Miller Time in Anaheim

I was warned by jazz-savvy East Coasters about my second voyage to winter NAMM, that larger-than-life California trade show where the instrument industry debuts the axes and gadgets that will haunt credit statements in the following year. The first time out, I was promised, would be funny and surreal, and it was: Like a Reagan-era metalhead’s bedroom walls brought to life, the exhibit halls featured a who’s-who of VH1 Classic regulars and shred-guitar virtuoso types who make their living by playing certain guitars, amps, pedals and strings.

NAMM Round Two, I was told, would yield intense déjà vu. Right again: same booths, same borderline celebrities (apparently Bill Murray showed up, but not near me), same PR spiels about how a specific guitar or snare drum can disclose the meaning of life, same Anaheim—a town that always reminds me how much I love visiting Manhattan. Pop and jazz have weathered several small revolutions since the heyday of Yngwie Malmsteen and the Rippingtons, but you wouldn’t know it at NAMM. Mark Twain was wrong about Cincinnati—when Armageddon approaches, I’m heading to Orange County.

Like the suburban megastores that support it and despite the overstock of musicians present, NAMM isn’t always that musical. Because the sellable features of an instrument are better showcased with algebraic flurries of notes than with gently comped rhythm changes and a breezy melody, the shows and demos champion an athletic sort of musicality. It’s sport music, often quite literally: After hurtling over one particularly showy lick, the hard-rock guitarist Paul Gilbert threw his arms in the air and hollered like an Olympian finishing the 40-yard dash.

As expected, the jazz schedule is pushed toward fusion most of the time, but not all: Hauling a sack of catalogs underneath the fluorescent lights and feeling not unlike John Zorn locked in the Mall of America, I stumbled upon James Carter and Azar Lawrence trading choruses on “Mr. P.C.” Lawrence, a historical sideman whose recent resurrection after pop sessions, tragedy and substance abuse couldn’t be more welcome, battled this blues form with the Trane-inspired might that earned him ’70s credits such as McCoy’s Enlightenment and Miles’ Dark Magus. And although running into Lawrence was the summit, there were other less cinematic moments of reprieve throughout my four-day sojourn in mid-January.

Enter Marcus Miller, who straddles the middle ground between ’80s-era virtuosity and modern musicality better than most. At a too-brief Fender-sponsored performance with a quintet, Miller played selections from Marcus, the new Concord Jazz release he discusses with Don Heckman in this issue’s cover story. The reigning king of the “bass-out-front” format, Miller impressed on several counts. His solos, such as those on Miles’ “Jean Pierre,” tastefully embellished the seesawing melody at the service of the groove. (That and the presence of Toots’ heir Gregoire Maret assured me Miller will never leave jazz behind no matter how many movies he scores.) The set-opener “Blast,” which could easily lay the foundation for a crunk hip-hop club banger, argued Miller does something his ’80s peers seem incapable of: thoughtfully absorb current pop and urban music. The performance only approached a typical NAMM meltdown on a closing rendition of Tower of Power’s “What is Hip?,” and even that was preceded by a telling disclaimer from the bandleader: “They said we got five minutes left, but we play jazz, so that’s a jazz five minutes.”

Originally published in April 2008

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