Bass call: Marcus Miller plays it electric and eclectic
Marcus Miller’s first instrument, the clarinet, wasn’t the happening thing in the New York neighborhood where he was raised. Nonetheless, he loved the instrument; the bass clarinet, in fact, makes numerous appearances on Miller’s new album, “Silver Rain.” But as a youngster he needed to find a better way into the local music scene.”Being in Queens, in the ’70s, r & b was the music you heard all around you,” said Miller, on a lunch break from jury duty in Los Angeles, his current home. “Clarinet wasn’t big in the youth music; you couldn’t find a place for it. “But bass was the center of the music we listened to: Motown, Sly & the Family Stone. The drums weren’t as loud as they are now. The percolation, the rhythm was coming from the bass. I played that instrument, and I knew I had found my place.”When Miller started on bass, at age 12, he was too young to realize that most bassists were not in the spotlight, instead taking secondary roles to singers and guitarists. That wasn’t the case in the music he favored. He did consider it a bit odd that bass players like James Jamerson of the Motown recordings, Larry Graham of Sly & the Family Stone, the bassists for Philadelphia International Records and Memphis’ Stax were better known for their sound than their names, since to Miller, they were rock stars.”In that music that I was growing up in, you’re talking Larry Graham, Jaco Pastorius, Bootsy Collins – the bass was the star of the band,” said the 46-year-old, who plays the final day of Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ June Festival (Sunday, June 26), opening for soul-pop singer Boz Scaggs. “It was only later that I realized that in most genres of music, bass was more of a supporting instrument.”By then, Miller, whose father was a church organist, was married to the bass. But he wasn’t tied down to any one style. In his early teens, he played in neighborhood r & b bands. At 15, when Miller casually mentioned to a friend that his cousin was Wynton Kelly, the pianist from Miles Davis’ eternal jazz classic “Kind of Blue,” the friend replied, “I have to explain to you exactly who your cousin is.” The friend then turned him on to jazz, and Miller quickly found himself traveling with youth jazz bands. Miller sees it as a sign of the times that he was never steered toward the stand-up bass: “It was a period in the ’70s where there were few stand-up bass players. Even guys like Sonny Rollins were touring with an electric bass player,” he said.The style that really hit home for him was ’70s fusion, whose stars included Stanley Clarke and Pastorius. “That was the best of all worlds,” said Miller. “It had the sophistication of jazz and the raw power of rock and funk. That looked like the wave of the future to me.”Miller also saw a future in making his own music. But after two albums in the early ’80s, in which he failed to find his own identity, Miller happily entered the realm of the New York studio musician. Backing jazz pianist McCoy Tyner, soul singer Bill Withers, contemporary jazz instrumentalist Grover Washington Jr., rockers Elton John and Brian Ferry, and numerous others, he found a comfortable niche. “Every day there was someone different to play with and so much to learn,” said Miller, who formed particularly tight partnerships with Luther Vandross and David Sanborn, for whom he co-produced albums. “I put my idea to do my own thing on the back burner.”In 1981, Miles Davis invited Miller into his band, a gig that lasted on and off for a decade. When Davis died in 1991, Miller tried his wings again, and this time he flew. “The Sun Don’t Lie,” from 1992, set Miller on his own path. “M2,” from 2001, earned a Grammy for best contemporary jazz album.Miller has long been celebrated for his versatility; a few weeks ago, he appeared at the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee, playing with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters 2005 combo. But his eclecticism hit new heights on “Silver Rain,” released in April. The material ranges from Edgar Winter’s rock classic “Frankenstein” to Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie on Reggae Woman” to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” Despite the breadth, the album is cohesive, anchored by Miller’s bass.”Each album, I get more confident taking material that’s further out,” he said. “Because I’m confident in my own sound. Gershwin, Stravinsky – they have all these influences; they were listening to everything. They made it into their own sound.”Music is music, and you can take it from anywhere if you’ve got your own identity.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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