Soul brother4 min read . Updated: 12 May 2015, 02:22 AM IST
A musician's musician, electric bassist Marcus Miller holds a funky groove as elegantly as he produces the music of best-selling names in jazz, pop and R&B
For those who came after, the pull of Africa is often irresistible, as they are drawn inexorably to the land where their ancestors were snatched into bondage and suffering. A visit to the House of Slaves on Goree Island, a memorial to Africans who were forced into slavery and shipped to the Americas as human cargo, have been a life-changing experience for many.
To bassist Marcus Miller, it was the start of a journey of a different kind, a manner of rebirth that led him to compose Goree, a homage that formed the lynchpin for Renaissance (2012), an album that blurs the boundaries of jazz with inspired lyricism and understated elegance.
As a performer, composer and producer, Miller has reinvented himself several times in several ways. Born in a musical family in 1959 (Wynton Kelly, Miles Davis’ pianist in the 50s and 60s, is a cousin) in Brooklyn, Miller showed early signs of promise and studied the clarinet before taking to the electric bass guitar as his true métier.
He started performing as a session musician while still in his teens and has since played with a veritable galaxy of artists that include the Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, Grover Washington Jr., David Sanborn, Joe Sample, Mariah Carey, Elton John, and Frank Sinatra, and has featured in over 400 albums.
Gifted with a flair for composing lyrical tunes, songs by Miller provided the base for Davis’ Tutu (1986), an album where he was also the arranger and producer besides playing the bass. Miller’s passion producing music led to many fruitful collaborations, particularly with the commercially successful Sanborn and R&B legend Luther Vandross.
His first major production, Sanborn’s Voyeur (1981), won the influential alto saxophonist the 1982 Grammy for the best R&B instrumental performance. As a producer, Miller has won a number of Grammy awards for Davis, Vandross, Sanborn, Chaka Khan and Wayne Shorter.
For a bassist as popular as him, Miller started late in releasing albums as a bandleader. When he did start doing so in the nineties, they were received with enthusiasm by the fans of his playing. While not as groundbreaking as the mercurial Jaco Patorious, Miller evolved a distinctive style that could hold its own among the great players of the bass guitar.
This was amply displayed in M2 (2001), a soul-inflected offering with an all-star cast including pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Branford Marsalis and drummer Lenny White. Although many purists are snooty (with little reason) about smooth jazz that relies heavily on the blues and groovy backbeats, M2 showcased Miller’s multifaceted talents as a composer (he wrote nine of the 14 numbers) and strummer of rare distinction. M2 went on to win the 2002 Grammy award for best contemporary jazz album.
Since he formed his own group in the nineties, Miller has been on the road almost continuously. His live gigs were mostly sold out and his fan base grew enormously. For people like me who were used to hearing him only on albums arranged and recorded in studios, The Ozell Tapes: The Official Bootleg (2003), was a complete revelation. Straight out of a tour in 2002, The Ozell Tapes showed Miller in an entirely different light, and is perhaps the best album that he has released. His talent as a multi-instrumentalist (he plays the saxophone and bass clarinet with aplomb in addition to the bass guitar) in spontaneous settings was proof enough, if indeed it was needed, that Miller is not just a fusion or smooth jazz performer but a master of electric jazz who can play with passion with dollops of soul and funk. The Ozell Tapes is a must for any jazz collection.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Miller has been on absolute fire in the past few years. He yet again demonstrated his eclectic jazz credentials in A Night in Monte Carlo (2011), which documented a performance in a 29 November 2008, when he performed with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra and trumpeter Roy Hangrove. Purists might crib about the man in the porkpie hat who does not care much for preconceived boundaries, A Night in Monte Carlo is a treat for fusion lovers and stands testimony to what electric jazz is still capable of.
He followed up that excellent release with Renaissance, where jazz-funk, rock, post-bop and rhythm and blues come together to form the most emotionally charged offering by the electric bassist. He again shines as a composer in the album with memorable tunes like Goree (mentioned earlier), Revelation, Jekyll & Hyde, Redemption and Detroit. Goree in particular has Miller playing both the bass clarinet (not an easy instrument to master) and the bass guitar, and how. Detroit, the first number in the album, also rewards repeated listening.
The island memorial to slaves on the west coast of Africa, which inspired Goree, forms the foundation of Miller’s latest offering Afrodeezia (2015), his debut on the Blue Note label that was released last month: A masterful compilation of transcontinental melodies and rhythms that travelled with the Africans of past centuries to the Caribbean and America.
Emerging out of Miller’s work as a peace ambassador for the Unesco slave route project, Afrodeezia takes a dark subject and transforms it to music that is at once joyful and accessible to all. This is how a master’s work at his peak ought to sound.
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