An Interview with Marcus Miller
Speaking on M2 and More with
by Mark Ruffin
Without the benefit of hardly any air play, “M-Squared,” the new album by bassist Marcus Miller is currently riding high at the top of the jazz sales chart. The 42 year-old musician will be playing selections from the release, with a crack band, on a North American tour that runs through the end of this month.
“If you make the music good enough, it can overcome all those names that people need to put on music,” Miller said by phone from his Los Angeles studio. “We’ve played smooth jazz festivals where people have trouble eating their cheese, and we’ve played traditional jazz festivals where we’re the only electric band there. There’s so much to do in the middle.
“We want to play music that they have to feel, before they can put names on it,” Miller continued. “That’s one of the reasons I’m not on the air.”
It’s not just in your hometown where Miller isn’t on the radio. All across the country, Miller’s music is too jazzy for adult urban radio, too funky for the smooth stations, and he’s too electric for the mainstream jazz frequencies. Yet, only Brain Culbertson has a more popular contemporary jazz album in the country, according to national sales charts..
“It depends on the day,” Miller dead panned, when asked how he describes his music. “Sometimes I call it soul-jazz, but funk-jazz usually hits close enough. But there’s not really a name to describe it, because it ‘s a combination of stuff. It’s like we’re in our own space.”
“The problem is that I’ve been involved in making music for Miles Davis, and been involved with making music with Luther Vandross on the R&B tip, and all the stops in between, so my music is a reflection of where I’ve been. It’s just good music.”
Obviously, all Miller has to do is put out a record and jazz and funk consumers will come. The same can be said for the best musicians in the world. If Marcus calls, they will come running.
“That comes from making music that people feel and doing it the old fashion way,” the bassist said “The music is strong enough and that has helped me build an audience over the years.”
The 14 track cd features performances by Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Chaka Khan, Paul Jackson Jr, Wayne Shorter, Kenny Garrett, Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker of James Brown fame, and other stars.
Starting at the age of 15, the Brooklyn-born musician began a long career of backing big names on stage and in the studio. He started with flautist Bobbi Humprhey and quickly moved up to Bob James, Aretha Franklin and Grover Washington, including the G-Man’s classic “Winelight” album.
But it was his prowess as a composer and producer that earned him a massive international following. During the 80’s and early 90’s, Miller produced some of the most important albums of our time, and wrote some of the most memorable tunes of that era.
In a period of about 12 years, he was music director for Luther Vandross, David Sanborn and Miles Davis, and wrote big hits for them all. Respectively, among the hits he wrote for those superstars are “The Power of Love,” “Maputo,” and “Tutu.” The bassist, who also plays bass clarinet, called the trio his teachers, and said he learned something from each one of them.
“The main thing I got from Luther was to stick to your guns,” said the man who produced eight of Vandross’ platinum albums.
“When Luther started in the early 80’s, record companies were interested in groups. They told him he needed a group or a gimmick. Luther told them his gimmick was that he stands there and sings.
“I saw Miles go through the same thing,” the bassist continued. “People were criticizing him and telling him what he should be doing. I learned from Miles that you can only really do what you really feel.”
What impressed Miller about Sanborn was his ability to create his own marketplace. He pointed out how Sanborn was very popular before smooth jazz radio came along, but when it did, the sax man became a staple of the format.
“David and I were on records that some people say invented smooth jazz,” Miller said, pointing to the Sanborn albums he played on, specifically Backstreet and Double Vision.
“My song “Maputo,” could be called the first smooth jazz standard. But that’s just one flavor of what I do.
“I just want to make music and have people find it, and maybe make a new category,” Miller concluded.