In the liner notes to his latest CD, Afrodeezia, Marcus Miller writes: “This music is a celebration of people’s ability to endure and overcome oppression, finding hope, meaning and joy through music.”
It’s not that Miller himself has had to endure great difficulties; he’s making this statement as a spokesperson for UNESCO’s Slave Route Project, and Afrodeezia has taken him all around the world, recording in Lafayette, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Essaouira (Morocco), and Santa Monica, and collaborating with musicians from West Africa, South America, the Caribbean and all over the United States in the process.
And if you want to hear joyful, exuberant, life-affirming, hopeful music, then Afrodeezia is the place to find it.
Miller – best known as a master of the electric bass guitar but also an accomplished bass clarinettist, keyboard player, composer, arranger and producer – may now be an international star and band leader, but he started his career way outside the limelight.
“Yeah, I started as a studio player early on. By the age of 21, I was doing sessions all day, all night, from 9am to midnight. I played on television commercials, jazz records, R&B records, rock, pop, country, everything.”
That “everything” included playing on sessions for Frank Sinatra and Elton John among countless others.
“I got an invaluable education in those years. First of all, being in the studio all those hours with headphones on really forced me to pay attention to my sound and to the details of my bass playing. With headphones on, you hear everything…
“Also, working in so many sessions, I saw that the thing that all the great players had in common is that they knew how to make stuff ‘feel’ good. Playing fast or slow, it didn’t matter. They knew how to support a song and make it sound like the musicians had been playing the song for months even though many times they had only played the song one time before they recorded it.”
Marcus Miller’s music has a very personal, identifiable sound but he has also been able to bring that sound to support other musicians in the arrangements he writes. So when you hear a Miles Davis album like Tutu, or Wayne Shorter’s High Life, or Luther Vandross’s Give Me The Reason, or David Sanborn’s Love Songs, you are also hearing a lot of Marcus Miller.
Is that sometimes a frustration, I wondered – that listeners might namecheck Miles or Wayne or Luther more often, and overlook Marcus’s contribution to their music?
“Since I ‘lived’ in the studio, so to speak, my world was very small. My community was the New York music scene during the Miles, Luther and Wayne days. All the musicians and producers in that scene knew what I was doing. So I was getting props from ‘my world’ and that was enough for me.
“Over the last 20 years I’ve come out into the ‘real world’, making my own records and touring. It’s fun meeting everyone now. It’s fun hearing the stories from fans about what the music has meant to them over the years. And it’s fun watching people realise that it was me behind a lot of records they like.”
Marcus once commented that an important thing Miles Davis did was to use the popular music of the day in his jazz, making songs as diverse as Bye Bye Blackbird and Human Nature his own. Did the bassist share that principle?
“Yes, very much so. I think the relationship between jazz and pop is very important. Charlie Parker, Miles, Ahmad Jamal, John Coltrane, they all spent a lot of time playing ‘standards’, which are the collection of about 300 tunes that every jazz musician has to know.
“These ‘standards’ are actually pop songs from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. They form the basis of jazz.
“I feel like that tradition should continue using songs from those decades and songs from the ’60s, ’70s all the way up to today.
“There’s nothing like hearing a pop song performed by a creative jazz musician. Listen to John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things or Robert Glasper and Lalah Hathaway doing Cherish The Day and you’ll see what I mean.”
Afrodeezia contains an instrumental version of the Temptations’ classic, Papa Was A Rolling Stone, so the point is made.
I asked Marcus about the way labels are used to categorise music. Did he mind them? Was jazz “world music” in its widest sense?
“Yes, jazz is definitely world music. Ex-slaves of African descent combined their musical sensibilities with other influences that they were exposed to in the U.S. in the early 1900s. They created a music with African, European, and Caribbean roots.
“The labels are there to help guide people who want to buy music. Because there’s so much music out there it’s intimidating to know where to start. Labels can get people started. But I think it’s important for the musicians to ignore the labels as much as possible. Play what you feel.”
And what about that role as a UNESCO Artist For Peace?
“Afrodeezia is completely inspired by my role as spokesperson for the Slave Route Project. My job is to help raise awareness of the story of slavery.
“So rather than just talk about it, I decided to ‘put my money where my mouth was’ by doing an album where I collaborate with musicians who come from different ‘stops’ along the slave route (the North Atlantic slave route). That led me to collaborations with musicians from Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Rio De Janeiro, Trinidad and New Orleans. Collaborating with these musicians opened up a whole new sound for me.”
Now Marcus is playing this music on stage rather than in the studio. Which did he prefer, I wondered.
“If you only play in the studio, you can lose the connection to the people which is very important. If you only play live you can lose some of the fine details in your playing that you get from playing then immediately hearing yourself back. So I would be greedy and choose both!”