Marcus Miller: Silver Rain

Will Layman

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.

Marcus Miller

Silver Rain

Label: 3 Deuces
US Release Date: 2005-04-12
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon affiliate

Who is buying this music?

I am writing this review the day before the release date of Silver Rain, and the 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 -- 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.






'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.