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.

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.
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