Marcus Miller's Bottom Line
For some 20 years now, bassist-and-then-some Marcus Miller has been one of those significant lurkers in jazz, and to the side of jazz. Session ace turned sideman to Miles Davis, David Sanborn and others, Miller has comfortably donned multiple hats that included film scoring, and working as a pivotal writer-producer in the last chapter of Davis’ career. As bassist and producer, he was the connective tissue, the organizational force behind Wayne Shorter’s ambitious, Grammy-winning 1995 album High Life. Over his career, Miller has done remarkable work, just outside the spotlight.
But there he was, up front and center with his band of seven years, on opening night of the IAJE (International Association of Jazz Educators) convention, which had landed in Times Square for its 25th anniversary affair. The setting was a touch surreal, flecked with what’s-wrong-with-this-picture, as the Miller band’s smartly-outfitted jazz-funk seized the Marriott Marquis Hotel Broadway ballroom. Chandeliers over the mostly sedate conventioners and educators veritably rattled as the band went through its soul-fortified repertoire, including Miller’s slinky “Tutu,” the song that effectively relaunched Davis’ career in 1985.
This band, featuring the plugged-in power of Miller’s bass, Hiram Bullock’s guitar and Bernard Wright’s keyboard array, as well as the sax and trumpet (the increasingly impressive Michael “Patches” Stewart) in front, was an anomaly at a convention focused more on jazz of the traditional, acoustic, swing-based sort. But no one can accuse Miller’s electro-acoustic jazz of lacking sophistication and invention, or of being “happy,” in the pejorative definition perpetuated by smooth jazz.
Miller is happy, and adept, at laying into a deep-pocketed groove, but has ample chops to draw on when it’s time to solo. At one point, the signature intricacies of Miller’s thumb-slapping solo suggested the fine rhythmic and tonal aspects of tabla, and then he moved over to bass clarinet to outline the rueful contours of “Strange Fruit” (clarinet was his first instrument). The band closed with an extended version of “People Make the World Go ’Round,” with a funked-up coda vamp in which Miller cued various musicians to fill in one-measure holes, including Wright’s psycho-clavinet sound and a one-measure mass freak-out on and off the stage: for those few seconds, conventioners and the band put a collective cathartic wail in the house.
What we heard that night was, mostly, a faithful reflection of the new album Live and More, his third project for the PRA label (now affiliated with GRP), itself a faithful reflection of what this band does live. As opposed to his studio-honed ’90s albums, The Sun Don’t Lie and especially 1995’s Tales, replete with samples of his older heroes’ voices (i.e. Miles, Lester Young, Billie Holiday), the new one is a snapshot of the musical, onstage moment.
“It’s the first time I’ve got a record out that sounds like the show,” says Miller, a couple of days after his IAJE show. “A lot of my stuff I do in the studio, and I kind of concoct it, so when you hear the band live, you have to adjust. But this one is nice, because it really represents what we do onstage.”
He explains, “I’ve had this band, in different versions, for about six or seven years now. Bernard Wright and I have been playing together since he was 12 and I was 15 or so. I’ve been playing with most of the guys for a long time, so there’s definitely a vibe that we have together, which is the main reason I wanted to do a live album. You know how it is. You never know when a cat’s going to get a record deal and then splits. I wanted to document the band before that happened.”
Although renowned as one of the promethean electric bassists out there, Miller’s public profile as a leader has been more low-key, which may change with the release of his latest album. Then again, he’s working against the typecasting nature of the marketplace. Much of his music doesn’t quite fit into any existing radio format, and there is the fact that the electric bass has fallen from favor in some jazz circles.
Some jazz purists might also look slightly askance at the fact that Miller, a New Yorker, born in Brooklyn, raised in Jamaica, Long Island, has lived with his family in Los Angeles for the last four years. Has he gone Hollywood? Not exactly. He hasn’t lost track of musicality, and the importance of finding a personal voice, in the process of making a living.
Part of that voice has to do with avoiding playing up to the very marketing channels that would make his music easier to sell. Since he started playing in earnest 20 years ago, the 38-year-old Miller has witnessed many attitudinal shifts in music. “I was standing there watching everybody run to the corners. The fusion cats ran into the fusion corner, and the music started to sound so stylized, so much like fusion. Then the smooth cats ran to that corner, that extreme. The straightahead cats ran into that corner and the hip-hop and acid jazz cats were in another corner. I came up in a period when people were trying to bring all those corners in.
“All of a sudden, I feel like I’m standing up here by myself, in the middle. Everything has polarized so much, but when you hear us, you are not supposed to think of a style. You’re supposed to think of music. It definitely comes from the black experience. You definitely hear the blues and all the things that the blues has become subsequently. But to put a name on it, you’d have to find another label.”
It may well be a generational thing. “I grew up in the ’70s. First of all, the whole concept of fusion was just a smashing things together and seeing what you got. Even the pop music I was growing up with, it was Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire, guys who were so intent on infusing their pop music with all these other things, so you can listen to it a million times and hear something different each time.
“That was what I thought music was supposed to be. I didn’t realize that it was only a period. I grew up in the seven or eight-year period that happened to be the most important seven or eight years of my life. What happened was that I grew up with that goal in mind. My goals were to play the original forms of the music—when I was younger, I was playing in the bebop clubs with Walter Bishop, McCoy, whoever I could, straightahead. Then I was also playing with the funk bands, to really learn that. Then I’d play with the African cats at the bookstore.
“I was doing this knowing, or at least hoping, that I’d be able to take all this language and information and try to make something new with it. I thought that’s what everybody was doing. Things changed. People got scared of not being able to label stuff. I know that’s uncomfortable for people.
“As a race of human beings, labels are so important. There are diseases that we can’t do anything about, but we feel a little better when we can at least give it a name. When you don’t have a name for music, you don’t know the rules to judge it by. I understand why that’s so important to people. If you play someone who’s not a musician some music, they’ll say, ‘Oh jazz, yeah, I like that.’ They feel a compulsion to name it first. That sets up the rules, and then they can tell you whether they dig it or not.”
Essentially, the Miller band’s format is an extension of the Miles band, incorporating both an electric rhythm section and the trumpet/sax front line—sometimes appended by his own soprano sax playing. Miller says, “I like the fact that I have horns and keyboards to work with. Sometimes we use two keyboards, and with the guitar, it allows me to have a lot of different colors. That’s real important to me, particularly playing bass guitar, because a whole concert of that can really set you straight, it can put you in one place. But the fact that I can get all those different colors out of the band is really important to me.
“When we started seven years ago, Miles had just passed, and the material we played in the beginning, a lot of it was stuff I had written for Miles on the last couple of albums. That’s where we started. So Miles definitely had an influence on the whole thing.
“The sound of the band is kind of similar, although there are probably some differences. The main difference is the role of the bass. In my band, the bass is really dominant, and in Miles’ band, I was mainly supportive. The bass was definitely there, but there weren’t a lot of bass solos going on. Miles would point to me a couple of times when I was playing in the band, but I didn’t feel comfortable soloing, because there was no precedent for what I was doing. It’s not that I didn’t solo,” he laughs.
As a kid, Miller took up the clarinet first and played it all the way through school, even considering studying further in college. But he had picked up the bass, as well, and found himself pulled evermore towards that instrument. “The bass was such a social instrument. I was hanging out, meeting people, learning stuff about life with the bass. On clarinet, I was just thinking about reeds all the time. So I kind of made the switch mentally, right before I went to college.”
Timing was on his side, in the era when the electric bass was hitting new heights of expression and popularity. “It was such a great time to be playing bass. Stanley Clarke was playing the hell out of it, Jaco Pastorius was playing, Alphonso Johnson, Larry Graham, Anthony Jackson, cats who turned out to be innovators on the instrument were happening right at that time. I had my Weather Report records and my Stanley Clarke and Return to Forever records. I was pretty deep into it.
“Then when I heard Paul Chambers, I lost my mind. He was my favorite, just because he was so complete. Some cats play sad-assed time until it’s time for the solo, and other guys played great time, but then when it came time for the solo, you realized they didn’t know anything but roots and fifths. But Paul was a complete musician. He played great time, he played inventive solos. He wasn’t a specialist. I really got turned on by that.”
Pastorius, in particular, had a strong impact on Miller, as he did on the definition of the electric bass in general. Miller has paid his respects, working up a tour de force slapping version of the Pastorius tune “Teen Town” and writing the elegant ballad “Mr. Pastorius,” which ended up as a kind of benediction, as the last track on the last real Miles Davis album, Amandla.
Miller comments, “the thing about Jaco was that you really couldn’t learn Jaco’s solos without having an idea of the harmony that supported it. A lot of Stanley’s stuff was done on vamps. The stuff I was trying to learn of Stanley’s, that awesome plucky stuff, was done on vamps. It would just be, ‘It’s E something, let me figure this out.’
“But with Jaco, it forced me to investigate harmony. And that blew me over to bebop. I said ‘there’s nothing more sophisticated than this bebop jazz, so let me just learn that.’ He threw me into bebop, and I really learned my harmony. I think when I came out of that, even as an R&B bass player, I had so many more tools than a lot of bass players. I wasn’t intimidated by any harmony and could find my way around. Jaco was important in that way.”
With dreams of becoming a bassist-leader, Miller plunged into the bass and, before long, he had fallen into the studio scene in New York and became one of its top-ranking bassists.
“I got sucked up into it and the next thing I know, I was spending all day and all night in the studios, doing records with Paul Simon and Grover Washington, Jr. and Roberta Flack. Every day, I was on somebody else’s record.
“I put those solo aspirations on the back burner. I was just having fun. What I didn’t realize was that I was learning so much and was picking up so much extra information than the standard bass soloist guy could get. I was in the studio with the classic R&B cats, so I was learning about grooves. I was with Joe Sample and the Crusaders. I was learning about funk and the studio and how to get a good bass sound.
“By the time I got with Miles, I had been in the studio for a long time. At that point, I realized that my talent probably wasn’t along the same lines as somebody like Jaco or Stanley. My thing was going to have to be a little broader.”
Miller was the first bassist for Miles after the trumpeter came out of his five-year hiatus from activity in the late ’70s, and the relationship continued a few years later, when Miles switched to Warner Brothers from Columbia, and Miller called up producer Tommy Lipuma to see if any new material was needed. That began a financially and creatively fruitful, if brief period.
“The thing about Miles was that he encouraged you to find your own thing,” Miller says. “With other bands you’d get in, you’d have to fit into the bandleader’s concept. He was encouraging me to find some other stuff, whatever it was, so when I began writing for him, I knew I was free.
“I began to hit on a sound that kind of based on fourths. It was different from the way McCoy and those guys used it, but it was still based on fourths. That gave me a different lean. Ever since then, I’ve been refining it. Miles used to use those fourths. He had a keyboard that was usually set up on the stage. When he wasn’t playing trumpet, every once in awhile, he’d bang out a couple of chords. He used to play these fourth voicings. It was a loud, harsh sound he was using on the synth and those chords would sound really dark and menacing.”
Beyond the new musical ideas taking shape, Miles’ profile changed, starting with Tutu, which also included pop ditties like “Human Nature” and the non-Sinatra tune “Time After Time.” “Tutu definitely started something,” Miller comments. “A lot of it was negative, but a lot of it was positive. It went along age lines, to a certain extent, but it also went along purist/non-purist lines. There were people who were still waiting for Miles to play ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come.’ You had to write them off anyway, because Miles wasn’t going to do that, so what’s the point? For the people who were a little more open, they really felt it.
“All over the world, that album connected. In France, it was a gold album. Miles even said to me, ‘Thanks, man, you brought me back.’ I was like, ‘Look, I know the album ain’t So What or Night at the Blackhawk.’ But this album is doing well for Miles, and getting him in front of people’s faces again. And he’s making some money. At this point in his life, he’s given people so much music, he deserves this. He deserves to be in the Honda commercial on the motorcycle. He deserves to have the crib in Malibu. If people aren’t satisfied, then fuck ’em, because I can’t imagine anybody who made more of a contribution to music.’”
There was an obvious bond between the two. “I think he appreciated that I knew his history and he could talk about any of his eras and I could have a meaningful conversation with him about it. His favorite era to talk about was the ’40s, because that’s when he hit the scene, probably the most important era of his life, when he was getting in with Bird and Diz. He’d talk about that all the time.
“And I knew what he was talking about. I studied it. I knew all the names, all the places, and I knew all the tunes. So we could talk about that, even though the tune we were getting ready to play in the studio was a funk tune. We would talk about bebop and when you listen to what Miles is actually playing, you can imagine what Miles was talking about. Sometimes, he would play some old tin pan alley licks against this funk that I had set up for him. I think that’s how we got along.”
One of Miller’s projects that, for all its strengths, slipped through the cracks of fashion, was the Jamaica Boys, a progressive R&B band with Lenny White, his old friend from Jamaica. Two albums on Warner Brothers in the late ’80s, demonstrating the smart-funky spirit of early heroes like Earth, Wind and Fire, fell on flat ears, partly because they were so out of step with the radical times.
For one thing, strangely enough, “we were playing instruments, which was strange. We’d do these R&B gigs in the park, and kids would be looking at us like we were from Mars. We had these instruments. They were wondering, ‘Where were the turntables? Why are they so into playing those instruments?’ It wasn’t like they were just props. We were really into it.
“I think if we had hung in there for another few years, we would have found our place, but it was hard. Only the people who were really open could really hear what we were doing.”
Suddenly, in the R&B-cum-hip-hop scene, Miller found himself, as an accomplished instrumentalist, a man a bit out of time. “In the black community, the only musicians are playing jazz or gospel. There are a lot of good musicians doing gospel. So they’re holding it together. A lot of gospel musicians are going into R&B, which has been a tradition for ages, but there aren’t a lot of musicians outside of that. It’s turntables and samplers. But it will turn around.
“There are a lot of reasons for that shift. Everybody likes to bemoan that, but for me, a lot of it was the musicians’ fault. We got these synthesizers, and started saying, ‘Hey man, this is hip’ and making this plastic music. And the younger kids were saying, ‘Hey, I like the way it was before.’ So they started going back to those old funky-assed low-fi records. They were saying, ‘This is it, man, why are you all doing that.’
Miller feels that jazz, too, took some strange turns in the ’80s. “You can name the universal licks from the jazz language from the ’20s, you can play your favorite Louis Armstrong lick that everybody knows. You can do the same thing with the ’30s, and the ’40s, with the big bands. And with the ’40s and ’50s, you can do the same, with Bird and Dizzy and Miles and ’Trane, and into the ’60s, the language was constantly being added to and people were playing things that became universally accepted.
“But in the ’80s, I don’t hear anything that anybody was doing that anyone else will be referring to ten years from now. I’m not putting anybody down, because that’s hard to do. But if it’s not happening, in my opinion, then music is in trouble. It’s not going anywhere. People will still come to hear it, but it will become like classical music, where there’s a repertoire and you don’t deviate from it. You’ve got a couple of different periods in the repertoire, but that’s gonna be it.”
By this point, Miller’s bass voice has matured, even if he hasn’t gained a spot as legendary as Jaco or Stanley Clarke. He combines techniques tastefully, and unleashes intrigue when you least expect it, with an especially subtle vocabulary of slapping, for instance.
“If you spend any time learning bebop and jazz and learning how to play ballads, along with all the other things that any musician should learn how to do, and then you go back to slapping, it’s got to affect your slapping. I was in a lot of subtle situations. I played bass with Roberta Flack on things where we were walking on eggshells, and I played with Bill Withers and all these people where each note was really important. With Luther Vandross, it was even more so, where you could change the whole tone of the music just by hitting the note too hard.
“But I was belligerent and I still used my thumb in a lot of those situations. But I had a degree of subtlety that a lot of cats aren’t forced to find. I think that really opens it up. I don’t consider playing with my thumb a funk thing. It’s just a sound, and I’ve used it in a lot of different situations. I think you can hear that when you hear me do it.”
Using muted lines, dampening the strings with the palm, for effect is another signature in Miller’s playing, in a way that recalls Anthony Jackson, but with its own special quality. Muting, he explains, “goes back to the early session days, when they wanted my bass to sound like an old school bass, like James Jamerson. They used to use the old Fender bass, which had a metal cover over the bridge with a piece of foam on it. The foam would rest on the stings and kill the note, so it would sound more like an upright bass.
“I walked into the studio and they said, ‘Can you make your bass sound like that?’I said, ‘Yeah.’ I was 18 and thought I could do anything. But then I had to figure out how to do that, so I started using muting. But more importantly, I started playing with different phrasing, a more behind-the-beat phrasing, which is really the key to making that sound work. You have to know where to place the notes.
“Then when I started playing bebop, that sound helps so that the sound isn’t so drastically different from the tradition.”
For now, Miller remains happily multi-directional in his music-making, taking on more commercial projects to pay the rent, while continuing to work with his own band. As he puts it, “The most difficult part is making a decision that you aren’t going to make a decision. I’m going to have a solo career, and I’m also going to do these other things that are lucrative and interesting, and I’m not going to let either one slip.
“What you realize is that they’re going to slip all the time. It’s like eggs that you’re juggling. You’re going to drop them all the time, but it’s just that you reach back and get another one, and keep trying to do it. That’s especially important if you’ve got a family. My wife and I have four kids. That’s the other aspect of the juggling act.”
Has he been able to achieve a balance in his musical life?
“No. It’s more like trying to correct the imbalances, and over-correcting, and then going back the other way. I’ll spend too much time in the studio and then too much time on the road, and then too much time not doing either. It’s just reacting trying to fix things.
“Although I’m always overreacting, I think, in the long run, everything is moving forward. I feel like I’m getting better as a bass player, as a composer, and as a producer. Everything is moving forward, but it’s moving slower than it would for someone who concentrates on any one aspect of music. Because I do them all, it also helps. I get an intangible benefit.”
“Let me think about what’s in my car...the last record by A Tribe Called Quest, D’Angelo, and then Kind of Blue. A little bit of then and a little bit of now.”
“My basic bass is a Fender Jazz bass that my mom bought for me in 1977. I have a Sadowsky five-string bass, a Fedaro five-string fretless, a Modulus graphite six-string fretless. But the one I mostly play is my four-string bass that my mom bought me. It’s been modified. I’ve got a pre-amp in it, made by Bartolini. It also has a different bridge. I use an SWR amp.”
Originally published in April 1998