más que nada"?

MM: I love Puccini's ballads. I have always been a fan of that. When I was introduced to Puccini's melodies, I realized a lot of them are close to being pop melodies. So when I knew I was playing the Opera House in Monte Carlo I thought it would be nice to finally being able to play "O Mio Bambbino Caro," which is an aria that Puccini wrote for a soprano, and of course, it didn't matter to me, I was like "I'm playing it on the bass," because it is beautiful, and I thought it would sound beautiful on the bass, taking the stage with the orchestra behind me. So that's what we did. And I think it was really interesting for people to hear. "I know this melody, but what's different? Oh, it's supposed to be a soprano, instead of a bass guitar." But I thought it was really nice, and I just stayed there.

It's just an intro to "Más que nada," so all of a sudden we go from this beautiful Puccini melody to this really upAl Jarreau, when I produced his album called Tenderness (Warner Bros / Wea 1994). This was the first song on that album. And it's much faster than Sergio Mendes original version. Raúl Midón called me: "Dude, this song is kind of fast, I have so sing in Portuguese! You're really stretching me here!," but he put in his time I guess, because he nailed it! The rapid way he sings the verse, it just felt perfect to me. The energy of that song really got people going. It was the last song we played for the show.

AAJ: "So What" under a new light...

MM: That song is probably one of the most well known tunes in jazz, and all jazz musicians have played the song. You hear it all the time. But when you go back and listen to the original, there is an introduction played by Bill Evans on piano and Paul Chambers accompanies him on the acoustic bass; the intro, nobody plays it! But when you go back to that original recording, as I was saying, you realize how important that intro was to the mood of the song, and the state of mind that the musicians played the song with. I have heard it a lot of times when the musicians are just using it to play the licks, and that's not really the atmosphere they created. It sounds more like John Coltrane's Impressions (Impulse!, 1963), which was based on "So What"; it was more up-tempo, it had more energy, a different feeling.

So when you play that intro, it really sets out the atmosphere and everything that you play from that point on is affected by that intro that you played. So I was really excited to not only play that intro, but also to orchestrate it for the orchestra, so that everybody could hear it and go "Okay, this really sounds familiar, but I don't know what it is," and then all of a sudden, here we come with what they all know, "Oh, that was an intro!"; and I really think that intro set up a really beautiful mood for the rest of it.

AAJ: And then you added in there DJ Logic, and it is like "what?"

MM: [laughs] I like complete music. If you go to a show of mine, I want you to express every emotion. I want you to laugh and cry and get up and dance and sit down and be quiet. And also in jazz, I want you to hear the history of jazz, and the history of music, particularly the African-American based music. So I love the idea of playing "So What" and having a song that was written in 1959, and put a beat on it that was more like 1991; and then have the orchestra play with this European sound, and all of a sudden a DJ comes out of nowhere, scratching on. But I didn't want it to sound like a collage, where people just took a bunch of colors and threw them in there; I wanted it to sound really natural. I wanted it to sound almost like it always should have been. I wanted it to sound organic. So I was really happy with the way it turned out. It was perfect.

AAJ: The addition of the always powerful "Strange Fruit" to the final record.

MM: After you work with the orchestra and it is all done, that sound doesn't leave your head. I really was happy with the sound and the rhythm section in the orchestra combined; I was really happy. So I am walking around and it's still kind of dancing in my head. Then my wife said, "Why didn't you do 'Strange Fruit'?" It was too late. That always happens. There's always some idea that you get after a project is over, and you think that if you get a chance to do it again maybe you'll do that. So I kinda gave up the idea. Then Herbie Hancock called me and he said he needed me to come to Miami to work with Juanes on The Imagine Project (Herbie Hancock, 2010). So I went to Miami, and we were cutting that track, and during the lunch break I was sitting at the piano, and everyone else was leaving, and I was just playing the harmonies to this "Strange Fruit" arrangement that I had, and Herbie walked in, and I said "Oh, it's just an arrangement for "Strange Fruit,"" and he said "That's a bad tune!"

And I said, "Maybe one day I can get you to play on it." And he said "Yeah, just let me know!" So we finished that session and I flew back home, and that stayed in my head, and I'm going "You know what? Herbie might change his mind, so let me get him now." So Herbie flew back to LA and I called him and told him that I'd like to do the song now, and we did it, and we added it as a bonus cut on this album, and it's the first time I've ever had an album where that one extra idea is actually on the album as well. It's a really nice feeling.

AAJ: It's always been a powerful song.

MM: On my Tales (Pra, 1995) album, the concept was to have people that I respect to talk just before the song, and Bill Withers spoke before "Strange Fruit" and he said "Man, if there is one song I wish I'd written"— and this is Bill Withers talking, who's written several American classics—he said, "If there's one song I wish I'd written it's "Strange Fruit." The imaginary of black bodies hanging from trees, and somebody called it strange fruit, is just so profound." The song is very powerful, and my memory of what Bill said is always there with the song. And so is Billie Holiday; she had to be so courageous to record that song in the 1940s, because everybody warned her not to do it. She was really successful with a song that is so dark and just so strong. She stuck to her guns and she did it. It's one of her most important pieces of work, so I am really glad I got to include it on this CD.

AAJ: A song she sometimes couldn't even bring herself to sing if she was not having a good day, because of its raw darkness. It was painful.

MM: Exactly. It's really hard to play some of those tunes. You really have to hold it together, and it's not easy.

Marcus Miller with Alex Han and Christian Scott.

AA: Very nice work, on your part, for The Imagine Project, with that song with Juanes, "La Tierra."

MM: Yeah, I really liked it, too. Juanes had his musicians, and we had such a nice time that day. Herbie is the man. He is not afraid.

AAJ: Back to your new album, why the choice of Raúl Midón and Roy Hargrove?

MM: I had met Raúl Midón before, and I was very impressed, because he is just standing there with his guitar and it sounds like a whole orchestra by himself. He plays the guitar and somehow plays percussion at the same time; so you hear drums and guitar and then he is singing, and he can create the sound of a trumpet with his voice, and it's just amazing. And he is blind, so I just can't even imagine how you even begin to figure things out like that. He is just tremendously talented. So we promised each other that we would find a way to work together, so when this concert was suggested to me, and I was told to think of some guest artists I thought this would be the perfect opportunity for me to work with Raúl, and actually introduce him to people that aren't familiar with him yet.

With Roy it was a lot easier, because Roy and I have known each other for a long time, and I feel like we run into each other on tours all the time, and we see each other on jam sessions all the time, and I have always been impressed with his sound and his creativity. I think I always had it in the back of my mind to do something with Roy on an official level, and I thought this would be a great chance to work together.

AAJ: What was it that you enjoyed the most about the concert itself?

MM: I think what I enjoyed the most, right after we finished the show, was the look on everybody's face. The look on the audience's faces, and then when I went backstage, just as important or even more important, the look on the musician's faces. Everyone was high. It was beautiful. It was that high that musicians get when they step up there and they take a chance, and it is successful, and they feel they have done something that they are proud of and they are going to be proud of down the road. It was that kind of feeling. And I wish everybody in the world could experience that feeling that musicians feel when something like that happens, because I feel that is what keeps musicians hopeful, and excited about life and interested in life, because you never know when that feeling is going to come. There is always an opportunity. So I think that is what I enjoyed about this concert the most. Watching everybody's faces.

AAJ: Why the bass clarinet?

MM: My first instrument, besides the piano, because my father played piano, the first instrument that I took official lessons on was the clarinet. And I played clarinet since I was 10 years old and all the way through college. It was my official instrument that I got my musical education on. I went to the Arts High School in New York for musical arts, and then I major on music in college, and it was always the clarinet. The bass guitar at the time that I was coming up wasn't a really good fit in what I was doing, so I got my music education and I learned about harmony and composition and arranging through the clarinet. And when I became a professional musician after college, I put the clarinet away because I realized that my true calling was the bass guitar, so I left the craft alone. But maybe five years later, when I was working for Miles [Davis] and playing music for him, I looked at a piece of music and I felt my fingers fingering, as if they were playing a clarinet, and I realized I always do that every time I see music. It's like my fingers are playing the clarinet in the air. So I realized that I missed the instrument, and I wondered how I could incorporate the clarinet on what I was doing. And I couldn't imagine the sound of the clarinet.

I said to myself "Maybe the bass clarinet," because Eric Dolphy had played it incredibly it in the sixties, and Bennie Maupin played it for Herbie [Hancock] in the '70s. He played it for Miles' Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969) album, and then for Herbie. So I thought "Maybe that instrument." What appealed to me about it was that it was much deeper than a regular clarinet. Very brown, very wooden sound, but had a really high range as well. It could go high and low, kinda like a man's voice, from the deep bass to the falsetto.

And I liked the fact that could play melodies, and I liked the fact that it was such a different sound form my bass guitar, a very hard, metallic sound. I thought this could be a nice contrast. So I was saying at home that someday I was going to get myself a bass clarinet, and that Christmas there was a bass clarinet under my tree. My mom and my wife had found one and put it under my tree for me. So it was a very noisy, squawky Christmas, trying to figure out how to play it. It's not a very easy instrument to play.

AAJ: You taught yourself to play it?

MM: Exactly. I was like "I think there is something here." So I worked on it until I could get a melody out of it. Then I played it for Miles. "Listen to this." And he said "Hey man, you've found your instrument." And I was like "What do you mean, I found my instrument? My instrument is the bass guitar!" "You know what I mean," he said, and I did know what he meant, because I think he knew that I was looking for a sound that could best suit my personality. So with this encouragement I kinda stuck with it and it became my second instrument. So if I do a concert is nice to pull it out and give people a rest from the sound of my bass guitar, and give them a complete different color; and then when I go back to the bass guitar is nice too, because contrast is everything. You don't appreciate something sometimes until it goes away and then it comes back. So I really enjoy using it in that matter.

AAJ: What were you like in your early 20s, when You'd already gotten your feet wet and were playing with all these people?

MM: I think I am pretty much the same guy, I was always into music. It was so important to me, that when I first met musicians like George Benson, McCoy Tyner or Grover Washington Jr., I never got nervous. I might have gotten nervous as I was walking to the studio, or to the show, but once the music started I hadn't time to be nervous, because the music was so important to me and it was so important to play it right, to make it sound good, that I didn't have time to be nervous. And to me it is still the same thing. The music is so important, and it is so important to get it right. To get the sound that I can hear in my head, and see if I can get people to emotionally feel what I am trying to put across. Everything else gets locked out. I have always been like that.

That is why I try to keep my enthusiasm for music, because the people that I met that I admire the most, they kept their enthusiasm through their whole lives. Miles did it, Herbie does, Wayne Shorter, Stevie Wonder... Do you know how you see some guys that they don't play that much anymore, and they are kind like icons, and there is these other guys that are just like "Let's play," and forget the icon and what critics say? Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder...they come and sit in on your set, and play things like Chick Corea songs. That never-ending curiosity. It's an amazing thing. I got a lot of friends who are athletes, and when you hit 35 you are an old man, you have to transition to something else, you are an ex-athlete. But there are no ex-musicians. At 35 you are just getting warm, and you can discover things all the way through your life, and I think that is what is beautiful about music.

AAJ: What is your best memory of Miles, as a musician?

MM: As a musician, definitely working with him in the studio on albums like Tutu (Warner Bros., 1990) and Amandla (Warner Bros., 1989), and giving him directions, and telling him "Hey man, this is what I need you to do and this is how that one goes," and then he doesn't ask me any questions; and sometimes when he played, I wouldn't quite understand why he chose to play what he played because obviously when you have written a song and you arrange it, you have an idea of how he is going to play it. And sometimes he wouldn't do that, sometimes he would do something different and I'd ask, "why did you do that?" And those musical ideas that I questioned when he played them, all ended up being the things that I loved the most about what he did. It was just amazing to just stand there and hear a genius work and not be able to recognize that genius until I had some time to step away from it. And whenever I hear stuff we did together, and he didn't play what I thought he was going to play, now I am like "Wow, I was standing there when he did that!." And I didn't know how profound it was until later.

Miles was the guy that taught us all that you don't have to play everything. What you do, you choose the most effective notes, and not every musician can do that, because a lot of musicians have great technique, great tone, great musical knowledge, and they can hit you with a whole lot of stuff; but it takes somebody with an exquisite taste to decide which of those I am going to use in this particular situation. And Miles would sit there and leave a big space, and the bigger the space you leave, the more profound what you play after that space is going to be. And you better find the right thing to play, because after leaving a big space like that, is like talking, and then pausing is on..."This is what I want to tell you..." When you pause, everybody is sitting on the edge of their seats going "what is he going to say?" And Miles taught us how important that is, how effective that is. If you leave a big space and then you play some trash at the end of that space you ruin everything. But if you leave a big space and then you play a perfect note, you won. Everybody is going to be emotionally involved, and it is going to be a successful moment.

Oscar Peterson. You don't ever hear him make a mistake. You don't ever hear Oscar Peterson "stuck" when he plays, you know what I mean? He was a virtuoso, and he brought almost a European kind of virtuosity to jazz that a lot of Europeans, and not only Europeans, really appreciate. So if you are loving Oscar Peterson and then you listen to a Miles record, and Miles goes for a C natural and it doesn't quite come out, it's a different thing.

But if you go to a Miles concert, I think Miles in my opinion drew more emotion out of the listener than Oscar Peterson ever did. With Peterson, you had to let go, you couldn't be really involved because he was so good, he's the greatest. With Miles, sometimes you felt like you had to help Miles; sometimes you felt like you had to emotionally join him so that he could get through the notes, because you never knew when he was going to mess up. And that had a special effect that I don't think that everybody understands. It takes a unique personality to be the kind of musician that listeners want to help. There is a vulnerability that he had on his playing, that it makes you want to join him, and I think that music that makes people want to join in and participate is a different kind of music, it's a more special music, and it's going to reach a wider audience.

This was the complete sound. And I said "Man, this is going to be something I am going to hear for the rest of my life; you better play for the good!" And Luther must have thought the same thing, because when we got towards the end, he was going "Keep it like that, keep it like that," singing. Even the jazz musicians and the rhythm section started trying to change stuff; and he was like "This sounds good. Marcus, don't mess this up!" [laughs]. And we kept it right there, too. The song is probably about eight minutes long, and it is eight minutes of beauty. And I really remember that clearly.

AAJ: Have you ever been asked for more straight-ahead and less "everything else"?

MM: No, nobody has ever really asked me that. A lot of times when we are on tour, on jazz festivals, we have these jam sessions. And I'll go in and I'll swing all night with those very musicians. I came up in New York, where I did all sorts of straight-ahead gigs. Anybody that was there at that time in New York knows that I play what I play by choice. I swing and I studied that music and I love that music, but I really feel that my voice is in the kind of music I play. But it doesn't mean I don't love that music. And I have done jam sessions from one o'clock in the morning until six, where I swung and held it down. I remember one time at the North Sea Jazz Festival, I looked behind me at the jam session, and there were a lot of horn players that were getting ready to sit in, everybody getting ready to give something, and we just held it down for the whole night.

So, I love that music and I swing from time to time in my music, but for me I just have to find the rhythm that I think is happening around me. When you hear my music 50 years from now, I want you to know when it was done. I want you to know what it was like to walk down the street in my lifetime. I want you to know what it was like to dance in my lifetime. I want you to know how people danced, how people moved. When I hear swing beat I know exactly how those people were dancing in 1940. When I see my aunts and uncles dance to swing music, I know that was the life rhythm of those times, and now it's more of an art form. Swinging is beautiful, and I swing all the time. If you come here to my music room, I'm swinging on my bass all day long. That's what I do, because it keeps you warm and active. But when I am doing my music, I want my music to be a snap shot of my era, just like Duke Ellington left a snap shot of his era.

I think that is music's first responsibility. I think its first responsibility is to reflect the time that it was created in. That should be all art responsibility. All art should reflect the time that it was created in. Not everybody agrees, and I understand that. I am not hating on anybody! Everybody should do what they feel. But I feel that that is my responsibility. So you are going to hear me swing from time to time, but you are going to hear more hip hop, more funk...You are going to hear the rhythm of today.

AAJ: You are all over the place, and you have done many different things. Is there anything you still haven't had a chance to try that you are still thinking "I need to get to that"?

MM: I don't really think in those terms anymore. I used to, but I don't anymore. I used to say "man, I hope one day I'll get to play with this person or that person." And the last person I felt like that about was with Herbie Hancock because I really wanted to work with him. But lately it is more about how meaningful I can make the music, no matter what I'm doing, who I am playing with; how I can make people feel deeply. So that is my goal now. I might try to do some acting later on, but only if something really cool came around.

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