Back in the summer of 1990, before the start of my senior year at the University of Pennsylvania, I had the opportunity to catch a live performance by the Jamaica Boys at a small club on-campus. The crowd was light, which worked out perfectly, because that meant there was freedom to surrender to the grooves laid down by this little-known trio that was touring to support their major label release.
The sound was mis-marketed as rap; a common error back in the day when any spoken word segments appeared on a track that was a little bottom heavy. Independent music sellers would have probably lumped this in with R&B, thanks to the strong vocal work from Mark Stevens. But those in the know, meaning anybody feeling the kick of Lenny White’s drumming and the fusion bounce of Marcus Miller‘s bass could have cared less what some suit was trying to call the music. I raced out to the campus listening bar the next day and snagged a copy of the Boy’s self-titled disc, but didn’t hold onto it, maybe because it didn’t grab me the way the live set did.
It didn’t really matter, either, because the Jamaica Boys were never officially heard from again. But the multi-instrumentalist Miller was on his way to exposing his diverse musical palette to anyone who cared to listen. He fused styles seemingly without effort and sought out likeminded collaborators. He had produced or co-produced Tutu, music from the movie Siesta, and Amandla for Miles Davis prior to the Jamaica Boys release. Afterward, he worked closely with pop/jazz saxophonist David Sanborn on Upfront and Hearsay and handled production chores on four songs from Chaka Khan’s 1992 set The Woman I Am before stepping out on his own with the 1993 release The Sun Don’t Lie. That was simply the beginning of a journey across genres.
It would most certainly take a double disc set to capture Miller’s live alchemy of jazz, funk, R&B, and cinematic flourishes. The Ozell Tapes: The Official Bootleg is a compilation of the best of his 2002 tour dates in support of M2, the Grammy Award winning Best Contemporary Jazz Album of 2001. The recording features M2 standouts “Power”, “Nikki’s Groove”, and “3 Deuces”; jazz classics like John Coltrane’s “Lonnie’s Lament” and George Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy”; and pop from Roberta Flack (“Killing Me Softly”) and the Talking Heads (“Burning Down the House”).
“Your Amazing Grace” is reminiscent of instrumental landscape he created with mentor Davis on the soundtrack of the 1987 film Siesta. The live performance is augmented by the full touring band including Poogie Bell on drums and Leroy “Scooter” Taylor who contributed to the original version from M2. Lalah Hathaway ably handles the vocal duties—substituting for Chaka Khan—but the song’s stuttering rhythms, quotes from the classic spiritual, and atmospheric wash of keyboards along with Miller’s bass clarinet conjure a haunting soundscape that defies labels.
Miller released a live set back in 1997 entitled Live & More, which also captured his eclectic mix of original tunes and remakes of standards, but that single disc with its two bonus studio tracks left me wanting even more. The more things change, the more they remain the same. The Ozell Tapes bring me closer to the memories I have of experiencing Miller live. This double disc dose may be as close as I can officially get without actually being there again.