Berks Jazz artist Marcus Miller up close

By Mike Zielinski

When you look at the totality of Marcus Miller’s career, you blink in astonishment.

How could one musician accomplish so much in so many realms?

How could an artist follow so many paths with all of them leading to the top?

Usually when you navigate a maze, the network of divergent paths leads to a puzzling dead end.

But not with Marcus Miller. All his paths lead to the summit.

“As a Gemini, I’m always working on two, three or four or five paths at the same time,” says Miller, who is bringing his Laid Black Tour to the 30th anniversary of the Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest as presented by the Berks Arts Council on Saturday, April 4, at 6 p.m. at the Scottish Rite Cathedral.

No wonder the man has been dubbed the Renaissance Man.

He also has been dubbed the world’s preeminent living bass player. He’s not merely a bass player, he’s a virtuoso. Like Heifetz with a violin and Horowitz at the piano back in the day. His creativity is as unstoppable as tomorrow.

“I discovered the bass during the glory years of bass players,” Miller explains. “When I was a teenager, we had Larry Graham, James Jamerson, Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius, Bootsy Collins, Anthony Jackson, Alphonso Johnson. They all were doing their thing. I had some pretty high standards to live up to. I was practicing all the time. I was pushing myself to be like those guys. The bass really was in the center of music back then.”

That hard-wired drive enabled Miller to scale the Everest of his profession. His meteor is up there and blazing. His signature sound snaps ears to rigid attention.

Indeed, his bass playing can be as hot as tar percolating under an unforgiving sun.
Miller also has been dubbed one of the most influential artists of our time because of his groundbreaking style and carefully cultivated, unique musical voice.

Let’s face it, the man has been dubbed everything but a knight.

But back to his massively influential music voice. It took him a while to discover his voice. It was buried somewhere deep inside him and had yet to scratch its way out of his stomach.

Once it did, his voice resonated around the globe. The irony is thick enough to cut with a steak knife.

“I started focusing on my solo career when (legendary trumpeter) Miles (Davis) passed in September of 1991,” says Miller, who is 60. “I had done some solo stuff in the 80s but didn’t really feel like I had found my voice as a solo artist yet. So I stopped and restarted it when Miles passed.

“A big problem for sidemen, studio musicians, is finding their own voice because we make a living being chameleons. And that is exactly the opposite of what you do as an artist. As an artist you have to have a really specific point of view. It took me a minute to make the transition.

“When I first started as a sideman, I would play for Whitney Houston or Paul Simon or whoever it was, you wouldn’t even know it was me on the bass. Because I was just playing exactly what I thought was necessary to just support the music. As I began to grow, my own style emerged. When I started collaborating later on, I would actually I would bring my style to the mix.

“That’s when people started to say that I know it’s you on every record I hear that you play on. But it wasn’t like that. There are a whole bunch of records I played on where you don’t know it’s me. As I evolved, I became more like a sideman slash artist. I found a way to make my style enhance whoever I was working with.”

Miller was even leaving footprints along various paths on a daily basis back in the day.

“In my studio days, in the morning I would play on a commercial for Huggie diapers or Ford trucks,” he explains. “We did jingles in the morning. That was a New York studio musician’s bread and butter. To play on TV commercials in the morning.

“Around noon you had a record date with Roberta Flack or Bob James or whoever it was. At night you’d go to the clubs and you’d play. I was very much a presence in the New York City jazz scene. While I was being a studio chameleon in the morning, I also played with Miles in his band at night. The trick for me was to find a way to bring it all together. I still haven’t completely brought it all together.

“That was an incredible time with Miles. I started playing with Miles in 1981. He already was a huge legend. It literally was like playing with like a god. I was surprised he was only five feet six inches tall. He was a regular human being, to my surprise.

“I happened to catch him at an incredible time in his life. I played in his band for a couple years. Then I left. Then I came back, like 1985 or 1986, to write music and produce music for him. In that second period he was in a real reflective mood.”

Some men develop arthritis as they age. Other men develop a deep sense of retrospection. That was Miles Davis.

“So we would be working on music, just he and I in the studio,” recalls Miller. “He would just stop and start talking about Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie. All these stories. Just out of nowhere. An incredible time to be sitting there next to him. Really a beautiful experience, man.”

Miller’s whole career has been a beautiful experience. Indeed, he has enjoyed one of the most enviable careers in music. He is a two-time Grammy winner and the composer/producer of numerous critically acclaimed and genre-defying albums, including his 2018 release Laid Black.

He wrote the renowned track “Maputo” on the David Sanborn/Bob James collaboration Double Vision, considered by many as one of the most successful albums in the jazz genre that sold over a million copies and won a Grammy Award.

Besides seemingly being able to play the bass while walking on water, he also is highly proficient as a keyboardist and clarinetist/bass clarinetist.

Not only has Miller pioneered the continuing development of a technique known as “slapping”, but his fretless bass technique also has served as an inspiration to many and has taken the fretless bass into musical situations and genres previously unexplored with the electric bass of any description.

His resume as an A-list player brims with over 500 recording credits as a sideman on albums across the spectrum of musical styles.

He also writes movie scores and hosts his own show Miller Time with Marcus Miller on Sirius Satellite Radio.

How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a multitasking genius?

Besides Sanborn, James, Davis, Houston, Simon and Flack, Miller has played, and in many cases written and produced for, such luminaries as Luther Vandros, Joe Sample, The Crusaders, Lalah Hathaway, Herbie Hancock, Bill Withers, Chaka Khan, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Elton John, Al Jarreau, Wayne Shorter and Mariah Carey.

It’s a magical experience to listen to a legend play. It’s a transcendent experience to sit down and play with a legend.

“The first time I played with George Benson or Joe Sample or The Crusaders or Miles, those are pretty heavy moments,” Miller says. “You can’t believe the music you’re hearing is a sound that you’ve been listening to your whole life, but you’re hearing it come out of the person who’s sitting right across from you. That’s a trip. But eventually you become contemporaries and good friends. Then you’re just enjoying making music.

“The same with David Sanborn. The first time I heard that sound live was when we were putting the Saturday Night Live Band together, 1979,1980, something like that. Sanborn was in the band, too. That was incredible. That’s when David and my relationship began. His sound was so distinctive. It blows your minds. After a while, it’s not so much awe. It’s respect.”

Miller has a rich and very deep resume of outstanding collaborations, including a 15-year songwriting and production partnership with Vandross, resulting in an astonishing13 consecutive platinum-selling albums.

Vandross was a living, breathing, veritable hit machine at that time. His voice was termed “flawless” and “as smooth as silk.” His voice created an atmosphere of pure romance. For years Vandross was the go-to-singer for when you wanted to get in the mood.

But it wasn’t always so.

“Luther and I were in Roberta Flack’s band together,” Miller says. “Luther at the time was a really popular background and studio singer in New York. He also was singing for TV commercials in the morning. We would pass each other in the studio. We got to be buddies on the road with Roberta.

“He was as hardcore about singing as I was about jazz. I really learned a lot about singers from him. He had this dream to make his own music. He got a lot of us guys from the Roberta Flack band together and we did a little demo. He took the demo around for about a year trying to get his own record deal.

“It wasn’t as easy as you would think. At the time the big groups in R&B were like Earth, Wind and Fire … R&B bands with 13 people in the band and bright colors. And Luther was just like a standstill singer. It took him a minute to get a record deal. When he finally did, the record was Never Too Much. It instantly was a smash.

“All of a sudden in front of my eyes I see my buddy become a huge star. Negotiating that and trying to figure out how to live your life when everybody knows who you were, I got to see the whole thing, the positives and the negatives. But there were so many more positives.”

And indescribable moments.

“When you’re playing on Luther’s fourth record and you know that every note you play millions of people are going to hear it because now he’s a star and people are waiting for his next recording, that’s an incredible thing,” Miller says. “So you’re in the studio and he’s singing live with the band, I know it’s another classic as we’re playing it.

“We didn’t know ‘Maputo’ was going to become what it became. It just sounded pretty nice. But with Luther when we got a few albums in, you could tell that you were performing music that you would be listening to for the rest of your life on the radio. I can’t even describe it with words. The beauty of being in that situation.”

Miller’s voice trails off as he savors that delicious memory.

Music is a dialogue between an artist and his instrument in which they go deep into the heart of each other’s matter. There is a cosmic connection between Marcus Miller and his bass, one that has enabled him to master the ultimate inquisition of himself and his art.

“I basically play one bass,” he says. “I started playing it in 1977. In fact, it’s a 1977 Fender Jazz Bass and I’ve been playing it my whole life.”

He used to exclusively be a Fender guy. But when Sire approached him and demonstrated to him that a Sire bass had the same quality as a Fender but was less expensive, Miller started endorsing them “because I wanted to put quality, affordable instruments in kids’ hands.”

“I’m not giving up my Fender,” he says. “It’s like a singer changing throats. You’ll hear me playing my Sire V7 Vintage 30 percent of the time on stage and the rest is my Fender.”

You’ll also see a very fit Marcus Miller on stage. He looks like a guy you could drive railroad spikes with. Rock hard, he looks like he was mined, not born.

“I’ve enjoyed working out for a long time,” he says. “I try to work out every day. It never happens with all the traveling I do. But if you try every day, you will work out at least three times a week. Weight training, playing basketball, all the crazy insanity stuff they have. I like to switch it up. Again, I’m a Gemini. And your body gets comfortable if you do the same routine all the time.”

Miller is thoroughly enjoying his Laid Black Tour that he’s bringing to Berks, the BJF concert featuring Surprise Special Guests. His Laid Black Tour reflects Miller’s view of jazz that is rangy and iconoclastic yet respectful to the art form’s traditions.

“The album came out a year and a half ago and we’ve been touring with the album since then,” he says. “It’s a really been a beautiful thing. When you have an idea for an album and when you’re on stage playing that music a year later, it’s an incredible thing.”

Miller’s Jazz Fest appearance is subtitled Blue Note at Sea Cruise Night. To help celebrate the 30th anniversary of the festival, Entertainment Cruise Productions is offering everyone who purchases tickets for the fest a chance to win a cabin for the Blue Note at Sea cruise set for January 23-30, 2021 that features – you guessed it – Marcus Miller.

The raffle will be held just prior to his concert that evening.

Miller’s long involvement with Entertainment Cruise Productions began when his very close late friend Wayman Tisdale, the NBA star and jazz bassist, hooked him up with ECP executive director Michael Lazaroff.

“At first I didn’t know if I wanted to be a musician on The Love Boat,” laughs Miller “But I went on a cruise and it was so cool. Then I hosted them. Michael asked me to pick it up after Wayman passed 11 years ago and I became musical director. It’s become a really incredible thing. A lot of musicians hanging out together. We’ve copied the Berks Jazz Fest model. We’re Berks Jazz Fest on water.”

Apparently having successfully navigated every conceivable path on land, Marcus Miller taking to the sea was as inevitable as the sunrise.

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