Photo: Ingrid Hertfelder

Marcus Miller: Afrodeezia

Bassist/composer Marcus Miller delivers a tour de force with his latest, a hybridization of African and Western styles that finds the similarities in the differences of each.
Marcus Miller
Blue Note

Marcus Miller’s albums have always been largely on the more accessible end of the bass virtuoso spectrum. Rather than exercises in absurd note clusters and impossibly dense stylistic displays, his lines are always in service of the songs themselves, never meant to distract from the performances of those around him. Make no mistake, these albums are decidedly Miller- and bass-centric events, but he’s the rare sympathetic player who is able to seamlessly slot into the mix, deploying intricate passages in a manner so effortless and lacking in flash that you often forget he’s capable of such things until the moment they crop up.

Much of this comes from his extensive work as a side and session player for artists from Miles Davis to Luther Vandross to countless R&B sessions in the 1980s. By spending so much time in the service of others, Miller has been able to develop a more complimentary style that, coupled with his time in the R&B trenches, helps enliven his compositions with the ability to appeal on a broader level, something often lacking in more bass-centric works.

But beyond his skills as a sympathetic performer, Miller proves himself to be a genuinely caring human being. Working as a UNESCO Artist for Peace and a spokesperson for the Slave Route project, Miller has sought to bring a heightened level of intercultural dialogue to the world, recognizing the historical impact of slavery and the co-mingling of cultures. It is within this framework, not to mention the broader culture dialogue surrounding race at home, that he set about to record his latest, Afrodeezia.

Incorporating African elements within a decidedly contemporary Western framework, Miller’s compositions on Afrodeezia seek to reconcile the cultural differences through an exploration of their inherent similarities. Where the rhythm of opening track “Hylife” is ostensibly rooted in the African highlife tradition, it borrows heavily from an R&B/jazz/funk tradition to create a hybrid style alluded to in the track’s title. It’s this mirroring of styles that informs much of the album, showcasing the mutual level of influence each holds over the other, creating an ideal stylistic cross-pollination.

With “Hylife” functioning as the album’s mission statement, the remainder of Afrodeezia features a host co-mingling styles and musicians to create a sort of meta-world music: both African and Western, a simultaneous commentary celebrating the singular differences of each while noting their similarity. With one culture reflecting the other and vice versa, Miller’s aim with Afrodeezia is to showcase the universal nature of music, how it functions as a truly universal language and how each individual culture can impact and compliment the other.

While certainly a noble, somewhat high-minded and ultimately idealistic goal, it helps that Miller, as both composer and performer, is up to the task with the chops necessary to back up his worldly intentions. On “B’s River”, he highlights the inherent similarity between that of his own slap-heavy style and the gimbri, a bass-like instrument used in Moroccan Gnawa music. Using a traditional approach to the gimbri, he doubles the melody on bass to create a cultural fusion that sounds far more naturalistic than it perhaps should given the disparity in instrumental technology. But again, such is Miller’s innate ability to create sounds both accessible and musically appealing out of something that would, perhaps on paper, sound off-putting.

Sticking largely to original compositions, the album’s one misstep is an instrumental cover of the Temptations’ classic “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”. While decidedly funky and well-played, its bass-led melody is a bit too lounge jazz and kitschy to function on par with the rest of the material here. By no means an abject failure, it simply lacks the luster of the rest of the songs to truly warrant inclusion on this album over any of his others. Thankfully this is a rather brief detour that soon finds Miller and company back into a melting pot of styles.

Largely avoiding the broader cultural dialogue raging at home in favor of a more universal view, much of the material here avoids direct commentary on the racial tensions that have risen to fevered pitch over the last year. Utilizing the platform of the Slave Route project and its goal of creating a dialogue around those elements of our history that tend to get glossed over, closing track “I Can’t Breathe” places this notion within a contemporary framework.

Musically in line with the remainder of the album, Miller enlists Chuck D to deliver socially conscious verses that are more thought provoking than militantly reactionary. It’s a relatively bold move for Miller, one that finds him utilizing his role both as a UNESCO Artist for Peace and respected musician to further the cultural dialogue. Using the final recorded words of Eric Garner as its title, the song is as fierce as Miller gets, spurned on by Chuck D’s “never a good thing when you’re breathing in fear” lyric. It’s a heavy way to end an otherwise non-confrontational album, however this ultimately lends to its overall effectiveness.

A masterful mixing of styles and cultures, Afrodeezia finds Marcus Miller operating at the top of his game both musically and compositionally. It’s a high bar both thematically and musically, but one delivered at just the right time. Here’s to hoping the message is received.

RATING 8 / 10