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Marcus Miller’s “Renaissance”: A Review

[Editor’s note: Marcus Miller’s latest album, Renaissance hits the shelves today.]

Marcus Miller

Renaissance sees Marcus Miller at his very best, in a band context with a group of young, talented musicians.

A renaissance is a time of renewal and revival. Marcus wants his music to be a part of revival and renewal of music and society. The record is very much inspired by the magic of human beings interacting with each other and the music is written by Miller specifically for these musicians, with their personalities and musical styles in mind. Though a Marcus Miller album, this is very much a Marcus Miller band record. The core of horns, piano, drums, guitar and electric piano are mostly recorded live in the studio and the groove and interaction ever present on the album reflect that.

What was your first Marcus Miller moment? Was it with SMV, Luther Vandross, Grover Washington, David Sanborn or one of Marcus’ solo albums or soundtracks? Mine was wearing out We Want Miles in the 1980’s. Marcus’ sound and playing was just so fresh and new. Miles had brought Marcus in to give his music relevance with contemporary music in much the same way as former Stevie Wonder bassist Michael Henderson has been drafted in in the 1970’s. These were the guys with the funk. Marcus’ tone grabbed me straight away. Unlike many slappers then, he was using 105s on the E string and with a deep lushness to his scooped sound. His playing had an effortless sounding groove as he carved his huge bass lines. I sat with my bass and figured out all Miller’s playing on that double album and it is a huge influence to this day.

I remember the excitement in the bass community when 1993’s The Sun Don’t Lie was due to be released. Miller had a couple of vocal-led solo albums in the ’80s but The Sun Don’t Lie was the first bass-led, largely instrumental solo album of his and set the template for the next five studio CDs. They featured bass melodies (some very memorable compositions among them), groovy tracks, guest vocal and instrumental slots, covers of classic tunes, bass clarinet features and all were heavily produced in the Marcus Miller style with occasional use of programming. Excellent as they were, I longed to hear a studio Marcus album with more of a live band sound. His bands always stretch out live and the soloists get burn over the deepest grooves.

In the fall of 2009, Marcus put together a new band of young musicians for “Tutu Revisited”, a project initially intended for one show that turned into a two year tour captured on CD and DVD. Inspired by these young musicians, Marcus decided used the same team for Renaissance. The rapport and interaction between the musicians is clear to hear.

Marcus Miller: RenaissanceMarcus sees Renaissance as heralding a more revolutionary musical style.

“I feel like a page is turning,” Miller muses. “The last of our heroes are checking out and we are truly entering a new era. Politically, things have polarized and are coming to a head. Musically, we’ve got all these cool ways to play and share music – MP3 files, internet radio and satellite radio – but the music is not as revolutionary as the media. It’s time for a rebirth.” While it is hard to hear the music as revolutionary, it is certainly vital, genuine, heartfelt and surely the most organic sounding of Miller’s studio releases.

The bass here is massive: it is very, very high in the mix with the trademark Miller scooped sound, of course. His playing is sublime. Marcus has said that the original tunes on the record were written with the musicians in mind (as the great Duke Ellington used to) and the album is all the better for that. The music is structured around deeply funky bass and drums grooves, neatly atmospheric horn arrangements and intense soloing.

“Detroit”, the opener, is a mid-tempo burn with a horn driven melody and a funky bass riff doubled by overdriven guitar and horns. The drumming is tight drumming and a relatively short rhythmic bass solo whets the appetite. It builds into a few bars of fuzzed up slap that leave you wanting more. Alex Han (“Han Solo” as Miller refers to him) plays a neat funky Maceo-ish solo on alto as the track draws to a close.

“Redemption” has a beautiful melodic bass line – as always Miller’s lines define the groove and direction of the tunes. There is a hint of an Island feel here in the rhythm and the mood is overall brooding and purposeful. Sean Jones is mellow on trumpet and Han plaintive on saxophone as Miller’s line drives the tune on. Miller himself then plays a melodic, restrained slap solo in tune within the mood of the track. Federico Gonzales Peña (from Uruguay via Argentina and Washington DC) adds splashes of harmony and stabs throughout on piano.

“February” is a change of pace, introduced by Peña on piano and building to a meditative piece led by acoustic guitar, fingerstyle bass, Louis Cato’s djembe and kit drums and piano featuring soulful blowing from Alex Han. As Miller said of Han’s playing on this track, “That song was written quickly and recorded quickly. That’s when you know you’ve got something special. Tutu was like that. When we got to the solo, Alex broke a piece of his soul off onto the song. I thought, ‘Where is this cat from… to understand this thing so quickly?’ It’s beautiful but not sentimental. You know how some cats always play beauty like a bouquet of flowers? Alex didn’t do that. He just played from his soul.”

The nine minute “Slippin’ into Darkness” is a cover of WAR’s 1971 classic which is very much reworked. It features a Dilla-influenced piano intro and a darker, deeper sound from Miller. Horns are used to great effect and the track makes great use of dynamics, building beautifully and multiple bass tracks (one of which uses an octave effect). Kris Bowers on piano builds the tension taking it outside at times before the horns and herald Sean Jones’ intense trumpet over wonderful interaction between Miller, Cato and Bowers. Louis Cato drums wonderfully on this record, knowing just when to keep it simple and when to ramp it up a notch or ten. Miller refers to Cato has having ESP: knowing what the bassist will play even before he plays it. The bass solo that follows has the octave slap growling and making great use of call in response. It hints at Miller’s classic Jean Pierre line with Miles before having a ball with slaps and slides and bubbling fills. Believe me when I say Marcus Miller is having fun here.

“Septembro” is another change of pace. It’s an arrangement by Miller of a tune from the great Brazilian composer Ivan Lins. Marcus plays fretless here (with a distinct Jaco influence) and is joined by the wonderful singer Gretchen Parlato who adds a breathy, wordless vocal in unison with the bassist. Suddenly the tracks goes in Afro-Cuban direction as Miller plays flurries of fretless over a section with the bass line from Dizzy’s Gillespie’s Manteca. Ramon Yslas lays down a classic son montuno percussion beat and Miller plays acoustic bass. Ruben Blades adds guest vocals in Spanish which then meld with Parlato’s interpretation of the Brazilian theme. It’s an ambitious cross cultural fusion but it works, especially as the horns and Miller’s bass clarinet join the wedding party.

Marcus Miller“Jekyll and Hyde” is a great Marcus Miller tune. The bassist does write some of his better tunes on this record. This one starts brooding and contemplative before bursting into powerfunk mode. The two rhythmic sections of the tune contrast with each other but fit beautifully, the horns playing the melody over yet another classic Marcus Miller bass line. Squelches from synthesizer add to the funk feel and throughout jazz and funk vie for attention with a black rock beat that sounds like something Defunkt might have played. Alex Han stretches out over the jazz-funk feel before Adam Rogers lets rip on guitar.

Miller describes this track in terms of the horns and piano bringing the ’50s jazz vibe, the drums and bass the nouveau funk feel and the guitar carrying the Hendrix part:

“It starts off with that Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers type of horn melody… then all of a sudden it goes to Hendrix – the kind of rock the Black bands like Mother Night would play when I was coming up in New York – edgy but funky. We keep shiftin’ back and forth. In the middle I’d say, ‘Hyde’s wreaking havoc – better get back to Jekyll!’”

A short version of the Mano Hanes composition “Nocturnal Mist” on melodic bass (Marcus originally played bass clarinet on it as a featured guest on Israel & New Breed’s album A Timeless Christmas) introduces the next track, “Revelation”.

“Revelation” features Alex Han on sax and Adam Agati on guitar, and is the most filmic composition on offer here, developing in passionate intensity and maintaining a tension throughout. Miller bubbles constantly on bass and Cato’s drumming is delightfully effervescent as he builds to an anthemic section which features additional melodic themes that are passed between piano bass and guitar as if characters in a story.

“Mr. Clean” is back to funk mode. It’s a composition by Weldon Irvine, an early mentor of Miller’s. Bobby Sparks adds clavinet to the funk stew. The Miller arranged horns are tight as the head of Louis Cato’s snare and the jam is on as first Jones on trumpet and then Han on alto get the chance to solo. There’s a breakdown that allows Miller to rebuild the track from the bottom up as he plays a stunningly intense line that sends the tune hurtling to equally funky detour. Trust me, your head will nod and nod!

“Gorée” (Go-ray) is the bass clarinet feature on this record. This is a passionate Miller composition, sensitively and cleverly arranged making great use of the musicians. Miller plays beautifully on clarinet, supported by his own upright and fretless bass on what is the track must obviously in the jazz tradition. Gorée was inspired by a visit Marcus and his young band paid to the African island historically remembered as a slave warehouse off the coast of Dakar in Senegal where slaves where held before being shipped from Africa.

“When I first presented this song to the band, I didn’t say anything about my inspiration,” Miller shares. “What they were playing was good but not quite there. So I said, ‘Remember when we were on the island and we saw where the captives were held and the doorway where all you could see was the sea?’ I didn’t have to say another word… We didn’t want to make the piece about pain and resentment but about hope and all the wonderful things that have happened despite it all.”

“CEE-TEE-EYE” is an homage to Creed Taylor’s classic jazz-funk label CTI which featured albums from the likes of Grover Washington, Jr. and Bob James in 1970’s. The tune and the bass line are memorable ear worms and, after a couple of listens, it’ll feel like a track you grew up with. Maurice Brown plays a great trumpet solo over the loping tempo which sets me thinking of 1970’s Freddie Hubbard and Kris Bowers plays some atmospheric electric piano, Adam Agati chiming in with apposite funky guitar figures throughout (Eric Gale anyone?). A unison breakdown frames to a superbly constructed Marcus Miller slapped bass solo before the theme snakes back. This is one for the repeat button.

The Janelle Monáe composition “Tightrope” offers a gorgeous groove nods to a 60’s party vibe (complete with handclaps) and features Dr. John on guest vocals, who performs as if he owns the song half singing, half speaking the lyric. Rhythmically and musically, it sits a little outside the main directions of Renaissance, but it works as a refreshing change of pace and as a catchy tune to make the heads nod. Alex Han plays a saxophone solo that skips lightly over the beat and the piano (Dr. John?) brings it all back home to N’awlins.

Renaissance ends with a solo bass cover of the classic Jackson 5 song “I’ll Be There”. This is a tender, beautiful performance from Miller whose virtuosity never distracts from the bittersweet melody – bittersweet, given Michael’s passing. Miller relates that this is one of the first melodies he learned on bass and he certainly plays it like an old friend, caressing the melody tenderly before the funky soul of bass looped coda.

This is definitely one of Marcus Miller’s best solo records and is an essential release for his fans and highly recommended for listeners who what to more occasionally get a taste of where Marcus is at. It’s not music to challenge a jazz audience with improvisation at the frontiers of sound, but you knew that. What it is: natural sounding music with intensity and groove designed to make an audience feel good. It’s funky music very well written and beautifully arranged. It’s smooth, soulful jazz. It’s deeply grooving music that combines jazz, funk, Brazilian and other influences effortlessly.

It’s Marcus Miller at his best.

Preview Renaissance:

Renaissance is available on CD and digital formats (iTunes and Amazon MP3).

Photo by Mathieu Zazzo

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