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Marcus Miller

A pro bass guitar player since the age of fifteen, 43-year old Marcus Miller has worked with a who’s who of jazz, fusion, pop, R&B, funk, and otherwise-you-name-it musical categories. Let’s take a quick sampling: Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Grover Washington Jr., McCoy Tyner, Randy Brecker, Luther Vandross, Kirk Whalum, David Sanborn, Lonnie Liston Smith, LL Cool J, Jay Z... the list goes on. Tell me you don’t have to be an incredibly solid, versatile player with scary chops to play with a range of musicians like that!

Just playing bass guitar is not enough to satisfy Miller’s musical spirit. He’s also a successful composer, film scorer, and producer. He’s produced records for Miles, Al Jarreau, the Crusaders, Wayne Shorter, Take 6, and David Sanborn. His song credits include Grammy-winning "The Power of Love," recorded by Luther Vandross (who he’s been working with since 1979). Miller’s film scores include House Party, Boomerang, Siesta, Ladies’ Man, and The Brothers. Again, just a sampling of this prodigious and prolific musician’s work.

Miller’s Grammy collection also includes Best Contemporary Jazz Album of 2001 for "M2," an amazing album that criss-crosses musical boundaries without affronting our sensibilities. We begin listening to the light funk on the Miller original Power. Then the next moment, it’s the mystery of Coltrane’s standard, "Lonnie’s Lament." A few tracks later we’re in a groove version of the Talking Heads’ hit, "Burning Down the House." His most recent release on his new label, 3 Deuces Records, is "The Ozell Tapes: The Official Bootleg." This live double album is a collection of Miller’s personal picks from his 2002 tour dates, using the recordings straight off the sound board made by his sound engineer, Dennis Thompson.

Marcus Miller’s Web site has an extensive library of well over a hundred questions that Marcus has answered over the years. It’s well worth the visit, but made our job quite a bit tougher. What follows is a brief set of new questions we posed to Marcus recently while he was in L.A. on a quick gig get this composing and recording an entire movie score in two weeks...

JazzReview: What's up with the "official bootleg" idea? Is this just a gimmick or do you think you'll do more records this way?

Marcus Miller: There are so many bootlegs (unofficial releases of recordings made by people in the audience of our shows) that are released following our tours, I decided to release this one immediately after our tour and beat the bootleggers at their game. Instead of taking the usual two to three months to mix the music in the traditional multitrack style, I took the rough mixes that my sound engineer, Dennis Thompson makes of each show and put together an album. This is the biggest difference from what we did before. This album is pretty raw because it was created from the stereo minidisk recordings. The response has been beautiful so I may do it again sometime.

JazzReview: You came up with the name "Ozell Tapes" from Denzil "King Ozell" Miller, one of the people you thank in the liner notes. Does the name "King Ozell" have a special meaning that you can share with us?

Marcus Miller: Denzil is a great musician from my hometown of Jamaica, Queens in New York City. He's a piano player/arranger and one of my first influences. He encouraged me to find my own sound on the bass and he also pushed me to start composing. The song "Ozell" from my M2 album is a dedication to him. I'll have to call him and ask him where he got the name from.

JazzReview: Where does your music come from - would you say you are more of an intellectual or an emotional musician? Do you compose based on something you are trying to communicate to your audience - i.e., do you write with an objective - or is it more just inspiration, getting a sound or motif in your head, and developing it?

Marcus Miller: My goal is to combine the mind and the soul in my music. All of my favorite musicians, Miles, Stevie, Herbie Hancock, have a beautiful combination of intellect and heart. For that matter, all of my favorite people have the same combination regardless of what they do. Martin Luther King, Magic Johnson, Aaron McGruder (creator of the "Boondocks" comic strip) - they all think carefully then inject their ideas with a healthy dose of soul.

I write from all different perspectives. Sometimes I write music with a goal in mind where I might be trying to evoke a certain emotion going in. Other times, I might get inspired by a sound or a succession of notes that I stumble onto. I think its best to learn to write music in different ways. I think it helps vary your music.

JazzReview: Do you consider yourself an innovator on the bass guitar, and if so, why?

Marcus Miller: I consider myself a stylist mostly. I learned from the original innovators of the bass guitar, James Jamerson, Stanley Clarke, Jaco. I took what I learned from these guys and sort of put it in a pot and let it simmer. What I ended up with is a style that I think is identifiable.

JazzReview: What bass players - or other musicians - would you say are essential for a young bass guitar player to go to school on, and why?

Marcus Miller: [In no particular order] Ray Brown Swing; Paul Chambers Completeness; Ron Carter - Sound!; James Jamerson Soul; Larry Graham Funk; Stanley Clarke Power; Jaco Pastorius Beauty; Miles All of the Above.

JazzReview: You seem to like a balance between playing, producing, and composing/arranging/scoring. Do you see yourself putting more emphasis on one or the other in the future? Why or why not?

Marcus Miller: Nah, it's important for me to stay balanced. Composing, arranging, producing, scoring - each one feeds off of the other. I think I'm a better musician all around because of these different things I do. I know I definitely play better bass since I started producing. Producing taught me to hear the entire sound of a group instead of focusing just on my instrument. Now when I play, I play something to make the group sound better instead of just freaking on the bass!

JazzReview: Are you proactive in deciding who and what you want to produce - or is it more a matter of picking and choosing from among the calls you get? Are there some artists you really want produce - you don't have to name names - but they haven't called you yet?

Marcus Miller: I've never called anyone and said, "Hey I want to produce you!" So in that respect, it is a matter of choosing from who calls. But it does seem like the people who call are the type of people I'd like to be involved with. I've been a fan of Take 6 for years. When they called me, it was like, "I'm down!"

JazzReview: Do you think you'd be able to produce another bass player? Would that be easy, or made more difficult because that's your instrument? Would you ever consider such a project?

Marcus Miller: I don't think it would be a problem to produce another bass player. Especially if he/she had a unique style. But that's what makes it easier to produce an artist in general. You look for a unique point of view - something you can help them project to the world. The instrument really doesn't matter. Now if the cat is a bass player and he wants me to produce him so he can get my sound then that wouldn't be cool.

JazzReview: I've read about some of the people who've influenced your playing. What about people who've influenced your writing? Can you give us some names and talk about how they've influenced you?

Marcus Miller: I love Wayne Shorter's composing. I admire the imagination in his writing. He taught me not to be afraid of my ideas. Stevie Wonder is so great and has been so great for so long, we take him for granted. It seems like some of his songs have been around forever! I have to keep reminding myself that "Superstition" and "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" had to be created. They didn't just always exist!

JazzReview: What's it like to win a Grammy? Has it affected how other people in the business approach you, or work with you?

Marcus Miller: The best thing about winning a Grammy is the phone calls. I got calls from people who were so thrilled and proud. Cats from the neighborhood were calling, saying, "Man, we feel like we all won! Represent'!" I wasn't expecting that kind of love from everybody. I got the feeling that people were glad that music that they liked was getting recognized. That made me proud. Up until then, I didn't think much about the Grammys. I didn't pay too much attention to them and didn't think anyone else did either. I guess I was wrong about that because I got, like 250 letters.

JazzReview: Are there any trends in the music business right now that you think are good for musicians, and if so, what are they are why are they good? How about the opposite - anything that's negative for musicians?

Marcus Miller: When I was coming up, there were jam sessions everywhere. You got to hone your craft in the real world. Now everyone's home practicing, but there aren't as many places to play. The good thing is that people still appreciate good musicianship. Even the young folks can get into it if they can tell that you've dedicated yourself. A lot of hip hop and R&B is starting to incorporate real instruments again and that's exciting.

JazzReview: Do you think it is harder or easier to make it as a pro today in music than it was 20 years ago? Why?

Marcus Miller: As a pro bass player it has to be somewhat harder because there are fewer opportunities. A lot of music is computer driven these days. When I was coming up, everybody needed a bass player. Now there are some folks who are just using turntables! But there are still plenty of situations for bass players today.

JazzReview: I have the impression that you have a very "normal," settled life as a family man who happens to be a successful professional musician. This lifestyle seems elusive for musicians. What have you done to make it happen, and make it work in your life?

Marcus Miller: I come from a very solid family and the way my parents lived and loved is what I came to expect for myself. I want to be there for my family not as a figure, but as somebody real. It is a huge challenge keeping it together with a family and a musician’s career, but I'm blessed to have people working with me who know that this balance is very important to me. Scheduling is everything!

JazzReview: How does your family participate in your career? Is it something you try to involve them in, or is it something you like to keep boundaries around - keeping work and family separate, so to speak?

Marcus Miller: I don't keep my family separate from my music. I do try to keep them separate from the music business. We don't hang out a lot at backstage parties and stuff like that. As the kids get older, I'm looking forward to having them come on the road with me maybe during the summer.

JazzReview: I understand that your kids are taking piano. Would you really be okay if none of them seriously pursue music? Do you see any early signs of genius?

Marcus Miller: I'd be fine if none of my kids seriously pursue music. You should only pursue it if it's a burning passion like it was/is for me. Otherwise you'll never survive all the trials and tribulations that being a musician involves. I pray that my kids do find something they love as much as I love music, though. Our oldest boy (13) seems to have a deeper understanding of music than most kids his age that I hear. I enjoy hearing him play.

JazzReview: I read on your Website that you and your family typically attend church on Sundays. Does your faith affect your music, and if so, how?

Marcus Miller: I realize that nothing happens except for the Creator and I never take anything for granted. I realize that I'm a filter and my music is really just God's inspiration passing through me. I feel like as long as I don't fool myself into thinking that it's all coming from me - as long as I know where the real source is, I'm cool.

JazzReview: Do you think that being a musician affects how you approach life?

Marcus Miller: I'm not afraid to improvise and actually look forward to the times when the 'plan' falls apart. This is when we can create solutions there on the spot.

JazzReview: Can you/do you listen to music for pure enjoyment - no analysis, no active thinking about how you could use something you hear, etc.? If so, what stuff are you listening to now?

Marcus Miller: I'm listening to DJ Quik's latest CD. I like how he uses real instruments in his hip hop. I like the retro soul stuff, too. Like Angie Stone, and Musiq SoulChild. I have no problem listening to music just for the enjoyment. I have to admit that I do remember everything I hear so I have to be careful what I listen to because it's probably gonna show up in some form in my own music.

JazzReview: Do you have a long-range plan for your musical career - like goals and milestones you want to achieve - or is it just something that you let evolve organically? Are there any ideas you have for your future in music that you can share with us?

Marcus Miller: My long-range goal is to create a body of work I can be proud of. A body of work that's high quality and diverse. I want a person to listen to all of my work 100 years from now and get a sense of what it was like to live in these times. What the world felt like. My shorter-range goals are to develop my record label, 3 Deuces, and to continue with steady output. I want to record a Christmas album soon.

If you haven’t checked out Marcus Miller yet, I hope this interview has convinced you that he is a musician who needs to be heard. You won’t find another bass guitar player in the business today who is as eclectic and accomplished as Miller. Pick your musical taste; you’ll find something in the Miller songbook you’ll love.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Marcus Miller
  • Subtitle: So Much to Say
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