When Condoleeza Rice hangs it up next January, our next president should seriously consider tapping Marcus Miller for Secretary of State. Without saying a word, just plucking the funk out of his fretless bass, the masterful musical jack-of-all-trades could negotiate serious peace and soothe the hearts and minds of our toughest global foes. His resume stretches back to when he was a teenager burning up the clubs of New York in the late 70s, but last year’s string of international achievements is reason enough to appoint him. When Miller’s rockin’ the house - as he did in 2007 in Indonesia, Korea, Russia, Western Europe or Mexico - everyone’s thinking “God Bless America.”
Miller, whose latest disc Marcus is his first U.S release on his own 3 Deuces Records and distributed by the Concord Music Group, would be the only Cabinet member ever to tour with and produce Miles Davis, write trademark hits for David Sanborn, Bob James and Luther Vandross, and spend nights in hotel rooms emailing pieces of score for TV’s Everybody Hates Chris. He could enchant world leaders with stories of his 500 plus sessions with artists identifiable by one name — Dizzy, Shorter, Sinatra, Elton, Clapton, Aretha, Chaka, Grover, Snoop and Mariah. Who knows, maybe even invite their delegations on the inaugural Playboy Jazz Cruise he’s hosting in January 2009.
“In all my years of touring abroad,” says the two-time Grammy winner, “I’ve always felt that people can feel the American emotions that come across in my music, because I incorporate the best of everything we have, from jazz and soul to classical, rock, funk and blues. People really admire our sense of freedom and individuality. The key to winning them over so quickly is that we’re mostly playing instrumentals, so there are no cultural or language barriers to prevent their emotional response. The music can mean what it needs to mean to them.
“Anybody who has ever had to talk to somebody they love or someone they don’t know knows how easy it is for words to mess everything up,” he adds. “If the sentiments and words are not articulated right, you’ve got problems. I go on stage sometimes and don’t even know how to say hello in the native language, but the music and the emotions are pure and connect to the energy and feelings that all people share. There’s no fear of offending anyone with a cultural faux pas when you’re dealing solely with the sound of emotion.”
Because most of the CDs Miller has released since 1993’s Billboard Top Ten Contemporary Jazz Album The Sun Don’t Lie have different label and distribution deals for the U.S., Europe and Asia, it’s hard to count precisely the number of discs he’s put out. But the stylistically schizophrenic experience of listening to each one is a joyful throwback to the 70s, years before formats were so homogenized and divided, when independent FM stations would play anything and everything that was good. Marcus, which continues the bassist’s new association with Concord — including appearing on George Benson & Al Jarreau’s Givin’ It Up and Tom Scott’s Cannon Re-Loaded project — continues in that vein, defying modern corporate wisdom by grooving effortlessly from genre to genre.
“I’ve heard that rule, that we’re supposed to keep it tight, make sure your album’s focused and not all over the place,” he says. “But I’ve come to realize that despite the diversity, my recordings do have an important through line with my bass that holds everything together. People appreciate the fact that I start with the attitude of ‘let it ride, let it go where it goes.’”
The latest Miller thriller begins with him getting in our face with three trademark funk-jazz free for alls with apt titles like “Pluck,” “Strum” and “Ooh.” Then he makes covers fun again with Tower of Power’s “What Is Hip?”, yet another Stevie Wonder jam (his wild “Higher Ground” matches the fire of Silver Rain’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman”), a tender moment with “When I Fall In Love” and two variations on soul singer Robin Thicke’s 2007 hit “Lost Without U” – one featuring actress Taraji P. Henson doing spoken word and the other a smoother reading featuring Lalah Hathaway. Miller goes spacey-bluesy with the help of Keb Mo on “Milky Way” and even introduces Italian guitarist Andrea Braldo — a cat he found on Myspace — on “Blast!” Yet the heart and soul of Marcus, hands down, is the first single, “Free,” a graceful and sensual take on Deniece Williams’ 1976 soul classic featuring the elegant vocal caress of Grammy Award winning singer Corinne Bailey Rae.
“I was in the middle of doing the album and driving my car when her song ‘Put Your Records On’ came on the radio,” Miller says. “I thought, wow, now there’s a unique voice. I live for distinctive personalities. I pulled the car right over, called my people and told them they had to find Corinne for me. There’s something so natural about the way she comes across. There are just artists who make people take notice and go, ‘wow, who’s that?’”
If we’re going to lay blame for Miller’s free-styling, multi-genre ways, let’s start with the Brooklyn born, Jamaica, Queens raised multi-instrumentalist’s parents: dad was playing Bach while mom was digging on Ray Charles. Miller loved walking the streets of Manhattan looking for gigs, hearing it all — funk, jazz, salsa and calypso. He never made distinctions - all that mattered was that the music hit a nerve.
“I may be one of the few crazy musicians in the world who can hear similarities between polka, Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane,” he laughs. “But then I can break the music down and show you the exact thing that makes the music great. New artists coming along these days have to narrow their attack to break through commercially, but a lot of players would really love to do it all. I’m sure if I did one narrow thing, I’d have more commercial success, but what matters more is that people are always hungry for fresh and exciting music. That’s what I’m aiming for every time I step in the studio.”
Brilliantly melodic, hard grooving keyboardist Bob Baldwin may have launched his recording career with the gospel influenced Rejoice in 1990, but he’s clearly a child of the 2000s now. Maybe artists like him who have been bounced around from label to label have to look ahead and think big, but his popularity grew in leaps and bounds when he called his 2000 release BobBaldwin.com. Eight years later, he’s still a dot commer, calling his nuGroove Records debut NewUrbanJazz.com and making a bold statement about the future of his subset of smooth jazz. It’s hard to say why he calls it new, because Baldwin’s always been about the kind of high spirited, just enough improvisation, super catchy, touch of old school, happy funk vibe he’s putting across here. The music speaks for itself, with fun, uptempo jams like “Jeep jazz” (featuring a new vocalist named Zoiea) and “Third Wind,” which features the keyboardist scatting, Norman Brown style over the spirited ivory pounding. While he brings out many big urban and smooth jazz guns — Najee, Marion Meadows, Phil Perry, Joceylyn Brown, Freddie Jackson — he also introduces a few new names (Frank McComb, rapper Delta Croche) and gets adventurous beyond the R&B/jazz borders on the “ole skool” free for all tribute to “Joe Zawinul.” His colorful liner notes declaring “New Urban Jazz” a fresh phenomenon are curious, however, because ever since Paul Brown started producing Boney James in the early 90s, smooth jazz has seen a progressive infusion of heavy soul elements. As a result, his spoken word intro and outro hitting on an explanation of “New Urban Jazz” are slightly superfluous.
1) Michael Manson, Up Front (NuGroove Records) — One of the funkiest cats in “new urban jazz” is this Chicago based hitmaker, whose third solo disc strikes gold with new tracks featuring George Duke, Najee and Paul Jackson, Jr., mixed with re-mastered versions of long unavailable cuts from his previous release Just Feelin’ It and a “Chicago Style” take on his breakthrough single “Outer Drive.”
2) Stax Does The Beatles (Stax)
3) Soulsville Sings Hitsville (Stax)
4) Jovino Santos Neto, Alma Do Nordeste (Adventure Music)
5) The Osmonds, 50th Anniversary Reunion Concert (SLG/Denon)