Not too many bassists have resumes as impressive or extensive as Marcus Miller’s. Over his 30 year career, Miller’s released his own material, scored films, and produced records for artists as diverse as jazz icon Miles Davis, soul crooner Luther Vandross, and saxophonist David Sanborn. To peruse Miller’s vast discography is to be amazed not only by his prodigious output, but his versatility. Here’s a man responsible for one of the biggest jams of the 1980s, E.U.’s “Da Butt”, as well as beautifully crafted jazz albums like Wayne Shorter’s High Life and Kenny Garrett’s Standard Language.
Frequently overlooked in discussions of Miller’s artistic contributions is the strength of his own solo projects. None of his recordings have wowed me from start to finish, I must confess, but they all contain moments which validate my opinion of him as an extremely gifted musician with an expansive musical vocabulary. Listening to Miller’s latest release, Marcus, reinforced my positive assessment of his talents. An amalgamation of pop, jazz, R&B, and funk, the disc has the vibe of an extended jam session among friends who appreciate each other’s company. Invited guests include blues man Keb’ Mo’, David Sanborn, songstress Lalah Hathaway, newcomer Corrine Bailey Rae, keyboardist Bobby Sparks, the reliantly funky Bernard Wright, the always heart-felt Gregoire Maret, and actress Taraji P. Henson. Somewhat reflective of the eclectic line-up, Marcus doesn’t stay in one groove for long. Tempos, textures, and moods shift as one guest star replaces another.
A constant throughout the album’s changes, however, is Miller’s superb bass playing. Surely fans of the slap-bass technique will salivate over the funky goodness of “Blast”, “Funk Joint”, “Strum”, and “Pluck”, but the playing on “When I Fall in Love” and “Jean Pierre” hit me the hardest. Sparse yet substantive, “Jean Pierre” journeys back to Miller’s days with his most famous teacher, Miles Dewey Davis. Out in front for most of the track, Miller’s bass exudes the type of elegant funkiness one always heard in Davis’ music, from his cover of Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance” to the spicy “Back Seat Betty.” Miller’s performance on “When I Fall in Love” is equally impressive. One not only hears his mastery of his instrument, but you feel his spirit. His intimate call and response with Gregoire Maret moves with the kind of transcendental beauty one finds in the work of another brilliant bassist, Meshell Ndegeocello.
Not sure what kind of airplay the aforementioned tracks will receive, but more than likely Marcus Miller’s covers of Robin Thicke’s recent smash “Lost Without You”, Stevie Wonder’s classic “Higher Ground”, and Deniece Williams’ “Free” will get significant spins on smooth jazz stations.
Even though these songs are far from innovative in my opinion, one hopes their accessibility brings greater attention to an otherwise solid album.