A look into the latest release from Grammy-winning bassist/composer/arranger. This time it’s personal.
When a new release from Marcus Miller is announced, people take note. Marcus has, after all, been a major force in the music scene for over three decades. As a bass player, composer, arranger and producer, Marcus’ career has included long associations with Miles Davis, David Sanborn and Luther Vandross, as well as collaborations with a who’s who of some of the biggest names in the music business. The list, cutting across all genres, includes everyone from rock luminaries Eric Clapton and Donald Fagen to jazz icons Dizzy Gillespie and George Benson, pop stars Paul Simon and Mariah Carey, R&B divas Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan, hip-hoppers Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg, opera singers Kenn Hicks and Kathleen Battle and countless others. And to each endeavor, he invariably adds that inimitable “Marcus touch,” turning every project into a virtual masterpiece.
Sensing a crossroads in our culture, the inspiration for Renaissance came naturally to Miller. “I feel like a page is turning,” he says. “The last of our heroes are checking out and we are truly entering a new era. Politically, things have polarized and are coming to a head. Musically, we’ve got all these cool ways to play and share music – MP3 files, Internet radio and satellite radio – but the music is not as revolutionary as the media. It’s time for a rebirth.”
Ushering in this rebirth, Miller’s latest release, Renaissance, may very well be his best work yet. The eighth studio project for the two-time Grammy winner, Renaissance is a very personal album for Marcus, most of the thirteen compositions penned by Miller himself. From the funky “Detroit” and “Redemption” to and the gritty “Jekyll & Hyde,” Marcus reminds us not only of his stature as a great bass player, but an outstanding composer and arranger, as well. The mellower “February,” the pulsating groove of “Revelation” and the ’70s-era nod to record label magnate Creed Taylor in “CEE-TEE-EYE” underscore Marcus’ musical breadth, as does the deeply inspirational and emotional “Gorée (Go-ray).”
As one would expect, Marcus has surrounded himself with a stellar cast of players, including trumpeters Sean Jones and Maurice Brown, alto saxophonist Alex Han, drummer Louis Cato, guitarists Adam Agati and Adam Rogers and keyboardist Kris Bowers. “I’ve got these next generation musicians in their ’20s with me now that aren’t afraid of breaking boundaries,” says Marcus. “This young band fears nothing, so we are free to go anywhere. I’m finding that to be incredibly inspiring.” Also making appearances on Renaissance are veteran keyboardists Federico Gonzalez Peña and Bobby Sparks and special guest vocalists Dr. John, Rubén Blades and Gretchen Parlato.
In addition to the originals, Marcus provides his own unique treatments to five cover tunes: War’s 1971 classic, “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” the Ivan Lins composition, “Setembro” (Brazilian Wedding Song), Weldon Irvine’s “Mr. Clean,” Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope” and the Jackson 5 classic, “I’ll Be There,” performed as an exquisite solo bass tribute to Michael Jackson.
Marcus’ brilliant bass playing and soloing are featured on virtually every one of the thirteen tunes on Renaissance. There’s plenty of truly amazing slap-style funk throughout most of the album, including some very intricate (and fast!) double thumbing, beginning with “Detroit,” the album’s opener (I liked the title even before I heard the tune!). Bass players will also delight in Marcus’ dazzling finger-style bass intro to “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” as well as his gorgeous fretless playing on “Setembro,” which breaks into a latin feel over Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca” groove, with Marcus trading melodic lines with rising star Gretchen Parlato (who happens to be the first vocalist ever admitted into The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance program).
The inspiration for “Gorée (Go-ray)” comes from a visit Marcus and his young band paid to Gorée Island, off the coast of Senegal. The island’s dubious history is that of a warehouse for humans about to be shipped overseas into slavery. “When I first presented this song to the band, I didn’t say anything about my inspiration. What they were playing was good but not quite there. So I said, ‘Remember when we were on the island and we saw where the captives were held and the doorway where all you could see was the sea?’ I didn’t have to say another word. We didn’t want to make the piece about pain and resentment, but about hope and all the wonderful things that have happened despite it all.” Syncopated melody lines help evoke the desired emotion. Marcus is also featured on the bass clarinet, along with Han’s incredible saxophone playing.
See our exclusive FBPO interview with Marcus, too!
On the other end of the emotional spectrum is Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope,” featuring Dr. John’s soulful, half sung/half rapped rendition of this festive melding of New Orleans and African cultures. Marcus pulls out all the stops with some of his best slap playing ever! The song is pure fun.
In Renaissance, it’s obvious Marcus truly has a deep-felt conviction and a message he feels compelled to convey. “People have often called me a ‘Renaissance Man,’ he says. I always understood that to mean someone who’s got their creative hands in a lot of different things, but not on a surface level. Like Leonardo da Vinci: He wasn’t just dabbling in things, he was going deep. I would really like to be that kind of guy.”
Review by Jon Liebman
To purchase Renaissance, click here:
Also see our exclusive FBPO review of Marcus
Miller’s recent release, A Night in Monte-Carlo: