Marcus Miller
Shannon West
March 2008




I go on these YouTube binges. You know the ones, where you start watching one musician, see something interesting on the sidebar, see another one and watch that. Following that trail I managed to create a DIY Marcus Miller concert, which was quite a way to spend an evening. At some point one of the comments read "Marcus Miller is not a household name..."  In what circles, I wondered, because in contemporary jazz circles the mention of his name brings a combination of reverence and awe. That, and when you hear a song he plays on there's this immediate recognition. "That's Marcus!"  Although he had been playing sessions for years and released two pop/R&B solo albums in the early 80s, the buzz on him was built around the fact that the bassist had begun working with Miles Davis when he was just 21. A few years later he collaborated with Davis on the groundbreaking and controversial Tutu album, which he composed, arranged, and played most of the instruments that created the settings for Davis' solos. Traditionalists bashed it but contemporary and fusion fans embraced it. I bought it the day after I saw Davis perform large chunks of it in the rain at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival and played it continually for the next several months. It had this sound to it, deep, dark overtones from Miles and this dense, funky, layered thing boiling under it. That's Marcus. That was when I realized I'd worn out quite a few Marcus Miller songs without even knowing it. From hitting the rewind button over and over on a cassette single of Aretha Franklin's "Jump To It," which he co-wrote with Luther Vandross, to repeated in-studio plays of Grover's "Just The Two Of Us," which featured him on bass, at Top 40 stations then and A/C stations and Smooth Jazz shows ever since. And later, the irresistible thumpin' on Sanborn's "Chicago Song" and all the way through the A Change of Heart CD.  For some who have come into this music in more recent years the point of recognition is the title track from his 2005 release Silver Rain, which featured Eric Clapton on guitar and vocals and climbed the smooth jazz charts. Now he has followed that stellar release with another adventure in genre-jumping musical exploration simply entitled Marcus.

Miller grew up in a musical family. His father was a church organist and his father's cousin was jazz pianist Wynton Kelly, who actually played with Davis years before Miller joined his band. He started out playing the recorder, an instrument that was a popular introduction to playing wind instruments in public schools. From there picked up the clarinet, which he studied from the time he was 10 years old until he started college, he picked up the sax a few  years later. But when he picked up the bass a few years after that he felt an immediate connection. He learned to read music while he was studying classical pieces for clarinet. It was a skill that served him well, putting put him in demand for session work, where a lot of bassists were self taught and did not read music, much less sight-read. He was still a pre-teen when the Jackson 5 had their first hit, which turned him on to pop music. Kids in his Jamaica, Queens neighborhood would get together and play music in their basements and pretty soon he had his own group and was jamming with other future pros like Lenny White, Tom Brown, and Omar Hakim. The early 70s were an exciting time for music, with R&B adding funk, rock, and jazz flavors, and Jazz Fusion emerging. The R&B hits inspired him to pick up the bass, then he got turned on to jazz and added another layer of influences into his repertoire. Still close to childhood himself, his first session was for a children's show, the PBS series "The Electric Company." At 16 he played on his first recording, Lenny White's "Big City."

By the time he hit his twenties he was a seasoned pro. His family encouraged him to get a college education so he enrolled in Queens College, cutting classes to do recording sessions. Music eclipsed more classes and eventually the music won out and he became a full time studio musician. He would often play three sessions a day, everything from working on albums by pop, R&B and jazz musicians to becoming a part of the lucrative commercial jingle recording scene. He was touring with multiple artists and starting what would become an ongoing working relationship with David Sanborn when, during a recording session, someone handed him a note that said "call Miles." It was 1980 and he was 21 years old. He called Davis, who told him to be at Columbia Studios in an hour. He arrived, played, and spent the next two years recording and touring with Miles Davis. He was still doing other gigs, including producing David Sanborn's Grammy Award winning Voyeur album. His hectic schedule often had him flying across the country to play with one artist them back to play with Miles the next night, then back to do another gig the next. Two years in he realized he was going to have to leave Davis' band if he wanted to focus on his own career as a session musician, sideman, and producer. Over the next decade he was present on most of the significant contemporary jazz albums, working with almost all of the contemporary jazz pioneers - David Sanborn George Benson, Joe Sample, Lee Ritenour, Al Jarreau, Grover, the YellowJackets, Michael Franks, Dave Grusin, Bob James, Spyro Gyra.  He also did sessions with Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole, and even new-wavers Howard Jones, Aztec Camera, and Scritti Politti. His most significant professional relationship on the pop/R&B side was with Luther Vandross. They met while Vandross was singing backup and doing jingle sessions and Miller was one of the musicians who supported and encouraged him to pursue his solo career. He was involved in all of Luther's solo projects both as a producer and writer, including hits like "Any Love" and "The Power of Love,"  which won the Grammy for R&B Song of the Year in 1991. He also reconnected with Miles Davis when Davis signed with Warner Brothers. Miller wrote, arranged and played most of the instruments on Tutu and composed the majority of the songs on the follow up, Amandala. He and drummer Lenny White also formed the funk-based Jamaica Boys and released several albums.

As the 80s ended he was thinking more about his own career as a soloist and starting to work on material for a  project of his own. He had done two pop-R&B leaning albums for Warner Bros but pulled back after that, feeling like he needed to grow more as a musician so he could record work that would really be his own. It took him several years to get a record deal, which was necessary back then. The Sun Don't Lie came out in 1993. Tales followed in 1994. Both combined an eclectic array of jazz, urban, funk, fusion and world elements, with Tales central theme being a historical overview of the Black music experience. Although these albums were released just as the contemporary jazz radio format was shifting to smooth and artists were beginning to fashion their work to fit the format neither album made concessions to the format, and both attained critical and commercial success. M2, released in 2001, won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. The follow up was a gift to all the fans who had experienced the dynamism of his live shows. The Ozell Tapes: The Official Bootleg was a double album set, the live show from start to finish, replete with solos from his brilliant supporting musicians - guitarist Dean Brown, Michael "Patches" Stewart on trumpet, drummer Poogie Bell, Roger Byam on sax, Bruce Flowers on Keyboards and vocalist Lalah Hathaway. Silver Rain was released in 2005. This eclectic set covered everything from covers of Edgar Winter and Prince to Ellington and Beethoven and brought him his first radio hit.

His new release is simply called Marcus. That's all that needs to be said. Like Silver Rain, it covers a lot of territory. The opening track, "Blast," sets the vibe with a speaker shaking funky bass over a hop-hop beat.. Nothing manufactured or watered down here, he says he wanted to keep the music real and he does just that even when he takes on a cover. He says one reason he enjoys covering other artists' songs is that you can gain such insight into a musician by how they interpret another's work. He picked some gems for this one: a version of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" that makes it sound like it was written for the bass and a scorching take on Tower of Power's anthem, "What Is Hip." Hathaway rejoins him and blues innovator Keb'mo tears it up on "Milky Way." Corrine Bailey-Ray provides a wispy radio-friendly vocal version of Deniece Williams' "Free," but even that song spreads out into some jazzy bass and sax soloing that will probably be edited out for the format "single."  The originals are pure Marcus, with that signature thumping and slapping, fast runs and subtle nuances. This time he also solos on bass clarinet and adds spoken word, a form he is excited about right now. He is even in the process of creating an online poetry contest to encourage fans to explore their writing skills. Always one to have several projects going at once he is also developing a talent search type show for BET that will have young musicians competing for a chance to play in Marcus' band. He is also working on what has to be called a bass fan's fantasy come true, a three bass project with Victor Wooten and Stanley Clarke. It's been thirty years since he walked into that first studio gig and now the discography on his website is so extensive, with 553 titles as of now, that it has its own search engine. He's never followed trends, he's always been an innovator but like Pat Metheny, he has been able to build a fan base that grows with every concert and every new release without playing down to them. And he is encouraging young musicians to do the same thing. That is the gift he brings to the music, now and for the future.