Bassist Marcus Miller is a New York-born, West Indian-descended scion of a musical family that includes jazz pianist Wynton Kelly and rapper Foxy Brown. The fifty-two-year-old has laid down his fluid and funky, low end theory on hundreds of jazz, fusion, R&B and rock recordings for three decades as a sideman, producer, music director, film composer and solo artist. His new, thirteen-track CD, Renaissance, which features special guests such as vocalist Gretchen Parlato, Panamanian Salsa star Ruben Blades and the New Orleans vocalist/pianist Dr. John and covers of hits by The Jackson Five, WAR, Ivan Lins, and Janelle Monae, just might be his best recording as a leader to date.
EBONY talked with Mr. Miller about his incredible career, his role as a musical elder, and how he flips the sonic script.
EBONY: You started your career as a young sideman, for so many artists. Now, with the release of this new CD, you are the elder to some of the young musicians on this record. What is like to come full circle?
Marcus Miller: We’ll, I was always the youngest guy in the group, by far. All of a sudden, one day, man I looked up, and [now] I’ve got these guys who are like, in the same position that I was. I’ll tell a story about somebody like Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie, who they only read about … and they’re all looking at me with really big eyes. And I realize, oh wow: I’m that guy, now [Laughs]. I’m the connection for these guys to the history of this music.
EBONY: Musicians like you and David Sanborn have contributed so much as sidemen for decades. How hard was it for you to make that pivot, from sideman to leader?
MM: It took me probably ten years figure it out. Because, like you said, my gift was being able to contribute to other people’s sound. I would go from producing Luther Vandross’ records, to Aretha, David Sanborn, Chaka Khan and Miles Davis. I made my first record in 1982, and it wasn’t until 1992 that I finally figured out who I was as an artist.
EBONY: You mentioned working with Luther and Miles. On the surface, it would seem that they have nothing in common. But Miles played trumpet with a lyrical, vocal quality, and Luther’s voice was as supple as a trumpet. Did you notice any similarities in how they made music?
MM: Absolutely. There are a lot of trumpeters who play with a lot technique. And there are a lot of singers who can riff all over the place. But Luther and Miles; they could play all the notes, but they just played the right notes. They found the notes that would affect you, emotionally… Roberta Flack, too! I mention her because, I was in her band, and that’s where Luther and I met; he was singing background for her.
EBONY: On Renaissance, you can hear the aural imprint of Tutu, the 1986 Miles Davis recording you produced; particularly in the arrangements, and instruments like the bass clarinet.
MM: I was Miles’ bassist for a couple of years. But Tutu was the first time I wrote music for him. When you worked on something for Miles, the music didn’t have to be conventional. Whatever you think is good. And a lot of people are going to hear it, because it’s Miles. So yes, that period working for Miles really affected me.
EBONY: Let’s talk about a few tracks from Renaissance: You put the bassline of the Dizzy Gillespie/Chano Pozo Latin jazz classic “Manteca” to Ivan Lins’ “Septembro,” from Quincy Jones’ 1989 Back on the Block album. How did you come up with that idea?
MM: When I was working on the song, I was like, 'yeah, I love this melody, but you know, Marcus, you’re going to have to get to something different.' And I’m playing on the piano, and I’m going, 'well, what about this right here?' And that bassline came to me. And then I said 'why don’t I flip this Brazilian song into an Afro-Cuban [groove],' because I really have a connection to Afro-Cuban rhythms. Coming up on the East Coast in the late seventies and eighties, I heard the Fania All-Stars, all of this Afro-Cuban influence in the music. The group WAR had a huge Afro-Cuban influence in it. So I felt that I could bring this closer to where I’m from.
EBONY: Speaking of WAR, you flipped their seventies hit,”Slipping into Darkness” into a funkier dimension, on the CD.
MM: If you’re a bass player who was around in the seventies, you carried the basslines to “Shaft,” “Jungle Boogie,” “Good Times,” and “Slipping into Darkness” with you. It’s like beats in hip-hop; there’s certain beats you heard when you were young and they just stay with you, and they become the rhythm of your life. On “Slipping into Darkness,” the basslines are only three notes, but it’s so hypnotic.
EBONY: You also changed up Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope,” with Dr. John rapping.
MM: When I first heard “Tightrope,” it sounded to me, like a Professor Longhair/New Orleans boogie-woogie style [bassline], with a contemporary flavor. I said 'man, it would be nice if I could reconnect “Tightrope” to New Orleans – how would I do it? Why don’t I get Mac Rebennack/Dr. John’s voice on it?' So that’s what I did. I had him learn the Big Boi’s rap from Janelle Monae’s version. He did a great job with it.
EBONY: You end the CD with the Jackson Five classic “I’ll Be There,” that features your bass solo; which to me is the successor to Jaco Pastorius’ “Portrait of Tracy.” It was very moving.
MM: I was doing a bass clinic, Michael had just passed, and I played that song at that moment. Later on, somebody played a tape of it … The reason I’m a musician is because of the Jackson Five! Me and everybody else my age… we lost our minds when we hear that group. Every generation has their kid group that they attach to. My kid group included the genius. And that song was a beautiful song.
EBONY: That track shows – as does Renaissance – that the bass is as lyrical and melodic as any other lead instrument.
MM: I came up in the glory years of the bass. So for me, the bass being in the front of the band was a very natural thing. The thing is: you’ve got to pick your spot. Because you still want to support your band. So on this album, it was really important for me to come in and out; to drive the band, from the bottom – the back of the bus –with the bassline, and then jump out in front and be melodic and sing with my bass. I really tried to found a good balance on this album.