Renaissance Man: An Interview with Marcus Miller
Marcus Miller has been on top of the music industry for over 30 years, and it’s easy to see why. Even with several Grammy awards, numerous film scores, producing credits, and legions of fans, he’s constantly working to grow and understand the world around him – musically and otherwise. Miller was enjoying a rare day off in France when we spoke on the phone, and though he explained he doesn’t get to visit destinations on tour as much as he’d like to, he’s seen a lot.
“It’s important for Americans to travel, to get your perspective broadened,” Miller shared. “I’ve seen some poverty that is astounding, and I’ve seen some wealth that’s equally as astounding. It makes you appreciate your situation.”
It’s with this holistic viewpoint that Miller released his latest solo album, Renaissance [check out our review], which touches on a wide range of topics while musically refreshing the bassist’s signature sound. This latest effort has Miller recruiting a host of younger musicians and turning his focus more to the band rather than the studio.
We reached out to Miller to get deeper into Renaissance, his time with Miles Davis, his writing style and advice for aspiring bassists.
Congratulations on your new album, Renaissance, which hit #1 on the iTunes and Amazon Jazz charts. How did you come to naming the album?
My previous albums have reflected the fact that I lived in the studio, you know for like, the last twenty years. When I got in the studio, it was really about doing a studio album, so I used the studio as an instrument. But over the last couple of years, I’ve wanted to get to a more natural sound and not involve the studio as much. Not to make it like a “live” album with an audience and everything, but just to give it that feeling. So I started kind of moving in that direction, and I think this album reflects that kind of return to more of a just a band sound and just focusing on the performance and the compositions.
You know, sometimes when you hear an album you think, “Man, this thing is mixed so well, and so sonically this or sonically that,” but for this album I really wanted it to just be about the music and the musicians and the compositions.
You also took a kind of new approach, with a bunch of younger talent for your band, and of course you were in a similar situation when you were playing with Miles Davis back in the day. With this new role reversal, how do you relate to your new band members as Miles related to you?
First of all, it was a trip, man, because I was always the youngest guy by far in most of my situations, until just recently. You know, there are situations with my band where I actually give them advice that they should consider certain things, but most of the time I think they learn from me the same way I learned from Miles, which was just being in his presence and just to watch him. I think with kids with their parents, they learn more from their parents by observing than from when the parents are giving them a lecture, you know what I mean? Even though the parents might not realize that. It was the same with me for Miles. Me and the other guys in the group, we just enjoyed being around him and seeing how he came to his decisions and how he thought, how he reacted to different situations. That was really where you learned the big things. I’m hoping that I can lead by example in that same way with these guys. You never know and you can just do the best you can, but I’m hoping it’s a good situation for them.
For example, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t really hang out that much after the gigs and stuff. After a couple of nights on the road, man, I started seeing my band in the gym with me in the morning [laughs]. I said, “what are you doing here?,” and they’d say “Can I work out?” and I’d say, “Yeah, come on.” That’s a nice feeling to see somebody make a change in their life because of that, you know?
Is that something you take a pretty firm stance against in your band? Partying and that kind of stuff?
Nah, I don’t take a firm stance. Everybody has to live their life, you know what I mean? But I will tell them stories about the end of that story, because I’ve seen the end of that story. They only know the beginning of that story, but I’ve seen the whole thing. I’ve been to the hospitals, and I’ve been to the funerals. I make sure they get a perspective of the whole story, not just the partying.
What was your fondest memory during the recording of Tutu with Miles?
There’s a bunch of them. You know, Tutu was done with overdubs, kind of different from this Renaissance album. Tutu was done like a painting, where you lay down one instrument and listen to that and add another instrument and add it to that. Anyway, it came time for Miles to add his trumpet to the track. He played, and I’m sitting next to him in the studio, because I was kind of pointing at him for when to play and when not to play. He started playing this solo, and I looked at Tommy Lipuma, who was producing the album, and I looked at him as if to say, “Is this sounding as good as I think it is?” [laughs] Tommy just gave me a big grin. I said, “Man, this thing sounds good.”
We finished the songs “Tutu” and “Portia,” and I was in L.A. and I had to return to New York the next day. I’m in the car and I have a tape of what we had done the day before. When you make records, the next morning is always the moment of truth, because stuff can sound good one day and the next day you can hear it and say, “Aw man, what the hell were we thinking?” So I was a little nervous to put [the tape] in because it sounded so good the day before. I finally got the courage to put it in, and the thing sounded exactly like it did the day before. I was really, really happy about that. It was a nice moment.
You pretty much played every instrument on that album besides trumpet, didn’t you?
Yeah. I called up Paulinho da Costa to do some percussion and Adam Holzman played a little synthesizer, but I played like 90% of the instruments. You know what it is? I play jazz, but I also play R&B. I was influenced by Larry Graham and Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius, but I was also influenced very much by Stevie Wonder and Sly. Particularly Sly, who was playing a bunch of different instruments and putting music together. And so, when I did the demo for “Tutu”, I played it for Tommy Lipuma and I said, “Listen, this is a tune I wrote for Miles.” He said, “Oh man, that sounds great. Let’s start recording it.” I was assuming that we’d use the band. I played all the instruments on the demo because that’s the best way to make a demo – quickly.
I said, “Where’s the band?”
Tommy said, “No man, we want this to sound exactly like it sounds on the demo. How did you do the demo?”
I said, “Well, I played everything.”
So he said, “Get all your instruments to the studio. Let’s get started.”
So I was like, “Wow man, this is crazy for a Miles Davis record.” It’s one thing when you’re doing some funk or some R&B, but they were like, “No man, Miles wants to do something different. This is a different sound for him.”
I said okay. I got my instruments – some drums, some bass, guitar, and some keyboards – and got to work.
And you really didn’t see that coming, but you were prepared for it.
No man, I didn’t see it coming, but I was up for the challenge. I said, “OK. If you all want to go that way, let’s do it. Let’s start recording and let’s see what Miles says when he walks in the door.”
You know, we had a couple days before Miles would show up. And when Miles came in, he listened to it one time and he said, “That sounds good. Let me know when you need trumpet.” So I said, “OK, I guess this is how we’re going to do it.”
You’ve been a top player for so long and worked with so many different people. What drives you after all these years?
My attitude is that I’m so glad to be a musician. I’ve got a lot of friends who are professional athletes that are about my age, and basically, their glory years are behind them. To be a musician is so cool because you grow all the way to the end, and you can continue to improve and continue to do new interesting things. My career is still growing. It’s incredible, so I’m just enjoying being a musician. I’ve been a musician all my life. My father was a musician, his father was a musician, and I’m just glad to be part of that story with my family. For me specifically, it’s beautiful and I don’t take it for granted. When it’s time to get on that stage or it’s time to make a new album, it’s something exciting.
I was hanging out with Wayne Shorter, man, and he’s even more excited than I am. I mean, more intrigued about a new chord or a new melody or a new way of looking at things. Herbie [Hancock] is that way. Miles was that way. Stevie Wonder is that way. That curiosity, that desire to continue to find things is really important.
Do you get excited like that about a new lick or a new chord? Where do your writing ideas come from?
They come from just living. You do have to pay more attention after you’ve been writing music for about 30 years to try not to repeat yourself [laughs]. You know what I mean? It’s like, “Oh, that sounds nice. That sounds nice… Oh yeah, that’s because you already wrote it ten years ago.”
So I gotta really keep looking for a new way to look at things, but it’s not like you’ve got to look hard. In the same way that there’s only 26 letters in the alphabet, there’s eight notes in an octave. You just look at it from a slightly different angle and then suddenly a whole other set of possibilities emerges. Same thing with playing the bass. If you just look at things a little differently… [Say] you’re in Africa and you hear this Gnawan trance music, where the main instrument is a version of an acoustic bass guitar. When you hear the guy come at it from a little different angle, that can just open a whole new door for you. So it’s not like you have to kill yourself [to stay fresh], you just have to be open.
One of the things that I always admire about your records is not just the writing, but the arranging. When I was listening to “Gorée,” the bass almost seamlessly shifts from upright to fretless electric as the song picks up into a more upbeat straight groove. How do you get arranging ideas? Do you just start with the shell of a song and work out?
Gorée is an island off the coast of Senegal where they used to domicile potential slaves that they would capture from the inner areas of Africa. They would put them in these slave houses for about three months to check them out physically and fatten them up for that journey across the Atlantic. So they were kind of stacked in these houses like cattle. They didn’t really know where they were going, and then eventually they sent them to this portal, to this ship, and once you went through this portal it was the end of your existence as an African. We went to Senegal and took a ten minute ferry to the island where we took a very emotional tour of this slave house that is preserved now as kind of a historic museum.
I wrote this song for that, but I didn’t want the song to just be anger or pain. I want it to be about transcending that situation, because that was basically the beginning of the African-American race. I want it to be about transcending that situation and becoming something new and something we can be proud of. So I needed more motion as the song continued. I needed more energy and a little bit more hope. That caused me to say, “You know what? I need the fretless to start bouncing around.” So that was kind of the inspiration to change basses. It starts off as a ballad with a really somber tone to it, but I didn’t want to stay there, you know what I mean?
Do you have a favorite track off of Renaissance?
I don’t have a favorite, but the track that is kind of the center of the album – meaning it kind of defines where I was at and then from that tune I expanded to the left and to the right – is a track called “Redemption.” For some reason, it feels like it has the soul of the album in it.
So is that the first song you came up with?
Well I came up with others, but once I came up with that, I felt like I had my foot dug into the sand now. I had my anchor and knew where I wanted to go after that.
So, you just announced a U.S. tour for the fall.
Yeah, we’re going to begin right at the beginning of September.
What differences are there touring the U.S. versus overseas for you?
Well, there are a lot of differences. It’s not really as much overseas, but different countries. For instance, France. Their government really takes a strong role in making sure people are educated in culture and music and art. You feel that when you’re playing for them. If you refer to a Duke Ellington tune or if you play an old standard then they might have an idea of what that is and have an appreciation for it, whereas the younger U.S. audience, because they haven’t been exposed to that, might not even know what you’re doing. They’ll appreciate it, but they don’t have the depth of appreciation because they haven’t been exposed to that.
When we first started traveling overseas, we went to Japan first. The Japanese audience treated the music like classical music, so they wouldn’t make a sound during the show until the last note, then they’d applaud. When you come from New York, that’s a really weird feeling. My music has a strong community aspect to it. It’s based rhythmically in funk and Caribbean rhythms that are supposed to involve people. That’s what those rhythms are created for, so to see people just looking at you is kind of weird. But the world is much smaller now and Japanese people are yelling at you the same way they’re yelling at you in D.C. now. It’s really interesting to see things change. Amsterdam and Holland, man… Sometimes we can’t even hear what we’re playing because the energy in the audience is so crazy. Every city now has its own personality.
Plus, we don’t have any words in our music, so we’re able to go a lot of places and not worry about the language barrier. For instance, we were in Luanda, Africa last week, and we could really relate to the audience because we’re just playing notes, man, and those notes have all the emotions that every human shares. It’s really nice to be able to communicate all around the world.
Yeah, the musical language.
Yeah. Really, with music you can say things you can’t even say with words or would be very difficult. So each country we go to is a little different in how they relate to the music, but by the end of the show we always end up in the same place.
I was watching the EPK for Renaissance and you mentioned you don’t want to rehearse too much because once it starts sounding good, it won’t be such a surprise on stage. What’s your secret to rehearsals?
I try to take the band just before the point where we’re going to start creating stuff that has something special. We just get the parts so everyone knows where we’re going and everyone has the right notes but because there’s so much improvisation involved in our show, I don’t want to waste it at rehearsal. So I try to get it just to the point before that so we can do some discovering on the stage. I think people these days enjoy seeing that, and that’s what our music different from other types of music. When you’re in the audience, you start to get the sense, “These guys are just making it up right now. It looks like they know what they’re doing, but right now this guy is soloing and I don’t think he even knew that he was going to have to solo on this song.” [laughs]
You could say, “I wonder how he’s going to negotiate this. What is he going to do?” And then you see this guy come up with something amazing and you feel like you were part of that experience. I think people enjoy that watching our band and jazz in general.
When it starts sounding too good, I say, “I don’t want to give it up to the walls. Let’s stop now. We’ll continue on the stage.”
Do you think bands try to rehearse too much?
It depends on what the spirit of your music is. If the main thing that you’re presenting is how together you play and how tight your band is, then yeah – you’ve got to rehearse. I wasn’t mad at Tower of Power, you know what I mean? They’re amazing. I enjoyed it. Or Return to Forever, when they used to play those ensemble parts. But, for me, what interests me even more than that is musicians expressing themselves and the audience member hearing the musician express himself and going, “Wow, man. I feel the same way. This guy is expressing stuff that I feel.” That’s more interesting to me.
When you were a kid, what was the first song that took you away and made you realize you wanted to play music for the rest of your life?
I heard “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5. The Jackson 5 were kids. Michael Jackson was the same age as me, maybe a year older, but they were about my age. I was going, “Man, there’s a kid my age that’s already an amazing professional musician.” And listening to the music, I thought it was the Jackson 5 playing all the instruments, I didn’t know it was the Funk Brothers, so I was going, “Listen to Michael’s brother Jermaine on the bass… that bass is killing!” Turns out it wasn’t Jermaine, and as a matter of fact it turns out it wasn’t even James Jamerson on that song. It was Wilton Felder.
So anyway, I’m from a musical family. My father played the piano and his father played the piano. My father’s cousin played with Miles in the late ’50s. So I always thought that music was something that the family did on Sundays after church. But I said, “I think I’m gonna get serious about this music, man. I like this.” And I think that was the first time that happened to me.
It kind of comes full circle since you’ve got a solo bass version of “I’ll Be There” on the new album, too.
Yeah. I did that at a bass clinic three years ago, right when Michael had passed, just because it was on my mind. While I was working on this album, my manager played me a tape of it and said, “You remember this?” I said, “Oh, wow. That’s nice. Let me end the album with that.”
What tips or words of wisdom would you pass onto a beginning bass player?
The first thing I would do if I was teaching someone to start is I would make them listen to every record they can find, particularly music they like, and try to identify the bass part. Just try to hear it and try to get your head around what makes the bass sound like the bass and what notes that they choose.
The next thing is just play your bass. Get a book or a teacher just so you don’t develop any horrible habits like I did. Then listen and start to try to connect the notes that you play to the music in your ear. I used to learn the bass parts off of different records all day long. Even records I didn’t like.
You know, just learn the bass lines as best as you can. You’ll start to see different patterns as you learn more and more songs. You’ll start to see the same things happening over and over again. You’ll start to recognize what makes an effective bass part. Try to develop your ear along with your fingers. It’s really important.
The thing I think is important, too, is to not limit yourself. You’ll read about guys who say, “I don’t fool around with solos. I’m a feel player.” Or other people say, “I don’t practice rhythm because rhythm will take care of itself. I focus on my solos.” I think that both of those ideas limit you, particularly if you are young. If you’re older and you realize that you have limitations, that’s fine. You do what you do well. But as a young guy, you should really try to be a complete musician. You don’t hear piano players say, “I’m just an accompanist,” or, “I just solo.” Everybody else is required to be complete, and I think bass players should have the same responsibilities.
Who do you think is the greatest slap hero of all time?
I would say Larry Graham, because he started it all. I mean, there are guys who have been slapping the acoustic bass for a long time before him, but on the electric bass, he showed us a new sound for the bass. I took that inspiration and went on my direction with it. Victor took his, Stanley took his. Louis Johnson, he’s a great slapper, although he says he wasn’t really influenced by Graham, but he did come after Graham.
I got to play with him. We jammed in Japan last year or maybe a year and a half ago. It was funky like old socks. It was crazy [laughs].
Of course you’ve played with an enormous number of musicians, but is there anyone past or present you wish you could play with?
In the present I’m not really tripping on that anymore. I used to think, “Man, I’d love to play with George Benson or Herbie Hancock.” I did love playing with them and I still do. Now I’m just looking more for good musical opportunities. I’m not really tripping on the names as much.
But if you’re going to go into the past, I would have loved to play with my cousin Wynton Kelly, who was the piano player for Miles. I would have loved if Paul Chambers had taken a day off so I could play in his trio. His trio used to back up Wes Montgomery. Live at the Half Note was a really classic album that they did together. Even if I wasn’t playing, I would have loved to have just heard John Coltrane, you know? The Miles Davis group from the 50’s with Red Garland on piano… I loved that.
There’s a whole bunch if you go into the past, But now, working with Herbie Hancock over the past few years off and on, I’ve really enjoyed it. Now that I think about it, if an opportunity came up to play with Stevie, I wouldn’t turn it down.
Ok, everyone wants to know. Where do you get your hats?
[Laughs] I used to get them in a place from New York on 8th Street and 6th Avenue, but now I just order a gang of them online like everybody else. I think I’m going to come up with my own line of hats. That way I can sell them at the gigs and have everybody at the gig with a pork pie hat on.
Special thanks to Eric Arruabarrena, Sean Emberton, Sam Dingle, Jason Brown, Rexford Buxton, Gregory Wayne Smith, Carolyn Dumas, Bruno Amario, and Per Kofoed for submitting questions.