Marcus Miller: New York State of Mind

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Marcus Miller
By Kumiko Higo
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Marcus Miller
By Kumiko Higo
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Marcus Miller's bass and case
By Kumiko Higo

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Marcus Miller stretches out in an office chair, trademark hat on his head, a contented smile on his face. Keyboards, monitors and assorted electronic gear are all within easy reach for another night in the cozy, cluttered Santa Monica rooms that serve as his primary work space.

“Actually,” he says with a laugh, “I used to have a real studio here. But then, after a while, I realized I only used it about four times a year, because a lot of my composing work is right in there.”

He points to the case containing his laptop computer. “So now,” he continues, “I just have my little apartment, and I work here whenever I need the room. I don’t need much space.”

It helps that the digs are only a few miles away from the Brentwood home he shares with his wife, Brenda, and their four children. All of which seems like a surprisingly stereotypical Los Angeles lifestyle for a deeply rooted New Yorker. “I know, I know,” he says. “I just started admitting I live out here four or five years ago, even though we’ve been here for 14 years. I guess it’s obvious that I’m from New York, and my whole lifetime perspective and orientation are from New York.”

The transition took place while he was producing and playing for his close friend and longtime musical associate Luther Vandross. “When it was time to do his next record,” recalls Miller, “he said, ‘I want to do it in L.A.’ And he put me in a hotel. But pop records can take a long time to do, so I was in the hotel for three or four months.”

When the next recording came along, Miller turned down a full service hotel room in favor of a house rental. “It was the only way to go,” he explains. “Because the last time when I went away, when I came back my son was walking, and he wasn’t walking when I left. And you don’t want that to happen. So I brought the family out, we put the kids in school, and our roots started growing into the ground. Then I got a call to do an Eddie Murphy movie, we stayed longer than we thought, and the next thing you know we were looking around to find a place to buy.”

Despite his decade-plus residence in La-La Land, Miller retains the fast-charged pace of his native city. Speaking quickly, dashing from thought to thought, he admits that, like many former New Yorkers, he often feels like a stranger in a strange land.

But the musical diversity that is at the heart of who he is as an artist hasn’t changed at all. And the far-ranging selections on his new Concord album, Marcus, underscore his quest for versatility, as well as the occasional apprehension he feels when he actually achieves it. “I was always a little nervous about showing people too much of myself,” he says. “My thing is so broad that it can be hard to digest in one sitting. Even when I try to describe in words what I do, it takes a long time. So, musically, you can imagine what it’s like. I decided that what I needed to do was show them the bass, then open it up, show the compositions, show the other instruments, then show what else I can do—but slowly.

“My first instrumental record was in ’90-’91; now it’s 2008, and there’s still a kind of contemporary-jazz basis—whatever you want to call it—in what I’m doing. But then, I can’t deny that soulful R&B side of myself, either. So this album has a little bit of all that in it.”

But what about the potential problem awaiting most albums that attempt to offer a far-reaching menu of tunes—even such successful items as Herbie Hancock’s Possibilities and River—like the chance of producing something resembling an eclectic radio show? Miller smiles: “Sure. That or something like a travelogue. But I think I’m confident enough about my own voice now, my own sound and my own perspective, that I’m not as fearful about opening it up and going where I want to go without worrying about it.”

Toward that end, the album includes song tracks by Leila Hathaway, Keb’ Mo’ and Corinne Bailey Rae. Miller is particularly happy about Rae’s contribution to his version of the 1976 Deniece Williams hit, “Free.” “I first heard Corinne on the radio,” he says. “It was a distinctive voice, and I don’t hear distinctive voices on the radio anymore. Who is this person? I thought. So I pulled over and made some calls to find out who she was. Luckily, I found out that she was a fan, and she said she’d love to do a collaboration.”

There’s a more unlikely collaboration on the album as well. Actress and vocalist Taraji P. Henson, who appeared in 2005’s Hustle & Flow and sang with Three 6 Mafia on that film’s Academy Award-winning number, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” does a spoken word take on one of two versions of Robin Thicke’s “Lost Without You” (the other, contrastingly, features Hathaway’s vocal with Miller’s basslines). “I did half my songs, and half cover songs,” explains Miller. “I like covers because everybody knows them, and then, whatever you change, that’s how they can figure out who you are by what you change.”

The question, from a different perspective, is what a jazz listener can figure out about Miller from the new recording. He is, after all, a former close associate of Miles Davis who was deeply involved in some seminal electric-jazz recordings, as well as a player who roved freely across the contemporary jazz landscape.

He leans back to consider the question for a moment, a brisk articulate reply not surfacing quite so quickly this time. “I think,” he finally says, “that it’s my first album that really has the potential to be picked up on both sides. On the jazz side, I do ‘When I Fall in Love’ on bass clarinet, which features Gregoire Maret on harmonica. But then I also have Corinne. So it’s straddling, like I’ve always been doing. But it’s unapologetic. It’s up to people how they want to take it.”

That has usually been the case with his past efforts. Miller has never limited himself just to the familiar boulevards of mainstream jazz. Always linked to pop, R&B and soul music, always at the cutting edge of the latest electronic developments, his early work with David Sanborn clearly influenced the evolution of smooth-jazz, he is one of the pioneering practitioners of the electric bass, and he has brought more visibility to the bass clarinet than anyone since Eric Dolphy. And if the new recording says anything about Miller beyond his stylistic diversity, it affirms his belief in the continuing viability of articulate musicianship and groove-oriented, electric-instrument swing.

“Somebody like myself, you get tired of having to pull your punches,” he says. “When I was young, my inspiration was Herbie Hancock. It was Chick Corea, John Coltrane—all those people who didn’t limit themselves. That was how I got kind of initialized. You do everything you can possibly do. That was how I got introduced to music. You experience everything in the world, and then you bring it all back into one beautiful thing.”

It’s a comment that’s typical of the multi-layered thoughtfulness that characterizes Miller’s conversation. Interviews with jazz musicians can often drift into anecdotes about gigs, tunes, women and reminiscences. Miller isn’t lacking for anecdotal material, but when he uses it, it’s usually to make a point about his life view. More often, he seizes an idea and turns it around in his mind like a Rubik’s cube, eager to clarify and synchronize all its facets.

Typically, a question about the musical credibility of the sounds that surfaced in the ’90s leads to some fascinating observations about music as a manifestation of time and place. “What were you supposed to do,” he says, “when everything got polarized in the ’90s? Hold your hands up to your ears when the hip-hop’s playing, or do you just feel like you need to put barriers up around yourself? To me, music is supposed to reflect the world. When you put my album on 50 years from now, you should go, ‘OK, I get it. I can imagine what it was like then.’ You put on a Duke Ellington record, my dad right away goes, ‘They used to dance like this.’ If you hear a Miles Davis record from the ’50s, it sounds like the ’50s. No question about it. And if you hear Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, it sounds like the ’70s. But you still love it, right now, in 2008. And that’s what the music should do. It should tell you what was going on.”

Perhaps inevitably, the thought, the notion of music as the soundtrack for life and era, recalls Miller’s association with Davis. “Sure, same thing with Miles,” he replies. One time I said to him, “What do you think about young trumpeters playing just like you did 25 years ago?’ And what did he say? He said, ‘You know what I think about that? Bellbottom pants.’ I knew exactly what he meant. For him, music was tied to the times. It didn’t exist in a vacuum. He made music for suits in the ’50s. For bell-bottoms in the ’60s.”

Miller didn’t assign a sartorial label to Davis’ music of the ’80s, music that was as powerfully impacted by the presence of Miller’s arrangements, soundscapes and production as recordings such as Sketches of Spain and Miles Ahead were framed by the orchestrations of Gil Evans. The case has been made, correctly, for the Miller-driven recordings Tutu (1986) and Amandla (1989) as the final important chapter in the chronicle of Davis’ creative stages of development. Miller intuited the notion that Davis’ great strength had always been his capacity to gather in the cultural currents streaming around him at any given point in time, and transform them, through the filters of his own creative imagination, into incredibly timely musical manifestations.

Miller puts it in more direct terms, subtly inferential about the unspoken, mutual admiration between the then-60-something Davis and the 20-something Miller. “Miles was hip in the most beautiful, positive sense of the word,” he explains. “I mean ‘hip’ has come to mean kind of shallow. But in the bebop days, the reason he came from St. Louis to New York was to be with the hip cats. ‘Hip’ meant intellectually advanced, rhythmically urgent, sexual, everything. It was the whole ball of wax, everything that was good in music. That’s what he wanted to be connected with. And I think for the rest of his life that’s what he looked for. What is really hip? The stuff that Tony Williams brought to the band in the ’60s; that was hip. The Sly and James Brown stuff; that was hip.

“But he was also like a kid in the way he heard something new. He would be like, ‘Marcus, I heard this thing on the radio, what is it, man?’ And I’d go, ‘Oh, yeah, they’re not using a snare,’ and he’d say, ‘Well, let’s do something like that.’ He had that kind of pure enthusiasm. And that’s how I want to be—just keep that enthusiasm, but know that you’ve got all this knowledge behind you to back it up. So if you need to, you can always dig into your well.”

The most prominent items in Miller’s well are his electric bass, his bass clarinet and his skills as a producer/arranger/composer. The electric bass came first.

When he arrived on the New York music scene in the late ’70s, barely out of his teens, he was, as he describes it, “on the cusp” of the instrument’s arrival. Innovative bassists such as Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke and Larry Graham Jr. were between eight to 15 years older, leaving Miller “just kind of behind the frontline” of what was for all intents and purposes a new instrument.

He came to the electric bass at the age of 13. Although he had been studying the clarinet since he was a child, everything changed when he heard the Jackson Five. “I saw guys my age and they were already professionals creating excitement,” says Miller. “And I said, ‘OK, now wait. I’d better get serious about this.’

“I didn’t know that the electric bass guitar was brand new,” he continues, “that it had only been around for maybe 10 years or so before I heard it. I just wanted to play an instrument to be in a band. So I picked up the bass guitar. And it ended up being a golden age to be a bass guitar player—Stanley Clarke, Sting. And they were all leading their own bands. Bootsy Collins. Tower of Power had a great bass player. Louis Johnson from the Brothers Johnson. Jaco came and did his thing. It was a golden age, a pretty exciting time to learn the electric bass.”

Miller learned it so well, and so quickly, that he was busy playing professional gigs by the time he was going to college (majoring in music and business administration). His family was supportive; his father, a pianist and organist himself, even gave Miller some Miles Davis albums. Well aware of all the negative clichés about the jazz world, his father’s only insistence was that he go to college.

When Lenny White asked Miller to go on the road with his fusion band, Miller’s father said, “Why don’t you do it? Take a semester off. That way you can go and experience it. But you have to promise that you’ll go back to school.”

Miller found the road tempting, with its new places, new faces and total immersion in the music. Nevertheless he kept his word, returning to school for two more years. But balancing school obligations at Queens College with a full schedule of gigs in Manhattan wasn’t easy. “Sometimes I’d leave a studio at midnight,” he says, “drive to the campus to get a good parking space, and then get in the back seat and sleep with my portable alarm clock so I wouldn’t miss my 8 o’clock class.”

“[Drummer] Ralph MacDonald caught me one afternoon,” he continues, “and said, ‘Man, we had a Coca-Cola commercial that’s going national. Where were you?’ I told him, ‘Man, my English teacher said that if I didn’t take this final test she was going to fail me for the semester.’ And he said, ‘English?! Go back and ask her how much she makes a year. You coulda made that this morning.’”

At that point, Miller finally began to accept the fact that he wasn’t “a flash in the pan,” which had been his father’s biggest worry. The young bassist saw that this career he was stumbling into could actually have a future, creatively and financially.

Miller went to his father and said, “Dad, I can’t do this anymore. I have to take advantage of these opportunities.” His father understood and approved Miller’s decision to drop out of school and dive full-time into the life of a musician. And it didn’t hurt that, a week later, he was playing at Radio City Music Hall with Roberta Flack. “Roberta used to be a school teacher herself,” says Miller. “She pulled my dad aside, put on her teacher vibe and said, ‘Mr. Miller, I assure you that you have nothing to worry about. I value education, too. But your son is a supremely talented musician, and he’s going to be doing this for a long time.’”

It was, of course, a startlingly prophetic evaluation. In the next few years, Miller’s stinging fretless basslines drove the rhythm on more than 400 recordings by, to name some of the headliners, Elton John, Frank Sinatra, Mariah Carey, McCoy Tyner, Joe Sample, Bill Withers and LL Cool J. He also worked with Aretha Franklin, Flack, Grover Washington Jr., Bob James and David Sanborn.

In the midst of all that activity, he discovered the next vital element in his well of skills, the bass clarinet. “When I was in a studio one day,” he recalls, “I accidentally saw some music written in the treble clef. And I said to myself, ‘Wow, that’s crazy. Every time I see treble clef music, my hands move to clarinet fingering, unconsciously. It’s a shame that I just kind of let go of all those years I studied the clarinet.’

“So I said to my wife, ‘One day I’m going to get myself a bass clarinet. Because I can’t imagine a B-flat clarinet in the music I do. But a bass clarinet—nobody plays that.’ I mean, I was really just talking trash. I wasn’t really going to do it. But then, for Christmas, there’s a bass clarinet under the tree. I put it together and it squawked and honked. It was a nasty sounding Christmas, but it was the start of something.”

That beginning involved buying a bunch of bass clarinet recordings by Eric Dolphy and Benny Maupin—and then introducing it to Miles Davis. “I played it for him,” says Miller, grinning in memory, “and he said, ‘Man, you found your instrument.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? I got my instrument. I’m a bass player.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but you know what I mean.’ And, yeah, I did know what he meant. He meant that I was always looking for an instrument, a secondary instrument that I could play melody [on], where it wouldn’t be such an event. When you play melody on the bass it’s always, ‘Oh, look, the bass is playing the melody.’ On a horn, it’s not a big deal. So you can focus on the melody, not the instrument.”

Perhaps so, but when Miller is playing the bass clarinet, it can be almost impossible to resist the dark, plangent blend of sounds and emotion that he produces. At one session with Davis, Miller overdubbed a line Davis was playing. “It made it really snaky,” says Miller, “because I’d played it two octaves below Miles’ line—the sound of the trumpet and bass clarinet, which is so unusual, especially at that distance from each other. I just fell in love with the instrument. It’s got the range of a man’s voice, from real low to falsetto, it sounds wooden and it’s a nice contrast to my metallic style on the bass guitar.”

It is when it’s played right, that is, which is not always the case. It also has the capacity to produce honking, woofing, blurry sounds, as well as the lovely timbres achieved by Miller. Does Miller have a bass clarinet trade secret?

He slyly waves an index finger, leans over conspiratorially and says, “Well, I’ll tell you this. I was having a lot of difficulty with it early on because I just couldn’t seem to control it from night to night. Some nights it would be great, lots of wood, and some nights it wouldn’t. Then Benny Maupin came to my show at Catalina’s. He handed me something and said—he was very brief—‘This’ll change your life.’ I said, ‘Really?’ And he said, ‘Take it.’ And he gave me a plastic reed called the Bari.

“If you’re an orchestral guy you never use plastic reeds because the tone’s a little bright and it can make you stick out like a sore thumb. But I put it on my bass clarinet and it just felt right. And it’s plastic, so I didn’t have to change it for five years. I saw Benny five years later and said, ‘You know, I still have the reed you gave me.’ And he said, ‘OK. Here’s your next one.” And he gave me another one. So I had Benny Maupin’s reeds on my horn for 10 years.”

That added yet another useful color to Miller’s creative palette. His work as a producer has demanded, and enhanced, the use of all the elements in his well of musical skills. With credits reaching from Miles and Vandross to Wayne Shorter, Sanborn and Bob James, as well as his own constantly diversifying outings, he has arguably been one of the most influential recording studio forces for more than two decades.

He’s done so, he feels, by understanding that his role as a producer is “simply to help them tell the story and then get out of the way.” That’s easier said than done, of course. Is it ever possible, one wonders, for a functioning, effective producer to actually get out of the way?

Miller shrugs, then nods. “Well, OK,” he begins, “you listen to the records and you know that I was there. But whatever I did was always done in order to serve the music, even if it was a distinctive way of doing it. You hear the bass and, sure, you know it’s Marcus. But I wasn’t putting my bass on so that everybody would go there because it was Marcus. I was doing the best I could to make the song sound better. Because the song, the piece of music, is always the king.”

He mentions what he describes as “old-school producers,” whose job it was to simply make Frank Sinatra sound like Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin sound like Aretha Franklin, as well as the exceptions who usually triggered the response “Oh, that’s Phil Spector,” or “Oh, that’s George Martin.”

“Things began to change in the ’80s, though,” says Miller. “Producers became more famous and they started having their own sound. Sometimes the artist wasn’t even as important as the producer. If you think about Trevor Horn, his stuff was all about Trevor Horn. It could have been Grace Jones, but it could have been anybody singing. I think I’ve been a little bit old-school, a little contemporary. Situations would come up where the artist said, ‘Look I need your voice as well’—with David Sanborn, with Miles when we did Tutu. It was like they were saying, ‘I want some more input,’ and I was glad to provide it. So I’ve been fortunate enough to be in both situations.”

Fortunate enough, and skillful enough, since a good part of Miller’s numerous achievements trace to his work ethic and his omnivorous musical curiosity—his desire to be on the cutting edge with the tools of his trade. As we continue our conversation, he looks around at the various pieces of gear within arm’s reach of his chair, describing the good qualities of some, the thorny qualities of another. And he constantly mentions his awe at the pace at which sound technology has developed.

“About 10 years ago,” he explains, “I had a movie that I had to complete and I was traveling. Well, I had an extra guy travel with me to Europe, just to carry my two Anvil cases with the VHS tape recorders, the synthesizers and all that stuff. The next time, because of the technology advances, I only had to bring one Anvil case. The next time I just brought a big suitcase. And now”—he pats his laptop—“my studio is this. And I’m telling you I have everything. I have a full orchestra here”—he holds up a box of CD-ROM discs—“and all I have to do is grab a keyboard wherever I am.”

Beyond the technology, however, beyond his adept skills as a player, beyond his imaginative production ideas and his capacity to interact creatively with other artists, beyond his sheer, innate talent, Miller’s career successes come down to a foundation based on three elements.

The first is his view of what it means to be a musician. “I always talk about the importance of musicians reaching level three,” he says. “Level one is not knowing much. Level two is knowing everything. And level three is knowing everything but being able to forget it and play naturally. Luther was at level three. He knew it all. He knew when he was singing sharp. And sometimes he’d stay sharp because, emotionally, sharp was going to get the job done.

“Miles was, too. He heard music like a regular guy, reacted to it like a regular guy. So even if he had Wayne and Herbie and Ron Carter and Tony Williams in his band, he knew how to keep it attached to the earth. He knew how to say, ‘Hey, guys, we’re gettin’ a little too far out. Lemme play a couple of quarter notes.’ [He vocalizes Miles’ trumpet playing a string of quarter notes.] And everybody says, ‘Oh, yeah, here we are.’ And everything focuses. He was amazing that way.”

The second is the solidity of his role as a parent and a husband. “My family’s my foundation,” says Miller. “They keep me connected to the real world. I can travel all over the world [and] get all that appreciation from all those music lovers, but there’s nothing like the appreciation you get from home. ... My wife taught me how to listen to music as a normal person. ... I had been a musician so long, I would automatically listen four levels deep in a song.”

And the third is the love of music and the sense of self he received from his parents. “My dad is a pianist and an organist,” Miller says. “He played organ for his father’s church in Brooklyn, alternating Sundays with his cousin, who was Wynton Kelly. After the services we all went down to the basement of the church and performed. Everyone would play or sing. That was my life. When my father wasn’t playing Beethoven or Bach or church music, my mother was playing Ray Charles records.

“My dad’s still around, still doing his thing, but my mom passed about four years ago. They were the kind of parents who would be, ‘You have to study because there are so many great things that you’re going to be doing.’ It wasn’t an encouragement; it was a given. It wasn’t even like a question. It was like I was going to be doing great things.

“I know a lot of people,” Miller concludes, “who didn’t do much. And the only difference between myself and them is that kind of mentality, that way of looking at the world, that my parents instilled in me.”

Gearbox

Miller’s main bass is a 1977 Fender Jazz bass his mother bought him that year. In 1998 Fender released a copy of this bass (including the modifications he made to it over the years) as the Marcus Miller Signature model. In addition to the Signature, Miller plays other Fender Jazz basses from time to time—a ’75, a ’78, a ’64 and a fretless ’62.

Miller uses EBS and SWR amps, DR strings, and EBS and Dunlop effects, and performs on a Selmer Paris bass clarinet and a Cannonball soprano sax.

Originally published in April 2008

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