After concluding a European tour for his new release “Renaissance,” multi-instrumentalist and composer Marcus Miller sat down to talk with The Revivalist to make sense of his experience putting together a new band as well as delving into some history of his own. Between his early years growing up as a fast-rising studio musician to learning from the great Miles Davis, Miller gives us the rundown on his experiences. Known both as a legend of the low-end for his bass work as well as an accomplished composer and multi-instrumentalist, Miller has defined many decades of music through his work with Miles, Luther Vandross, David Sanborn, and many others, not to mention his film work. Read on as we unwrap the life and teachings of a true musical legend.
How did the Renaissance project get started in terms of both the musicians and the music?
A couple years ago they had this Miles Davis exhibit in Paris. It was basically like a Miles Davis museum where each room was dedicated to a different era of Miles’ life. It was really cool. So the director of the exhibit asked me if I would want to do something in connection with the exhibit. What he had in mind was having me put together a band and performing the music of Tutu from top to bottom. Tutu was an album I produced and wrote some songs on for Miles back in the ‘80s. I really wanted to be a part of the exhibit, but the idea of going back in time and doing something from the past didn’t seem to be what Miles would have wanted. He wasn’t really the kind of guy who would look backwards. But I wanted to do something so I was trying to figure out how I could do something. I got the idea that instead of using my regular band, I could find some young musicians who probably weren’t even born or just kids when Tutu came out originally and reinterpret the music with these young guys. I knew Miles always liked to check out young talent and present them to the world.
So I found this saxophone player at Berklee named Alex Han who is incredible. He had been working with me for a year so I asked him about a drummer and he recommended Louis [Cato], and Louis recommended this guitar player Adam Agati. So we were doing Tutu Revisited and I was having such a good time with this new energy man. I was thinking it would be nice to have some original music that I could write specifically for these guys and specifically for their personalities. So that was the genesis for the Renaissance album. It was my opportunity to kind of start again with a new energy and with a new band and new sounds.
You have a number of originals as well as some covers on the album including “Tightrope” by Janelle Monae. How did the selection process go?
Oh I love that song man. When I first heard it I loved it. I love the concept and I love that there is something that sounds old about it, but it sounds new at the same time. It sounds like New Orleans. The bass line sounds like a boogie-woogie bass line to me. I always thought I’d like to do a version of it that accents the New Orleans aspect of that song. So we did it and we got Dr. John, whose voice just kind of embodies New Orleans, to do it. He had never rapped before so it’s funny to hear him. I had to work with him a little on the rap, but we had a good time. I always like showing people a different side of music that they think they know.
The word from your band is that you have a pretty intense workout regimen on tour. What’s that like?
[Laughs] Well, I don’t know man, for the last 25 or 30 years I’ve been into exercising and keeping myself together. I came up in an era where nobody was doing that, man. I got to see what happens to musicians that don’t take care of themselves. I’ve seen like the whole story a few times. So I think early on I decided to do my best to try and stay healthy because the road is so tough between the hours and the travelling and all that. But I’m having a good time man because the guys in the band, they started off one way, but then they’re watching me and after a while it’s, “Hey man, can I meet you in the gym?” Next thing you know, I’ve got the entire band in the gym. People would be really disappointed to see these jazz cats in the gym in the morning. It’s bad for the image!
What’s your typical workout?
I do free-weights, I do a cardio workout, and I try to switch it up a lot because I get bored. So sometimes I’m jumping rope, sometimes I’m running at the local high school track, sometimes I’m in a Gold’s gym. I try to do a little bit of everything to really keep it exciting and interesting for me. I like doing it because I put on the headphones man. Everybody else is listening to some like techno music to get pumped up, and I’m listening to Kind of Blue, I’m listening to Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, you know what I mean? I’m not trying to go crazy. I don’t need to get all that adrenaline going; I like to do it on a more peaceful vibe.
What about in the car? I’ve heard you like to drive real fast.
Oh yeah I listen to music in the car all the time. I’m listening to contemporary stuff like Janelle Monae. I like the hip-hop that makes you think, so I’m into Mos Def, Common, and The Roots. I also listen to a lot of 1960s jazz. I love that era. It was kind of like the end of the real melodic era where it was really important to be elegant. It was really important to present yourself in a certain way and that’s really interesting to me. So I’m listening to that and a lot of music from around the world as well because wherever we go people are hitting us up with music. So I’m listening to music from Istanbul, from Africa too. I’m really interested in this music called Gnawa music, which is real traditional music from North Africa. It’s like trance music. Those raves that the kids go to nowadays, imagine like a North African rave. All of the music is organic and the main instrument is a bass guitar. It’s like an acoustic bass guitar and drums and the vocals. People dance for like a week to this music. It’s just like hypnotic, man. I’m thinking of ways to incorporate elements of that in my music. So I’m pretty wide in terms of what I’m listening to.
You’re doing a project over in Istanbul as well. What attracted you to the music over there?
When I was 17 or 18-years old, I used to play jazz-fusion in New York. That was a really big style of music and a lot of the jazz-fusion musicians used to experiment with odd time signatures. It wouldn’t be just one-two-three-four, it’d be like eleven or seven or five, these weird numbers that Americans don’t usually mess with. I could never feel it, and I was like man, until you show me how to dance to this, I’m not really believing it. Then I went to Istanbul and saw that people really groove to this kind of music and that they really feel it. If you grow up with it and you can really get into it, there’s a certain way to play it. That really interested me. That’s the first thing that drew me into it. And then they have a whole other way of being soulful. You know, when we listen to a singer from church there are certain things that give us goose bumps when they do it right. Luther Vandross, The O’Jays, Brian McKnight, Stevie Wonder, they’ve got these things that we’re used to hearing that give us goose bumps. But over there they have a whole different thing. You’re sitting there looking at another dude getting goose bumps and you start to understand. They’re going [makes impression of Turkish singer] and that’s what really intrigued me. It’s a whole other way to give people the fever man, so I’m really interested in seeing what makes it work.
Having played such an eclectic array of music, do you remember a day where you just went from one project to another that was so different?
Oh yeah, that was like a daily thing back when I was doing studio work. I was doing studio work from like the end of the ‘70s until the beginning of the ‘90s. It’s a long time. I remember man, Miles Davis was working at Columbia Studios and I was recording with him. Bob James called me and said, “Hey man, I need you to add bass to the song I’m doing.” I said, “I can’t; I’m working with Miles.” He asked me where I was working and I told him Columbia. He said, “Well you’re on the second floor; I’m on the fourth floor. So whenever Miles takes a break or goes to the bathroom, just run up the stairs and throw this bass on for me.” So I ran up the stairs man and changed my head from my Miles Davis head to my Bob James head to put on the bass. Then I’d get downstairs before Miles realized I was gone. It was kind of crazy.
I would do like McCoy Tyner and then do an African date back-to-back. You know, Quincy Jones Big Band with Frank Sinatra and then do a commercial for the Jamaica tourist board where we were playing reggae music. Every day was like that; it was our life. I don’t even think that kind of opportunity exists anymore where these types of opportunities happen back-to-back. It really makes you into a complete musician. You’ve got to be able to adapt, you’ve got to be able to find a sound, the essence of a style. It’s one thing if you play a horn because the horns can just kind of float over the top, they don’t really have to learn the essence of the music. When you play bass, you’ve got to really be playing it. You really have to be understanding it. I spent time listening to Sly & Robbie when I did a date with them one time. They had a record date where there were two rhythm sections. Me and Omar Hakim were like the American rhythm section. We played along with Sly & Robbie and man I was watching those cats so carefully. We spent like three days together all day and I learned so much that I could bring over to my style when I needed to do reggae stuff. I played on country and western dates where I was the only cat without a cowboy hat. But because I really feel like every style of music has something that you can learn from and has something that you should learn from, I always approach it with a real positive head, man. I think that made me a real unique musician because of that.
You said that these opportunities don’t really exist anymore, why is that?
Well, because when I was coming up everything that involved music involved musicians. That’s not really the case now. We played a lot of music for commercials back in the day in New York. We called them jingles. And the jingles are not really about the musicians. It’s about the product and the singers who were saying the name of the product. Musicians were just there to provide backing. And they had to pay us. They paid us for the tape and royalties for as long as the commercial ran on the air. As soon as those advertising companies discovered they could pay one guy with a computer, it was the end of the jingle business for musicians. The singers still work because you need someone to say the names of the products. The people who are writing the commercials still work. But lots of times now, they’ll just hire one guy just to program everything. Or sometimes they just a license an old song, you know, by the Beatles or some other group. The scene is very different now.
Having met all of these amazing musicians at such a young age, was it overwhelming at all?
The thing about being young is that you’re not smart enough to be overwhelmed. So I was never overwhelmed. I was tripping though. The trippiest part of it all was like if you’re sitting there and you’re playing and the guitar player who’s standing in front of you plays one of the George Benson licks that everyone played. Initially your mind goes like, “Oh yeah there’s another cat playing a George Benson lick.” And then you go, “Oh wait, that’s George Benson!” That’s the guy; he’s allowed to do that! That trips you out.
When I was playing with Miles, every time he put his horn to his mouth it sounded like Miles. Same with McCoy Tyner. There are so many people who emulate these guys and as a developing musician, you spend your life playing with other musicians who are emulating these guys. So then to find yourself in a situation where you’re playing with the actual guy that everybody has been emulating, is a trip. Sometimes it’s a trip because they sound like everybody else you’ve been playing with, except more authentic. And then sometimes you realize that they have something nobody who’s been emulating them has. They’re missing the point. That’s very interesting as well.
I want to go through some of these amazing musicians and talk about their influence on you. Lets start with Miles, what was his best advice?
I learned more from Miles from just being around him than from him actually saying things. I mean, I learned a lot from him saying things, but it was more like a parent where the parent thinks they’re teaching the kid when they are actively saying things. Meanwhile the kid learns so much more from just watching the parent and how the parent solves their own issues. Watching Miles just be Miles taught me so much. I learned that whoever he was, was very natural to him. He didn’t sit around calculating you know, “What would a genius do in this situation?” He didn’t have those kinds of thoughts. He just said, “What do I want to do?” He wasn’t afraid of those feelings. He went with whatever he felt like he had to do. He didn’t second-guess himself. Criticism seemed like it was heard by him, but it never changed his course. That was really profound. I really thought that he didn’t even hear any criticism, but he heard it. It just never affected what he did. That’s more real.
He did say things that stayed with me though. One time I said, “What do you think about Wynton Marsalis, man?” This was when Wynton had just come on the scene and was playing very much like Miles had played in the ‘60s. Miles said, “You know what I think of when I hear that music? Bellbottom pants.” And that’s all he said. Of course I thought about it and realized that for Miles, the music that he played was so inextricably tied to the times that he created it in, that to go backwards for him is kind of like putting on your old clothes. For him, it feels just as silly. That doesn’t mean that everybody has to feel that way, but it does explain to you why he made the music the way he did. I think I did carry from him the idea that you have two hopes for your music. One hope is that it will last forever. That it will have something about it that becomes classic. But, the music has a more primary responsibility to define the times in which it was created. I think that is how Miles felt. I think that when he went to New York from St. Louis when he was 19 or 20-years old, he was attracted to bebop because it was the music that represented that very moment. It was complicated and it had all of the things that made it a classic music. But I think equally attractive to Miles, was the fact that it was hip. It was the music of the day. It defined the way people moved, how they walked, how they danced, how they talked, how they dressed. I think that he always wanted his music to have that connection. Whenever he felt like the music was losing that connection to the times, he switched.
Interview by Eric Sandler