Marcus blows them away in Monte Carlo, catching the audience completely off guard. Read all about it!
One would come to expect a certain amount of seasoning from a prodigy who started doing gigs at around age 15, followed by sessions, touring, composing and producing for the likes of Luther Vandross, David Sanborn and Miles Davis. In this case, that prodigy is Marcus Miller and, with a head start like that, it’s no surprise that Marcus has long been established as a musical giant in his own right. His latest recording, A Night in Monte-Carlo, proves that point handily.
A few years back, Marcus was approached by Jean-René Palacio, Monte Carlo’s Director of Culture, who invited him to participate in the Monaco Jazz Festival, with the full Monte Carlo Philharmonic at his disposal. Having grown accustomed to using synths and synth orchestras on so many of his recordings and arrangements over the years, Marcus jumped at the chance to use the real thing. It was just too good an opportunity to pass up!
The venue itself made the event even more special. La Salle Garnier, where the concert was performed, is an intimate opera house with a capacity of 600. It was built for the people of Monaco by the French and is a replica of the original Paris opera house (the story is included in my one-on-one interview with Marcus). That specialness, felt by the performers and audience alike, made for an outstanding show and, lucky for us, an incredible recording.
See our exclusive FBPO interview with Marcus, too!
For the first few bars of the show’s opener, “Blast!,” I thought I might be listening to a George Harrison album, given the twangy Eastern-sounding intro. The arrangement, however, quickly moves to an orchestral fanfare, setting the stage for a “just right” fusion of multiple music worlds. Marcus takes the melody on the bass and the show is underway. Funk/slapping with an orchestral background really hits the spot, especially while accentuated by DJ Logic’s funky turntable work.
One of the more notable features of the concert is Miller’s arrangement of Bill Evans’ piano intro to the Miles Davis classic, “So What,” scored for full orchestra. “It was always something I wanted to hear,” Marcus says. Tastefully done, the tune itself actually sounds more like a Joe Sample groove than the original Miles version from 50+ years ago. The band, including young lions Alex Han on saxophone and Federico Gonzalez Peña on keyboards and percussion, along with veteran drummer Poogie Bell, is full of energy and raw passion.
Another highlight is the lip-generated trumpet impersonation of guitarist/vocalist Raul Midón on his original composition, “State of Mind.” A true original, Midón’s “trumpet” sounds pretty darn close to the real thing, while his guitar playing, vocals and composing contribute much to the concert, as well.
The CD includes a fair bit of Marcus’ exquisite fretless bass playing, like on the Gershwin classic, “I Loves You Porgy,” over a lush orchestral background, and on “Amandla,” which Marcus penned for the Miles Davis album of the same name. Alex Han is given plenty of room to stretch out on both tunes and does so brilliantly.
Trumpeter Roy Hargrove is the other featured artist in the band. He solos beautifully on “I’m Glad There is You,” a ballad from the Jimmy Dorsey book. Hargrove is also featured on the medley, “O Mio Babbino Caro/Mas Que Nada,” which begins with Marcus playing the melody on fretless bass before kicking off a Brazilian-flavored groove with Raul Midón’s guitar and vocals. Alex Han once again struts his stuff, never seeming to run out of energy or ideas. The arrangement culminates with Roy and Raul trading trumpet and “lip trumpet” passages you just have to hear for yourself.
Marcus, in addition to being a bass guitar superhero, is also an accomplished woodwind player. His bass clarinet playing is showcased in “Your Amazing Grace,” which also features Han’s saxophone playing and Midón’s vocals.
The album ends with a rendition of the Billie Holiday classic, “Strange Fruit,” which once again features Marcus’ bass clarinet playing, as well as a cameo appearance by jazz piano icon Herbie Hancock. This tune was actually recorded in the studio back home, rather than live in Monte Carlo, as a testament to how Marcus found the whole experience so genuinely moving.
Marcus with his band and the Monte Carlo Philharmonic at La Salle Garnier Opera House, Monaco
Looking back on the event, Marcus says, “I loved that the audience was full of so many people who had never experienced anything like this. Some were jazz lovers who’d never been to a symphony or vice versa, or young people seeing their first jazz concert. Personally, I was very inspired by the collaboration with the orchestra … so much so that the sound lingered in my mind long afterward. When I returned to my studio in Los Angeles, I arranged and recorded “Strange Fruit” and added it as a bonus track to the Monte Carlo CD as a reflection of the impression this experience has left on me.”
A Night in Monte-Carlo is far from being “just another jazz record” or even “just another bass record.” The uniqueness of the instrumentation, the special heritage of the historic venue and Marcus’ ability to make the orchestra sound hip (rather than like an orchestra trying to play jazz!), all work together to preserve a truly one-of-a-kind experience. Though the audience didn’t know quite what to expect, Marcus quickly won them over. It’s obvious they thoroughly enjoyed what they heard. And so will you.
Review by Jon Liebman
Also see our exclusive FBPO review of Marcus
Miller’s follow-up album, Renaissance: