Marcus Miller Revisits Music of Tutu on Tour

Bassist takes young band out on road to do Miles Davis material

Miles Davis’ album Tutu, released in 1986 and named for Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, was a landmark recording for the trumpeter. The richly arranged material from that album and its followup Amandla served to define Davis’ sound for the final act in a long career of growth and transformation. Produced by bassist Marcus Miller, who had been a member of Miles’ band when he came out of retirement back in 1980, Tutu is widely recognized as one of the great contemporary jazz records of the ‘80s with a powerful sound and feel that defy categorization.

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Tutu Revisited Tour
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Alex Han, Christian Scott and Marcus Miller on Tutu Revisited tour
By Joke Schot
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Marcus Miller on Tutu Revisited tour

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In this age of tributes and revisiting of older albums, perhaps it’s no surprise that Tutu is being given a second life. And likewise that the man behind the rebirth is the man who was behind the record in the first place. All summer, Marcus Miller will perform “Tutu Revisited,” a concert of Miles Davis material, with a band drawn largely from a new generation, including Christian Scott on trumpet, Alex Han on saxophone, Louis Cato on drums, Frederico Pena on keyboards, and of course Miller on bass (and occasionally bass clarinet).

Miller certainly has the bona fides to pay tribute to the music from Tutu.
His contribution to the record began with the compositions. Although my early CD version strangely doesn’t even provide songwriting credits, the fact is that Miller wrote all but two of the songs (George Duke’s “Backyard Ritual” and Scritti Politti’s “Perfect Way”). He also arranged and produced most of the sessions, though George Duke and Tommy LiPuma were also involved in that capacity and Jason Miles contributed keyboard programming. Miller not only played bass, but also played nearly all of the other instruments. Interestingly, Davis had wanted to collaborate with Prince before working on this album. What he got instead was another one man band prodigy.

Miller spoke with JT from his home in Southern California about the album, his mentor and his current role as leader of a young band performing this material associated with Davis.

On Tutu, I hear your sound as much as I hear Miles, but the record was a collaboration and it involved lots of other people. Can you separate out what you did or is that impossible?

I can actually hear my thing because I really had started to come into my own, composition-wise especially. I remember Miles telling me, “Hey, you’re in that period, recognize it and write as much as you can, because they come and go.” He said the same thing to Wayne [Shorter] way back. I definitely hear the things I discovered harmonically that seemed to work well for Miles, for his vibe and spirit. That’s what I’m trying to do when I’m producing or writing for somebody—to find where their spirit is at and do something appropriate for them.

The record certainly has had legs and gets used for all sorts of things. Several years ago, I heard it in a play in San Francisco, where it was used as a motif to introduce a dramatic confrontation between Asian-American actors from two different generations.

I really like that it was in a story about intergenerational relationships because for me that’s what Tutu was. It was me and Miles and all his history, how was he functioning in the modern world, which was the ’80s at that time. To me, it was about Miles carrying his history forward to the ‘80s and to the streets of New York in that environment. So it’s nice that somebody maybe subconsciously picked up on that.

As big a record as it was, I’m not sure I’ve heard its influence directly on other albums. It’s as if it’s just too singular to even emulate. Have you heard any things out there that make you go, “Hey, I recognize that sound…”?

Yes, I heard a million of them, but more in contemporary jazz where you’d hear muted trumpet and ethereal chords. I heard that a lot. Most of the time it wasn’t quite it. Then in smooth jazz, they did their version of it too.

You didn’t mind though, right?

No, to me, that’s a compliment. It was beautiful. Now the hard part was when people would send me their demos, saying, “Can you help me get a record deal?” But the music [on the demo] was a version of that. I was like, dude, this exists already. You’ve got to find something new to say, which is really hard.

Is it the one record that you’re most proud of?

Yes, it definitely feels special. It was my first time sitting shoulder to shoulder with Miles and working on music that I had written for him. I had been in his band for a couple years, but this was a completely different kind of relationship and a lot of responsibility. When it was released, it was the first time for a lot of people hearing that sound, which is very familiar now, but it was a different thing at the time. You can’t recreate your first time, so, yes, this one does stand out for me.

Did you have any hesitation in doing a tribute or a revisited project? You know more than anyone that Miles wasn’t much for that sort of thing, looking backward.

They were having this huge Miles Davis exhibit in Paris in a museum. It was gorgeous. It was very well done. And they asked me at the end of the exhibit run, if I would be interested in performing Tutu in its entirety. I thought, “I’m not sure I’m excited about that and I don’t think Miles would be excited about that.” But initially when Miles passed, I didn’t feel that the attention paid to his passing was great enough. Me, being in France a lot, I saw how he was treated so much bigger over there. But America’s different. Over time, that changed some, but I wanted to do something myself for Miles. And I was thinking, “What can I do?” I thought, “You know what would be nice is if I got all these young musicians who were barely even born when Tutu came out and have them attack this sucker and change it and create something new with it.” That would be a way that Miles would be into it and would get me excited as well.

So how’s it feel to finally be the old man in the band?

It’s weird. When there’s a dispute that’s going on for like half an hour or an hour and then everybody turns to me. They’re looking for my opinion. Wow, I’ve never been in that position before. People in the band on the bus used to tell me to shut up.

Well, you are a father, so you had some experience.

Yes, I had tools, but I had never been asked to use them before!

I can remember when you were always the young kid in the band.

I was about 19 when I played with Grover and about 21 when I played with Miles. I realized with this band that I do have a lot of information that I can share. It changed my perspective on my life because I realized that I don’t think about all that I know and that I’ve been through. Life is a lot easier if you get a little direction and know what to watch out for. So we ended up talking a lot in this band, which is nice.

The trumpet chair is a pretty hot seat. Why Christian Scott for this project? What did you see or hear in him?

I was looking for somebody who had a grasp of the history, and also an eye towards the future. A lot of guys I hear now have the history thing down. It’s so beautiful that they understand the language of jazz and really living in it. For me, the thing I’m looking for is an eye to what the possibilities are for the future. And Christian seemed like a guy who was doing that. I was really drawn to him and to his sound.

Is he enjoying it?

Yes, he’s having a ball. He didn’t know how difficult it was to play with that volume. For a trumpet player, it’s difficult to make that sound connect and not blow your brains out. You have to make some adjustments. I had a guy in my band, Patches Stewart, who had that muted sound and he did it so effortlessly that it never occurred to me that it was a hard thing to do. But Christian was, like, dude, my chops are killing me just trying to keep the trumpet in front of the band. You see, you can have the sound person turn up the trumpet, but emotionally when the intensity of the band gets hot, you’re going to be blowing hard. You’re not going to realize it until the end of the show.

Do you perform the whole CD – start to finish?

Nah, man. I couldn’t do that. I know there are a lot of people doing that kind of thing nowadays. But I didn’t want to play it that way. Typically you put the definitive song first on the album. So are you going to do a concert and play the song that everybody wants to hear first? Yea, okay, everybody can go home! We actually start with the second song and mix it up just to make the concert interesting. We do different things. We bring songs from Amandla. We bring things in from the We Want Miles era.

Hey, if I hear one more band quote “Jean Pierre,” I’m going to flip out.

Isn’t that amazing? I covered that song last year, but I was waiting until that whole thing died out. It’s the same thing with “So What.” You know how everybody does “So What,” but nobody gets the feeling of “So What”? It’s a blowing vehicle but they don’t honor the feeling that went with it. I just did a record with an orchestra in Monaco and we did “So What” but we played the intro. You know that Bill Evans intro that nobody plays? We arranged it for the orchestra. You play that intro and it really sets the tone for the song. It puts you in the right mindset for the song. I think more people should play that intro.

With the Tutu material, you had been doing this before with your band.

We played “Tutu” a lot, and maybe one other song, but a lot of this stuff I was playing live for the first time, because I wasn’t in Miles’ band then. I hadn’t gotten a chance to play it out on the road.

How have you changed or adapted the material?

At the first rehearsal, because I hadn’t talked to them, the guys just learned the material in its entirety. They played it just like the CD. It was a real trip. It was so nostalgic, but after that, I said, ‘Thanks for that experience, but that’s not what I wanted you to do.” It’s not like I wanted them to do like guys do with The Beatles, playing each song note for note. Though I think that’s what they [museum in Paris] were asking me to do. I said, “We need to flip this—each guy has to take these notes and figure out how to make them his.” These guys have been doing that. It’s really sweet.

Has the music changed even since you’ve been performing the material?

Oh yea. Even with the talk that I gave, the first gigs were way closer to the Tutu that you would hear on the CD. Now, everybody is comfortable and everybody is opening it up and it’s really another thing. I’m really happy with where it is now.

That’s got to make you feel better about the whole tribute or replay concept.

People who hear about it go, “Oh, I get it, you guys are just gonna play Tutu,” but the people who actually come to the show walk away with a completely different feeling. It’s not as nostalgic as you might think. It’s about today.

Sometimes a tribute thing can actually be a little traumatic for someone who was close to the subject. Did you feel that way a little bit with this?

I felt that going through that exhibit. It’s like watching a movie about somebody that you know is going to check out. For the shows, the first two weeks were really difficult. Particularly for someone like me. For a lot of guys, Miles was a contemporary, but to me he was like a father figure. He was a guy that validated me. He gave me confidence to go out in the world. It was a big loss when he checked out, not just for me, but for everybody. To play that music was emotionally difficult. After a while it got easier, when I felt that, OK, Miles would be cool with this now. Enough of this sad shit. What do you got?

Here are the U.S. Tour Dates:

5/2 - Sunfest, West Palm Beach, FL
5/29 - Atlanta Jazz Festival, Atlanta, GA
6/11 - SFJazz, San Francisco, CA
6/12 - Playboy Jazz Festival, Hollywood, CA
6/18 - Dupont Clifford Brown Jazz Festival, Wilmington, DE
6/20 - Bear's Den, Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel, Niagara Falls, NY
6/22 - Highline Ballroom, New York, NY
8/14 - San Jose Jazz Festival, San Jose, CA
8/15 - Long Beach Jazz Festival, Long Beach, CA
8/18 - Wolf Trap, Vienna, VA

Here is a statement issued by Miller about the project:

When I wrote the music for Tutu in early 1986, I had no idea that I'd be "revisiting" it more than twenty years later. When we recorded it with Miles, it was music for that time. Apartheid was still in place in South Africa, cats were wearing jackets with shoulder pads and the sound of the drum machine dominated music. I took a look at that particular landscape and created a sound that I thought blended the feeling of that time with the sound of Miles.

We used synthesizers, samplers, drum machines and blended them with real musicians. Although many of the instruments were electronic, it was important to me to make the music feel good, to make it swing. And it was also important that, although I played most of the instruments on the album, that the sound of Miles' horn was the centerpiece. I tried to find melodies that were worthy of his glorious sound. The result, in my opinion, is a pretty good representation of what the eighties had to offer. To me, it captures Miles, negotiating his way through a world that had become half-man, half machine and finding a way to bend that world to his will.

So...being so intent on capturing that time period, it never occurred to me that I'd be trying to revisit this music in the new millennium. But with this incredible new band, featuring Christian Scott on trumpet with Alex Han (saxophone), Federico Gonzalez Peña (keyboards) and Louis Cato (drums), I'm finding that although the music mirrored the times in which it was created, there is so much in the music that still seems relevant today. Although we've replaced some of the super electro sounding elements, the melodies are still very cool. It feels like they have withstood the test of time. People seem to be feeling this music twenty years later. The musicians are really feeling it (and most of them were kids when the original album was released) and it's a great feeling for me.

We're challenging ourselves to see where we can take this music now to make it reflect these new times that we find ourselves in. In these turbulent times, there is plenty to reflect and we're having an amazing time working it out!

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