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Marcus Miller: The Perfect Balance

Marcus Miller: The Perfect Balance
Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

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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.

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