Listening to “I Loves You, Porgy” from Marcus Miller’s A Night in Monte-Carlo is enough to twist a person’s head into pretzels. Here is an accomplished arrangement for full orchestra and jazz group on a Gershwin classic. So where is Diana Krall’s vocal? Wait, is the lead being played on fretless electric bass in a style associated with Jaco Pastorius? And is the long bass solo that consumes the song incredibly muscular and hip, making it clearly the work of Marcus Miller, the great bassist long associated with Miles Davis, who loved this tune?
So this live recording is a kind of orchestral/fusion/classic jazz thing, and that’s either music to your ears—a recording that utterly ignores boundaries and can be funky one moment and swinging the next—or it is a bit confusing, the work of a brilliant polymath musician who does his thing with little regard for genre or stylistic consistency.
Marcus Miller is not confused about this, however. He is one of the players associated with “smooth jazz” who has never really been reliant on it to pay his bills. He has produced albums and written many hits for Luther Vandross, and he has done the same for Miles Davis. He has played with Paul Simon and he wrote “Da Butt” for Spike Lee’s School Daze. Miller plays authentic funk from Jamaica, Queens, New York and he has played with Dizzy Gillespie. When he plays Gershwin, it’s because he loves it and has something interesting to say on it.
You, however, still get to be confused if you like. “Blast!” starts with sitar and tablas before Miller strums and then pops a hip pattern that leads the band (and the Monte-Carlo Symphony Orchestra) into an eastern melody that is built around funky rhythmic stabs. But “State of Mind” is a feature for guitarist and singer Raul Midon, who sets a neat, strummy groove on acoustic guitar, sings in a bracing pop tenor, then takes a “trumpet” solo by buzzing his lips, all while Miller rolls and funks underneath him. It’s a cool tune, but maybe a little hard to reconcile with a program that also includes real-life-actual trumpet player Roy Hargrove.
Hargrove gets the two sweetest features on Monte-Carlo. His flugelhorn version of the underplayed standard “I’m Glad There Is You”, with the orchestra laying in a lovely string part, is a wonderful piece of lyricism. But his feature on “Amandla”, the Miller-penned Miles Davis track, is even better. He plays the melancholy melody beautifully but without sounding Miles-ian. And the setting here, with strings and Federico Pena’s piano organically backing the song’s different moods, is a great improvement over the original. Alex Han sounds freshly Sanborn-ish on alto, and the acoustic instruments give the composition a more delicious Spanish groove.
This mish-moshy formula dominates the record. Miller uses his fretless bass to play “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicci, but before you know it this tender moment turns into an uptempo “Mas Que Nada”, the Brazilian pop-samba tune. Miller gets to play his lovely bass clarinet on “Amazing Grace”, but when the vocal enters and the whole arrangement goes pop, frankly, the grace kind of goes out of it. Miller’s clarinet is moody and superb on “Strange Fruit” (a studio track used as the coda to this otherwise live record). But you can see that ending this record on two bass clarinet features is, in and of itself, an offbeat move.
The best thing here, most likely, is the snappy update of “So What” for Miller’s band plus orchestra. The backbeat that comes in as Miller states the melody never seems cheap or easy, and the orchestral colors are a huge plus. Pena and Han solo adequately, but the groove is the thing: Miller’s solo is witty, inspired, and just funky as shit. As he wraps it up, the orchestra is jabbing and snapping too, all while DJ Logic is scratching. Pretty great.
So, A Night in Monte-Carlo probably never really makes sense. But the leader’s career doesn’t much make sense either. There is only one electric bass/bass clarinet virtuoso whose claim to Miles and Puccini and soul music is equally valid. That’s Marcus Miller. A random night with him is kinda random, but also bracing and sometimes superb.
// Notes from the Road
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