Interview – Marcus Miller

Marcus MillerMarcus Miller

Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman

The complete interview, as published in four installments in January 2011 during FBPO’s “Marcus Miller Month”

Born and raised in New York City, Marcus Miller grew up in a musical family, that included his father, a church organist and choir director, and jazz piano great Wynton Kelly.  Marcus started on the clarinet and saxophone before discovering (and falling in love with!) the electric bass.  From the beginning, the young Miller showed great promise as a player and songwriter. While still a teenager, he began playing bass for live gigs, as well as sessions for commercials and records.  To date, Marcus has recorded well over 500 albums for artists in multiple musical styles, including: rock (Donald Fagen and Eric Clapton), jazz (George Benson, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Sample, Wayne Shorter and Grover Washington, Jr.), pop (Roberta Flack, Paul Simon and Mariah Carey), R&B (Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan), hip hop (Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg), blues (Z.Z. Hill), new wave (Billy Idol), smooth jazz (Al Jarreau and Michael Franks) and opera (collaborations with tenor Kenn Hicks and Kathleen Battle).

Marcus is well known for his long associations with Luther Vandross, David Sanborn and Miles Davis, having performed, recorded and produced for all three of them.  Among his successes are Vandross’ hit single “Never Too Much,” Sanborn’s Voyeur album and Davis’ classic, Tutu.  An accomplished composer, Marcus has written music for over twenty films, including Spike Lee’s School Daze and the Hudlin Brothers’ comedy classic, Boomerang. He also wrote the music for Chris Rock’s hit TV series, Everybody Hates Chris.

Marcus is the recipient of multiple GRAMMY awards, including Best R&B Song, for “Power of Love/Love Power,” and Best Contemporary Jazz Album, for M2: Power and Grace.  In December 2010, Marcus received two more GRAMMY nominations, one for Best R&B Performance By a Duo or Group with Vocals for his work with Chuck Brown and Jill Scott and another for Best Surround Sound Album for his work on George Benson’s Songs And Stories album.  Marcus’ latest effort, A Night in Monte-Carlo, is scheduled for release by Concord Music Group on February 1. 2011.

PART I: The early years

FBPO: Tell me a little bit about your musical upbringing.

MM: Let’s see… I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and lived in Brooklyn till the age of 10, when I moved to Queens, New York.  My father is a piano player and organist in the Episcopal church and he comes from a very musical family.  His cousins were musicians.  As a matter of fact, one of his cousins played with Miles Davis in the late ’50s and the early ’60s.  His name was Wynton Kelly.  He was really an incredible jazz pianist.  My father was like the classical cat in the family and his cousin Wynton was the jazz.  So that was my early upbringing.

FBPO: Did you ever get to meet Wynton Kelly?

MM: Yeah, I got to meet him.  I was pretty young.  He died in ’71 and I was probably 10 or 11 at the time.  He was 39 years old, so he died pretty young.  My grandfather, my dad’s dad, was the bishop of a small church in Brooklyn, called the African Orthodox Episcopal Church, so after the church services, the whole family would go downstairs into the basement of the church and perform for each other.  So there was a lot of music.  When Wynton was in town, he’d play and my aunts would sing and my dad would play, so it was a pretty musical situation.

FBPO: Were you old enough at the time to appreciate what a heavyweight jazz icon Wynton Kelly was?

MM: No, not at all.  He was good, but I didn’t even know what jazz was.  I moved to Queens and when I was about 10 years old, I started singing because I was really influenced by the Michael Jackson/Jackson 5 phenomenon that had just kicked off.  I started playing the clarinet in school at the age of 12, but the clarinet just wasn’t getting me into the R&B bands, even though I had branched out from the clarinet and was playing saxophone as well.  To play R&B, I felt I needed to play something that was more of a rhythm section instrument.  I picked up the bass one day when I was around 12 or 13 years old and just fell in love with it!

I played R&B for the first couple years.  I enrolled in the High School of Music & Art in New York, which is kind of the magnet school for musicians.  I met Kenny Washington there, who was a drummer in my grade.  He was a jazz drummer and he said, “Man, listen, you’re a talented musician.  You need to start learning jazz because that’s the ultimate music for musicians to play.”  He invited me to his house in Staten Island, which is a long way from Queens, you know.  You had to take a bus, a train, a ferry and then another bus, so it was like a three hour, three and-a-half hour trip.

FBPO: And you were how old at the time?

MM: At this time, I was 14.

FBPO: You went over there by yourself?

MM: Oh yeah, yeah.  By that time, just to get to high school, I was taking the bus and trains, just to go to school on a daily basis, so it wasn’t that big a deal any more, you know.  Every Sunday, I’d go to Kenny’s house and he started playing me all the jazz.  I told him that my cousin was Wynton Kelly and asked if he was he familiar with Wynton Kelly.  He said, “Am I familiar with Wynton Kelly?!”  That’s when I really got my education on who Wynton was and how incredible he was.  From that point on, man, I was as equally in love with jazz as I was with R&B and the funk.  And by the time I was about 15 or 16, I started doing gigs.

FBPO: How did you just happen to pick up a bass one day?

MM: My best friend got one for his birthday.  He was fooling around on it and I ended up fooling around on it more than him!  He was playing it, but I was at his house all the time.  So, not to wear out my welcome, I convinced my mom to get me a bass.  My first bass was a Univox and it looked like B.B. King’s guitar, you know, with the red kind of 335 look?

FBPO: Yeah!

MM: And I played that for a couple years, then got a jazz bass in ’75.

FBPO: Was you mother musical at all?

MM: No, just loved it.  My father would force her to sing in the choir every once in a while, but she was more of just a music lover.  Real supportive.  Once I started doing gigs with Kenny Washington in Staten Island, she would actually drive me out there, which is like a long haul!  It was pretty cool, you know, with the amp in the back of the car.

FBPO: Well, at least you weren’t playing upright!

MM: Exactly! [Laughs]

FBPO: Did you ever play upright?

MM: No. This was the ‘70s, so the upright had kind of fallen out of favor for about four or five years and those were the four or five years I was coming up.  Everybody was playing electric bass.  Ron Carter was messing around with an electric bass, Sonny Rollins had an electric bass in his group.

FBPO: Bob Cranshaw!

MM: Yes.  And there were some monster electric bassists like Jaco and Stanley Clarke, Alphonso Johnson and Anthony Jackson, who was coming up at the same time. So it was really the era of the bass guitar.

Marcus Miller in concert

Marcus with his band and the Monte Carlo Philharmonic at La Salle Garnier Opera House, Monaco

FBPO: How did you get established as a session player in New York, especially at such a young age?

MM: Well, I had the advantage of living in New York.  Most of the cats lived somewhere else, like Detroit or Texas, and they had to travel to New York and figure out how to make a living and then start to try to make a name for themselves. Because I lived in New York, I was doing gigs in clubs when I was 15 years old, starting to make a little name for myself.

I got a gig with a flute player named Bobbi Humphrey.  She was a pretty popular kind of contemporary jazz flute player.  It was before they had smooth jazz. The guitar player from my neighborhood band got the gig and he got me an audition.  I played with Bobbi for a couple years at the age of maybe 15, 16, and eventually Bobbi got the opportunity to have Ralph MacDonald produce her album.  Ralph was a very popular, very successful percussionist and producer in New York.  He had written “Where is the Love?” for Roberta Flack and Donnie Hathaway.  He wrote “Calypso Breakdown” for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which, before Michael Jackson’s Thriller, was like the biggest selling album of all time.

So, Ralph was doing his thing and he was a really popular session percussionist and everybody had to have him on their albums in the ‘70s in New York. Ralph was going to produce Bobbi Humphrey’s album and I wrote a song and I played it for Bobbi, and I said, “Listen. Listen to this tune.”  And she said, “I like this tune. I want to do it on my album.  I’m going to play it for Ralph.”  So she played it for Ralph and Ralph said, “Yeah, that sounds nice.  Let’s do it.”  And she said, “Well, can my young bass player come and play on this one song?”  And Ralph said, “Yeah, I guess we could put up with a new guy for one song.”  So I got to go to the session and they were cutting.  It was Steve Gadd and Richard Tee and Anthony Jackson.  And Eric Gale was on guitar.  Ralph said to Anthony, “This kid’s gonna play on this one song.”  So Anthony got up and went in the control room while I played on my little song.  And it went without incident.  It was pretty straight-ahead.

FBPO: And you were how old at that time?

MM: I was probably 17 by now.  The next year, Ralph was contracted to do another Bobbi Humphrey album.  So I wrote another song, and this time put a bass solo in the song, realizing that if I’m going to make an impression on these guys, I had to write a song that features the bass a little better.  So, that’s what I did.  And Bobbi asked Ralph if I could play on that song.  I put the bass solo in the tune and cut it and Ralph, at the end of the song, said, “Hey, man, can you read music?”  And I said, “Yeah, I can read music.”  And he said, “No, don’t bullshit me, man, because I’m about to recommend you for some of these studio jobs, but you got to really be able to read.”  And I said, “Man, I can read fly shit!  I play clarinet.  Orchestral clarinet.  These little bass parts are nothing!”  So he said okay and told me to join Registry.” Registry – this was the era before cell phones and answering machines.

FBPO: Radio Registry.  Isn’t that what they called it?

MM: Yeah, yeah! It was Musicans’ Radio Registry.  There were no cell phones and no answering machines, so in order to get a musician, the producers and the contractors would call Registry and say, “Do you handle Will Lee? Do you handle Anthony Jackson?”  And Registry would go, “Yeah.”  And they’d say, “Well, I’d like to book him tomorrow for a session, blah, blah, blah.”  So Ralph said, “Join Registry.”

I joined Radio Registry and figured Ralph was just, you know, in a good mood that day.  A couple weeks later, it was midnight and I was trying to impress a friend of mine and I said, “You know, I’m going to call my service and see if they have any gigs for me [laughs].  And I called the service and they said, “We’ve been trying to get you all day because we’ve got some work for you tomorrow.”  They said, “We have a nine to ten, possible twenty at A&R 799.”  And I said, “I don’t know what any of that means.  You have to break it down for me.”  She said, “It’s a commercial and you have to be at A&R Studios. There’s two of them. You have to be at the one at 799 Broadway and there’s a possible twenty-minute overtime.”  So I said okay, sure, I’ll be there.  That was my first jingle.  And it was with Ralph and a couple of the other studio musicians.  And I read the music, did the thing and, literally, within three weeks, I was working all day, from nine in the morning till midnight on these commercials and then eventually record dates.  The word of mouth spread really fast and I got kind of thrown into that world.

FBPO: It was a good time to be in New York, wasn’t it?

MM: Well yeah, there were no computers, so anything that needed music needed musicians.  There was a lot to do and everybody was making records.  If you could read music and if you could play the different styles, there was a lot of work.

PART II:  The Miles experience; SMV

FBPO: How did you get the gig with Miles?  I mean you don’t sound anything like Paul Chambers or Ron Carter or Dave Holland…

MM: Right, well Miles had been done with that style for years by that point because the bass player before me was Michael Henderson, who had played with Stevie, from Detroit.  So Miles was way done with the acoustic bass players by that time.  He had a sax player named Bill Evans, who was helping him form his comeback band.  He told Bill Evans, “Find me a funky bass player.”  And Bill said, “Well, Marcus is the new guy in town.”

So, it was really as simple as that.  Miles called me while I was on a session and he said, “Hey, man, can you be at Columbia Studios in a couple hours?”  And I said, “Is this really Miles Davis?” and he said, “Yeah!  Can you be there?”  I said, “Yeah, I’ll be there.”  And I showed up at the session a couple hours later and the next thing I knew I was recording with Miles Davis!  He had been in retirement for maybe five or six years at that point, so this was like his comeback and nobody really even knew A, if he was alive or B, whether he was ever going to play or not.  So it was a pretty big thing.

FBPO: Was that Man With the Horn?

MM: Yeah, that was Man With the Horn.

FBPO: I had that on vinyl and I used to wear the grooves out of that thing!

MM: Oh yeah!

FBPO: Tell me something you learned from Miles that you still find valuable today.

MM: The most important thing I learned from him is that a lot of musicians get caught in that kind of athletic kind of “Who’s the best?” And they determine who’s the best by who can play the fastest or who can play the highest or whatever.  But when you hang with Miles, you realize that it wasn’t for him about how fast or how high or low, he was just so full of personality [Laughs] that people were drawn to him.

After I observed that in him, I started looking at other musicians who I admired.  I realized that Stevie Wonder’s a great singer, but what made him so appealing was his personality and his spirit. He was so good at conveying his spirit through his music.  And his spirit was so beautiful that it drew people to him. I realized early on that I needed to work on just being the best “me” I could be.  Really trying to find stuff about myself and my playing that’s unique and really try to accent that and really just try to win with my spirit, versus trying to win with playing a lot of notes.  Although sometimes you do need a lot of notes to convey your message. But the notes are the means, not the end.

FBPO: I’ve heard a lot of stories about Miles.  When you first met him, when you walked into that session, I’m sure he was looking at you and testing you.  What was that dynamic like?  What was that experience like, the first time you walked in and met Miles?

MM: Yeah, well, he gave me two notes.  He gave me F# and G and said, “That’s the song.”  I said, “That’s it?” and he said, “Yeah, motherfucker, that’s it!”  I said, “Okay.”  So the band showed up and we started playing and I started playing F# and G and he was on my case and he stopped the band and said, “That’s all you’re going to play?”  So we started again and I played a whole lot more and he stopped the band again and said, “Don’t play so much, man. You play too much!  Just play F# and G and shut up!”  So I quickly realized that he was just, you know, kind of testing me.  So I just closed my eyes and pretty much ignored him and got through the take.  And he told the band, “You all play like a bunch of faggots” and walked out of the door.  But I was sitting next to the door and he looked at me and winked as he walked by. So it was cool.

FBPO: [Laughing] Who was the rest of the band?

MM: It was Al Foster on drums, Bill Evans on sax.  For the first couple of sessions he had Barry Finnerty on guitar and then later on Mike Stern.  Sammy Figueroa played percussion and I think that was it.  And Miles.

Marcus Miller

Marcus, on stage in La Salle Garnier Opera House, Monaco

FBPO: I remember that generation!  Tell me about the SMV group you have with Victor Wooten and Stanley Clarke.  I’m sorry you guys didn’t come through Detroit, but maybe one day you will!

MM: [Laughs] I think we got as close as Chicago.

FBPO: Well, that’s in the region, anyway.  Tell me about that group.  Has anybody ever made comparisons to what Jeff Berlin and Billy Sheehan and Stu Hamm do?  Or, I saw an upright trio at the Detroit Jazz Festival last year with John Clayton and Christian McBride and Rodney Whitaker…

MM: Well, I’ve never heard anybody make any comparisons.  It’s not an easy thing to do unless you have the right guys.  I think Jeff Berlin and Billy and Stu played a show when Victor and I were presenting Stanley with his Lifetime Achievement Award at a Bass Day, maybe 2006 or 2007.  That’s when Stanley, Victor and I got the idea because Victor and I were presenters, so we made little speeches about Stanley and how important he was and then presented him with his award.  And then we jammed a little bit on a Stanley Clarke song, “School Days.”  We had a nice time and everybody seemed to be really into it.  And we had been kind of threatening to maybe get together.  So that’s how we got the idea.

I think Jeff and Billy and Stu played that night, but it was more like one guy played his stuff, then another guy played his stuff, then the third guy played his stuff. At the end, I think they might have jammed together.  I don’t know if that’s how it normally was or if that’s just what they did for that night.  We were looking to try to do something a little more integrated.  It felt so natural for us at that Bass Day, we said, “You know, this could be very easy.”  So that’s how it started.

PART III:  The Making of A Night in Monte-Carlo

FBPO: Let’s talk about your new CD, A Night In Monte-Carlo.  I love it!  How did this project come about?  Weren’t you commissioned?

MM: The Director of Culture in Monte Carlo, in Monaco, which is the name of the principality, is a man named Jean-René Palacio.  Jean-René called me and said, “Listen, we got the Monaco Jazz Festival and we want to know if you’d be interested in working with the orchestra because we have the orchestra available.”  And I said, “Yeah, that would be a great idea!”  See, he didn’t know that I’d been scoring movies all these years, like the last twenty years.  I think he thought it was going to be like me really stepping out of my comfort zone.  But for me, I’d been working with orchestras a lot. It’s just I had never done them with my own music as an artist.  It was always in a film setting.  I thought it was a nice opportunity to take tunes that I liked and stuff from my repertoire and re-orchestrate them for the actual orchestra.  You know a lot of the things I had done in the past were orchestrated, it’s just that I used synths and stuff like that.  So it was nice to finally actually use a real cello section instead of a synth that was kind of approximating that.  It was a whole different feeling.

So that’s how it started. I just had to write the arrangements.  Of course I waited till the last minute! [Laughs] And they were calling me like every day, saying the orchestra needs to rehearse!  I finally got them done and got them out there.

Marcus Miller: A Night in Monte-Carlo

FBPO: How did you choose the tunes?

MM: I just closed my eyes and said, “What would I like to hear?”  You know, with the orchestra.  The previous album was called Marcus and it opened with a song called “Blast,” which has sort of an Eastern flavor with a hip-hop feeling.  I absolutely had imagined an orchestra when I did it the first time, but instead I used an overdriven guitar and horns, you know?  I knew this was a great opportunity to have that first line played in unison by the orchestra.  I figured that would be really strong.

And then, I always wanted to hear the introduction to Miles Davis’ “So What” orchestrated because on the original in 1959, it was just with Bill Evans’ piano and Paul Chambers’ bass.  So I orchestrated that.  It was always something I wanted to hear.

And then, I had written a song for Miles called “Amandla,” where I used a lot of synths.  It was like a synth orchestra, so it was really nice to use a real orchestra with that.  So it was that kind of thing.  It was picking the songs I had always imagined having an orchestra on.

FBPO:  I’m glad you mentioned that Bill Evans intro because that’s one of the things I wanted to ask you about.  I love that!  I never heard anybody do that before.  And Amandla!  I remember when that came out in the late ‘80s.  I loved that CD!

MM: Well, the Bill Evans intro really sets up the mood for that song because a lot of guys play “So What” and it just becomes a blowing vehicle and it sounds more like John Coltrane’s “Impressions,” you know?

FBPO: Yeah.  Same changes.

MM: John said I want “So What,” but I just want to be able to blow on it.  But if you play that intro, it really sets up the mood, which is a lot more somber and it makes you think a little bit more about the notes you choose.

FBPO: That orchestra, the Monte Carlo Philharmonic, has such a rich heritage of having played under some of the greatest world-renowned conductors of the past century.  I mean Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta… Yet on your record, they don’t sound like a bunch of classical guys trying to play jazz, as many orchestras do.  How’d you get them to sound so hip?

MM: Well, they really surprised me, first of all, because when I showed up, they were a lot younger than I thought they were going to be.  The orchestra is always evolving, with new players always coming in.  They were a lot younger and they were all very excited to meet me, which was very nice.  They all stood in line to get autographs after the first rehearsal.  They were a lot more aware of contemporary stuff than you would think.  So that was a big part of it, just their willingness to be involved. The other thing was that, you know, you got to be careful what you write.  You got to make sure you write stuff that’s not going to be trying to get them to swing eighth notes because that can sound a little funny.

FBPO: Yes!

MM: But there’s another way to write it, if you spend enough time doing it.

Roy Hargrove and Raul Midon

Roy Hargrove (left) and Raul Midón

FBPO: How about the audience?  They obviously enjoyed it.  How ready were they for what they got?

MM: Man, they weren’t ready at all!  When we hit that first song, they looked like that dude in that Maxell commercial, just getting blown away!  It was really nice to see.  They knew that it was going to be something, but they didn’t really know exactly what it was going to be.  And they thought, “Oh, it’s going to be classical.  I’m going to have to sit through that.”  But everybody really seemed to relax after the first couple songs and say, “Oh, okay.  This is going to be nice.”

And it was a really intimate hall.  It was called La Salle Garnier and it’s a replica of the big opera house in Paris. The story is that the Parisians were building their opera house and ran out of dough, so they called down to the rich people in Monaco, saying, “Can you help us finish our opera house?”  And Monaco said, “Sure, but you’re going to have to build a replica down here first!”  So, they quickly built a replica of the original Paris opera house.  They actually finished it before they continued finishing the Paris house.  It has a capacity of 600 people, so there were not a lot of people in the audience, not a huge crowd.  And the stage isn’t that big, so we were real close to each other.  You know, you had to watch out to make sure you didn’t get hit in the head with somebody’s bow!  Because of the intimacy and the sound of the orchestra, we really just had a beautiful time.

FBPO: And the band sounds great, too!  I remember Raul Midón.  We went to University of Miami together, back in the ‘80s.  His twin brother was there, too.  Those singing trumpet solos he does with his lips…

MM: Yeah, yeah!

FBPO: I’ve never heard anything like that in my life!  Does he tour with you on a regular basis?

MM: No, we’ve done a few gigs since then, but that gig that you heard was the first time that we worked together.  We had met and talked on the phone and were looking for an opportunity to do something together and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.  I was really happy with the way it worked out.

FBPO:  And Roy (Hargrove) sounds great and Alex (Han) sounds great.  And there’s some very beautiful fretless bass playing, too, that I really enjoy.

MM: Oh, thanks.

PART IV:  Career Perspectives, sage advice and more

FBPO: Talk a little bit about the spectrum of your career, going from session player to producer to solo artist.

MM: The session player thing happened the way I described.  But being a session player, there were some relationships that ended up being really strong.  Like my relationship with David Sanborn was really strong, and my relationship with Luther Vandross was really strong, as well.  And with those guys, not only was I playing on their sessions, but I started writing music with them and writing music for them.

So what happens is you write the song and you arrange it because you’re already a musician.  And eventually they’ll say, “Can you come to the mix to make sure that your arrangement is coming through right, that the important instruments are being heard when they should be heard, blah, blah, blah?”  So you end up being in the studio during the mix and you start learning about that.  And eventually, they say, “Hey, can you co-produce this thing because you seem to know your way around the studio and your suggestions seem to be helping?”

And the next step is, “You know what?  Why don’t you just produce the thing, and I’ll just be the artist?”  That’s what happened with Sanborn.  With Luther, we always produced together, but it was the same kind of dynamic where you go from musician/bass player to an arranger to a composer and then to a consultant for the mix and eventually to producing.

Now, the artist thing is like a different track.  When you’re a session musician or you’re a producer, your whole thing is trying to support an artist, trying to make an artist sound the best they can sound.  Doing whatever is necessary, being whoever you have to be to make the music sound right.  So if I have to play the bass this way, I’ll do it; if I have to play the bass that way, I’ll do it.  Whatever is right for the song and for the style of the artist.

When you’re the artist, you have to start thinking differently because it’s about you and about your vision.  You’re not supporting anybody else.  You have to know where you’re going.  And a lot of guys fall short there because, although they’re great musicians, the thing that people are attracted to from an artist is a musical point of view.  I’ll get a lot of musicians who send me their demos, saying, “Hey, man, I want to get a record deal.  Do you think you can help me?”  And on their demo is a funk tune, and then there’s a straight-ahead jazz tune, and then there’s a latin tune and there’s a fretless tune.  And I’ll say to the guy, “Why did you send me all these different styles? Each style sounds like a completely different dude!”  And he goes, “I just wanted to let you know that I can do everything.”  And I said, “Just so you know, people really aren’t interested in artists who do everything.  They’re interested in artists who have a singular voice.  That’s really what makes you an artist.”

Alex Han, Federico Gonzalez Peña

Alex Han (left) and Federico Gonzalez Peña

So, in learning those lessons myself, I had to really look into myself and figure out who I wanted to be, who I was and how I wanted to express myself.  My first couple attempts at making my own albums suffered from that exact thing.  I just really wasn’t sure exactly who I was and there was a lot of variety and there wasn’t a through-line.  Later on, when I started making albums in the ’90s, I think, although there’s still a lot of variety, my personality was stronger, so there was a through-line that let everybody know who I was and it kind of really made me a legitimate artist.

FBPO: That’s a good lesson.  It ties back a little bit to what you were saying you learned from Miles.  It also reminds me about something I read about how Lenny White helped you with that kind of thing.  You were on a gig and Stanley was on the same bill and you were kind of intimidated. So Lenny took you aside and said, “Listen, just be you.”  Can you talk to me a little bit about that?

MM:  Those are two different stories.  Like my first national tour, I had been doing those gigs with Bobbi Humphrey when I was 15-16, but at age 17, I went on a U.S. tour with Lenny White, playing in his fusion band.  He had recently left Return To Forever.  But some of the gigs we did were opening for Stanley Clarke’s band, so Stanley would be there listening and that was very intimidating.  But, I’ll tell you, I really wanted my own style.  At that point, I had a little bit of Stanley, a little bit of Larry Graham, a little bit of Jaco and I was really searching because where I was growing up, nobody really respected that.  If you didn’t have your own sound in New York, in Queens, where I was growing up, you really didn’t have as much “juice.”

So I said, “Lenny, man, I’m looking for my sound.  How am I going to find it?”  And this was a separate conversation.  We actually were coming out of seeing the first Star Wars movie.  And it was so impressive.  George Lucas, you know, that vision that he had.  It inspired me.  And I said, “Man, I’m really looking for my own sound.  How do I get it?”  He said, “There’s really no way to make it happen except to just play and to put yourself in a lot of different musical situations.”  And he said, “Then one day, man, you’re going to hear a recording back and you’re going to recognize yourself immediately and go ‘Wow!’  That’s it!  That’s me!’”  And the reason I remember him telling me that is because when I did that session I was telling you about with Miles, that first session, I went into the control room to listen to the playback and I remember saying to myself, “Oh yeah.  Oh, that’s me!”  And then laughed because it happened exactly the way Lenny said it would happen.

FBPO: What else is keeping you busy these days?  The album that’s about to be released was actually recorded a year or two ago, wasn’t it?

MM: Yeah. Over the past year, I’ve been doing Tutu Revisited, because I ended up producing Miles later on in the ’80s.  I was in his band for a couple years, then I left to concentrate a little bit more on composition and producing.  But then I came back to him around ’85 as a producer and composer and we did that album, Tutu, which was a pretty big album for Miles.  And it was twenty-five years ago, so we decided to do Tutu Revisited, which is where I got some young musicians and we went back to see how we could update it a little bit.

It was very nice to revisit it and to hear some young musicians, like Christian Scott, a trumpet player, and another trumpet player named Sean Jones.  And I had a young saxophone player who’s phenomenal, named Alex Han.  So we went on the road and we were supposed to do just a few gigs, but people really enjoyed it and it ended up being like a year and-a-half worth of touring.  So that’s our next DVD that’s coming out soon.  First we’ll put out the Monaco CD, then we’ll put out the Tutu DVD, later in 2011.

FBPO: We’ll all look forward to that.  Alex Han is on the Monaco CD, too.

MM: Exactly!  Alex is on Monaco and he’s tearing it up!  He’s sounding great on that!  And he’s continuing to grow and blossom.

Marcus Miller in concert

Marcus acknowledges the audience at La Salle Garnier, Monaco

FBPO: What do you like to do when you’re not immersed in music?

MM: I like to exercise and play a little basketball.  We have four kids.  Two of them are in college now, but I try to spend time with my family and try to keep a nice balance thing.

FBPO: I understand you’re a bit of a race car buff.

MM: Yeah, man!  I just sat with the car dealer yesterday. Not that I’m going to buy a car, but he’s my buddy and he’s calling me about these cars that he wants me to check out, these Ferraris and Lamborghinis.  And I say, “Man, I could buy a house with what those would cost!”  But those cars are sweet, man.  I was racing more seriously before the kids came, but I couldn’t justify cracking myself up.  I wouldn’t have been able to justify that to my kids, man. Especially if I’m not even getting paid for it!

FBPO: I think Ron Carter shares your passion for that.

MM: Yeah, Ron Carter’s into it too.  Matter of fact, I’m going to call him up and have some conversations about that with him. I saw him about a month ago and he gave me his biography and I just finished it.  A very, very good read.

See our exclusive FBPO reviews of the following Marcus Miller releases:

Marcus Miller, A Night In Monte-Carlo

"A Night in Monte-Carlo"

Marcus Miller, Renaissance

"Renaissance"

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