As cobbled together as it is, this collection is a portrait of an insanely talented bass player and arranger. Featuring guest vocals (Clapton!) and covers (Prince! Beethoven! Ellington! Luther!) designed to sell, it remains a bass-lover's dream project and a good example of 'contemporary jazz' with a conscience.
Who is buying this music?
I am writing this review the day before the release date of Silver Rain, and the Amazon.com sales rank for this record is already 265th. This is a record of 15 tracks, all generally in a funk-jazz style that is hipper than any "smooth jazz" but still accessible, featuring only three vocals. The lead instrument on most of the tunes is either Mr. Miller's electric bass or his -- ?! -- bass clarinet. Marcus Miller is not famous -- and what he is most famous for is producing other folks' records. For the most part you can't sing or hum along to this stuff -- it's a jazz record in the sense that there is much improvising without any discernable "hook". So what exactly makes this music commercially viable?
I have theories.
The Guest Vocal Theory
Perhaps the three vocals on this record -- by no less than Lalah Hathaway, Macy Gray and Eric Clapton -- are enough to move product. But each one is a modest contribution. Macy features on a Prince cover ("Girls & Boys") and, despite her crazy-fun voice, barely registers. Mr. Guitar God does his Bob Marley thing on the title track, a "reggae shuffle" written by Miller. And the Daughter of Donny Hathaway delivers a nice, understated soul vocal on "La Villette", a tune that also contains an unsettling wordless operatic vocal line on the chorus promptly followed by very long and show-offy electric bass solo. Is it believable that fans of Clapton (or Hathaway or Gray or the weirdly used operatic tenor) are so starved for tunes that they would buy this disc just for one track? Theory rejected.
The Odd Cover Tune Theory
While Mr. Miller composed most of the music on this album, it is primarily a showcase for his prodigious funk-arranging skills. Can he give Beethoven a slippery, contemporary jazz feel? Yes he can: witness the "Moonlight Sonata" contained herein. Can he set Edgar Winter's vintage "Frankenstein" atop a popping bass line for slashing trumpet and tenor sax solos? You betcha. The aforementioned Prince tune slithers by, as does a how'd-he-do-that? bass-heavy version of Stevie's "Boogie on Reggae Woman". (Side Note: American Idol is making even me -- a certified Wonder Fan -- feel that others should stop covering this great American songwriter. No more "Sir Duke" for the amateur singers of our nation, please.) Is there the obligatory Hendrix cover? 'Deed there is: "Power of Soul". Miller produced Luther, so we get a wordless version of "If Only for One Night". And then, for proof of jazz creds, there is Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady". The last two are played beautifully by Miller on bass clarinet. But how many soul music fans are pining for bass clarinet on their iPod? Theory rejected.
The Bass Freak Theory
The electric bass can be an unwieldy instrument. While every 14-year-old American boy I've ever met can slap out "Smoke on the Water" on a Fender Jazz Bass, almost no one can make the thing truly sing. That's why bass players almost all have the same heroes: James Jamerson, Larry Graham, Bootsy Collins, Jack Bruce, Jaco Pastorius, maybe Les Claypool and recently Victor Wooten. Marcus Miller belongs in this kind of company. In fact, he's probably a better all-around musician than any of the usual Bass Heroes while still being able to slap, pop and freak his way into the finals of any funk-slam-dunk contest you set up. And this disc is a complete bass guitar workout on every level. Every bass freak in the world should be picking this thing up. But still, how many people qualify as a genuine-certified members of freaky-deaky bass club? Theory rejected
The Promotional Muscle Theory
In America you can sell just about anything if you know what you're doing. Sure, it helps that this is extremely proficient, even artful and at times brilliant music, but that's not the point. Marcus Miller is a professional's professional, both a sideman and a producer for no less than Miles Davis; he is a man who has spent his lifetime in The Industry, even a winner of a 2001 Grammy for his last disc, M2. But if that were it, then you would expect him to be on a bigger label (even M2 was on the small Telarc label). And while there's no doubt that Miller can attract industry heavyweights like Clapton to his projects, wouldn't the truly heavy suits be objecting to hyping jazz purist Kenny Garrett as a "special guest" with long solos on the Clapton and Macy Gray tracks, no less? Theory rejected.
One last theory: as cobbled together as this collection is, each track is very good. With "contemporary jazz" as its broad-brush stylistic territory, this music succeeds in nearly everything it attempts. Perhaps least characteristic but most telling is "Sophisticated Lady", which recaptures the Ellington original by having Miller's bass clarinet play the main melody against very spare, synthesized drum groove and having his fretless bass guitar take the contrasting melody as tastefully minimal synth-strings flesh out the harmonies. Miller plays every note and makes you believe, almost, that the tune is his own. As with so many of the other covers on the record, Miller has re-imagined them as features for his own colossal talent. His originals are melodic and harmonically sophisticated (particularly the two features for harmonica player Gregoire Maret, "Behind the Smile" and "Make Up My Mind") without losing their pop appeal.
Presumably the market -- and Amazon.com -- don't lie. More people than I would imagine want what Marcus Miller has to offer: lovingly crafted instrumental pop with believable dollops of jazz, funk or soul atop its different servings. Silver Rain is most than just a product for sale. It is, almost despite itself, the portrait of a diverse talent.