Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Marcus Miller: Beyond Bassics

Marcus Miller appraises fellow bassists in a listening session hosted by Don Heckman

Multiple Grammy Award-winner Marcus Miller is a true musical hyphenate. He is an essential figure in the history of the electric bass, but is also an adept and articulate performer on acoustic bass and bass clarinet. A first-call sideman while still in his teens, Miller was a member of the Saturday Night Live band in the late ’70s and became a crucial collaborator to Miles Davis during the trumpeter’s final decade. He has backed the likes of Herbie Hancock, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra and LL Cool J, among others, and his production credits include recordings with David Sanborn, Luther Vandross and Chaka Khan. His numerous film scores include Boomerang (starring Eddie Murphy), Breakin’ All the Rules (starring Jamie Foxx) and the Chris Rock-directed Head of State. Miller recently released A Night in Monte-Carlo (Concord Jazz), a live recording from 2008 featuring the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra and special guests Roy Hargrove and guitarist/vocalist Raul Midón.

We got together for this listening session at Miller’s studio in Santa Monica, with its excellent acoustics and the handy availability of his bass clarinet, grand piano, acoustic bass and bass guitar for demonstration purposes.

1. Stanley Clarke

“Bass Folk Song No. 10” (from The Stanley Clarke Band, Heads Up). Clarke, electric bass; Jonathan Hakakian, programming. Released in 2010.

BEFORE: That’s Stanley, right? What I love about what he’s doing is that, like on piano, basically everything’s available. [Everything’s available] on the saxophone, too. But on instruments that have a particular tuning, like guitars and basses, there are some sounds-like open E on the bass-that are just magical sounds. It’s the lowest note on the bass, and Stanley realized that. Guitar players had all this stuff they did that sounded good on the guitar. But Stanley was one of the first guys who said, “These are the things that work really well on the bass guitar.”

Stanley’s hands are so strong, coming from playing acoustic bass, that when he sustains a note he can make it sing just by the vibrato. I played a tour with him and Victor Wooten [2009’s S.M.V. “Thunder” tour]. Victor has a mid-rangey sound, and I played more, say, on the bottom, with Stanley on top. We just kind of found our range. But man, to hear those tones-Stanley’s and Victor’s and mine-from the same instrument. And for me, Stanley was the guy who opened the door for us. Jaco came and went, and there’s something really magical about a guy who comes and goes-Bird, Clifford Brown, you know. They come, they do this unbelievable thing and then they check out; it’s, like, mythical. But Stanley’s still around. And for me, man, I’ve come to respect that more. I’ve come to respect Herbie Hancock, Kenny Clarke, Stanley. How do you change the world at age 23, 24, and then continue to live, and continue to find new things to do? It’s not easy.

2. Miles Davis

“Budo” (from ‘Round About Midnight, Columbia). Miles Davis, trumpet; Paul Chambers, bass; John Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Red Garland, piano; Philly Joe Jones, drums. Released in 1957.

BEFORE: Wasn’t bebop a happy music? Listen to it. All those major-seventh chords. [He sings along with the line.] Bop, bop, bop, bop, bu da! Yes, go! [During Davis’ solo, he articulates the drum accents on a break. ] Man, listen to how much room-sound there is around the tenor solo. Great sound!

AFTER: Is that Philly Joe on drums? [Miller picks up his bass clarinet and plays a few licks with the end of the track. ] I went to hear him at the Tin Palace in New York in the late ’70s, and I was really floored by how loud he played. And I think I heard Paul Chambers with him, because my cousin, Wynton Kelly, took me to the club when I was a kid. They told me Paul’s sound was huge-and it was. Paul’s strings were so far from the neck that when he pushed them you could actually see the strings being depressed.

How did you feel about this band then? And now?

I think this is my favorite band of all time. The elegance of the tradition they represented-man! Herbie and those guys who came later, they had to break free of that tradition. Herbie said that when he started with Miles, the tradition was the way he played, because it was what Miles wanted to hear. And Herbie got so frustrated, man, because he wanted to play like himself. And he finally did. But this band was perpetual. Philly Joe was swinging; you never had a question of where the beat was. It was as still as sophisticated as anything they played in the ’60s or the ’70s, but it still had dance to it. When I hear it, I want to get up. For me, it has the African thing, that thing of the music serving the community, involving everybody on a physical level. It’s dance music, but it’s still elegant and sophisticated at the same time.

3. Eric Dolphy

“Something Sweet, Something Tender” (from Out to Lunch! , Blue Note). Eric Dolphy, bass clarinet; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Bobby Hutcherson, vibraphone; Richard Davis, bass; Tony Williams, drums. Released in 1964.

BEFORE: [Shouting] Whoo! Whoo! [Miller grabs his bass clarinet and plays along with Dolphy. ] I heard this first when I was a teenager. I was like, wow; it sounded like a cartoon to me. Then I started playing and I realized the commitment that they played it with. And that changed it for me. With this music, you really had to know about the time when it was created. It was the same time when everything was changing: civil rights, everything. And if you don’t know about that, you can’t really understand it.

AFTER: And there’s no piano. The vibes give it a dreamy sound. Who’s that on bass? Richard Davis, a virtuoso. And so is Dolphy. The bass clarinet is a beautiful instrument for him, because it so resembles a male voice-like a baritone who can go up into head tones and falsetto. Chest tones. And for Eric, who was such a vocal player, it was perfect. Sometimes what he plays just sounds like pure emotion, like a guy trying to work it out.

What’s your response, as a bassist and a bass clarinetist, to the unison passages between those instruments?

Bass clarinet playing in unison with the acoustic bass? Wow, man, incredible. Because the bass is such an imprecise instrument, unless you really know what you’re doing. Like, if you’re playing classical and you say, “In bar five I have to adjust my position,” cool. But if you’re improvising, you barely know where you’re going until the last second, when you make your decision. And then you have to negotiate whatever it’s going to take to keep the thing in tune.

4. Jaco Pastorius

“Donna Lee” (from Jaco Pastorius, Epic). Jaco Pastorius, electric bass; Don Alias, congas. Released in 1976.

BEFORE: Jaco, of course. When I heard this I was like 15. I wasn’t familiar with bebop, and it just sounded like somebody playing random notes. But then I took a jazz workshop and I learned “Donna Lee.” And I thought, “That’s not what he’s playing, right?”

One day in a class, I learned the chord changes to “Donna Lee”: “Indiana.” [Miller sits at the piano and begins to play the changes to “Indiana,” along with the last chorus of the recording. ] And I was like, “Oh, that’s it!” When I realized that, it was like, “OK, I gotta learn jazz.” I had no real understanding of what he was doing; it was the chord extensions he was doing, almost like a Lennie Tristano approach to the harmony. And I thought, “OK, playing it is one thing. I’m sure if I worked on it long enough I could figure out how to play it.” But more important to me was how I could understand exactly what all the harmony was about.

So it wasn’t just the virtuosic stuff about Jaco that first grabbed you?

Jaco definitely had the technique and stuff. But what interested me more was the composition, because he was really a composer. Also, Jaco used the whole instrument. He understood the parts of the instrument that are unique to the bass. Both he and Stanley used the meat of the bass, not just the high notes. A lot of electric bass players think they’re playing a horn or a guitar. But the thing that makes it cool is that it’s not a horn or a guitar; it’s a bass guitar, which has its own sound. So I always try to encourage guys-and try to encourage myself-to use the whole instrument.

The rest of this article appears in the April 2011 issue of JazzTimes. Originally Published