Marcus Miller Explores the Sounds of Emancipation

Music is a language made up of many dialects, and when it comes to bass, there are few voices on the instrument more expressive, versatile, and distinct than Marcus Miller.
By Chris Jisi ,

Music is a language made up of many dialects, and when it comes to bass, there are few voices on the instrument more expressive, versatile, and distinct than Marcus Miller. So who better to take on a project visiting the music that emanated from Mother Africa via the slave route in its modern-day forms and locales? Such was the Brooklyn-born Miller’s quest for his latest project, Afrodeezia, a joyous sonic travelogue recorded at 16 studios across four continents, with over 30 musicians (including Miller’s agile young band—saxophonist Alex Han, drummer Louis Cato, guitarist Adam Agati, keyboardist Brett Williams, and trumpeter Lee Hogans—and such guests as Robert Glasper, Lalah Hathaway, Keb’ Mo’, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Chuck D.). Along his plucking pilgrimage, Miller not only brings his basses to new heights through globally informed phrasing, he discovers and plays what he cites as an ancestor to the bass guitar. Overall, the 11-track alliance stands as one of the Thumbslinger’s most memorable, surprisingly not as much for the rich array of world rhythms and percussion as for the melodies. Says Marcus, “I took a good long time before we recorded to work on the melodies, because that remains the most effective way to get into the listener’s head. You get into the body with rhythm, but you get into the heart and mind with melody.”

How did Afrodeezia come about?

In 2013, UNESCO—the goodwill arm of the United Nations—asked me to be an Artist for Peace and a spokesperson for its Slave Route Project. For the former, the goal is to promote peace through communication. For the latter, the goal is to raise awareness, particularly among young people, about slavery, and what folks had to endure—and still endure in some parts of the world. It’s not to dwell on the details but to celebrate the fact that people were able to overcome that painful and difficult period in history and find hope, meaning, and joy, particularly through music. For the album, I wanted to integrate my music into the work I’m doing for UNESCO, so I got the idea to collaborate with musicians who today live in different stops along the slave route, and to do a contemporary mix of those different styles. That included North and West Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean, and the South and North in the U.S. I tried to do face-to-face collaborations as much as possible. Along the way, I started hearing all of these connections between styles, so the picture got bigger as I went.

You open with a nod to a popular West African style via “Hylife.”

I was in Nigeria talking to young musicians, and they’re revisiting highlife, which became a worldwide phenomenon in the ’80s, through artists like Fela Kuti and King Sunny Adé. I wanted to come up with my own adaptation, but with authentic ingredients. Fortunately, I had met a bassist/vocalist from Senegal named Alune Wade, and he was a huge help with the album; he was like my consultant. He knew all the musicians to get and what rhythms were needed. While we were recording “Hylife,” I heard him and our kora player, Cherif Soumano, singing to themselves, so I said, “Go sing that on the mic”—and that became the vocal on the track.

You play an African instrument on the poignant “B’s River.”

That’s called the gimbri or guembri, and it’s very much the ancestor of the bass guitar. It was given to me as a gift after a concert in Morocco. It’s essentially like an acoustic bass guitar, with an animal skin-covered rectangular body and a neck with three low-pitched gut strings. In Gnawa music of North Africa, which is very spiritual, it’s supported by 12 guys playing huge metal castanets called krakebs. I saw the gimbri played for three days straight in front of 30,000 people. Imagine this big spiritual rave, with the lead instrument being a bass guitar! I asked the guy how he played it. He mainly uses the nail of his curled-up index finger, so I worked on it until I got to the point where I could play the intro on the track. The song is inspired by what my wife said was the most beautiful river she had ever seen, while she was in Zambia helping to build homes for Habitat for Humanity. I took her description and tried to put it into music.

“Preacher’s Kid” is your bass-clarinet showcase, on which you also play upright.

That’s a song for my dad, who is 89 and played organ in church for most of his life. I knew the ingredients I wanted: a simple, hymn-like melody I could build upon, a choir intro and outro, an organ solo—for which I was fortunate to get Cory Henry—and I played bass clarinet, because as a kid practicing for auditions on clarinet, my dad would accompany me on piano. I used upright to give the notes weight and so I wouldn’t have to play as much. With electric bass, sometimes you have to play more because the notes aren’t as thick—plus, the upright has a more sentimental sound due to it being from an older era. When Alune heard the melody, he offered to write traditional Senegalese lyrics that talk about my dad and his dedicating his life to God. The melody came to me at 4 AM, and as Quincy Jones taught me, when that happens, you get up and write it down or record—otherwise that inspiration will go down the road to the next guy! But I was very tired, so I notated it in my head. The next morning I had the notes, but I couldn’t remember the meter. I went back and forth between 3 and 4 all day until I realized 3/4 sounded more like my dad.

Your fretless is the star of “I Believe I Can Still Hear Her” and “Xtraordinary.”

That’s a new fretless Music Man Sterling Bass I got from my business partner and bass expert, Harold Goode; it has a piezo pickup in the bridge, and it really sings. “I Believe” is adapted from an aria by Bizet that I was introduced to when I did a jazz-meets-opera album with Kenn Hicks [Avanti, 2005, Les Artistes]. The melody is beautiful and it has a hint of a North African rhythm, so I wanted to do a version that put more accent on the rhythm, with Louis Cato on drums and djembe, Lamumba Henry on percussion, and my palm-muted fretted bass bubbling underneath. We got Ben Hong to play the melody—he’s an amazing cellist from the Los Angeles Philharmonic who rides a motorcycle with the cello on his back—and I play in counterpoint on fretless. “Xtraordinary” starts off as a contemporary gospel balled, but in the middle I imagined Bill Evans playing in a gospel church.

“Son of Macbeth” is a tribute to the late percussionist Ralph MacDonald, and you dedicate the samba “We Were There” to George Duke and Joe Sample.

Ralph was very important to me. I was in Bobbi Humphrey’s band at 19 and I wrote a song for her album, which Ralph was producing. She asked if her young bassist could play on it, too, so I showed up and it’s the first-call cats—Ralph, Steve Gadd on drums, Anthony Jackson on bass. Ralph asked Anthony to get up and let me play the track, and it went fine. I saw an opportunity, so for her next record I wrote a song with a bass solo in it. At that session, Ralph asked me if I read music, and within three months I was working day and night on the studio scene. The track also has Trinidadian trumpeter/percussionist Etienne Charles—a protégé of Ralph’s who plays his style of percussion, and Robert Greenidge, who played pans on “Just the Two of Us.” Ralph’s father, known as Macbeth, was a star of the annual West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn, thus the song’s title.

As for “We Were There,” we performed in Rio de Janeiro and met percussionist Marco Lobo, so I asked him to come in and record with us in a local studio. While we were playing, I was thinking of George and Joe, and how well they incorporated Brazilian music into jazz, so I wanted to acknowledge them. It was also a key moment of connection, because I noticed that the rhythm Marco was playing on tambourine matched a rhythm they use in Gnawa music.

There’s a lot of nuance in the shuffle “Water Dancer.”

One of my first thoughts for the album was how much I dig the way African musicians work with triple meter; there’s an ease that eludes a lot of us Stateside, because we don’t grow up with that feel. You can hear it when you listen to bassists like Richard Bona, Bakithi Kumalo, Armand Sabal-Lecco, and Etienne Mbappe. The song is in 12/8, so I sat with the African musicians on the track to figure out what they were doing, and they were adding 16th- and 32nd-notes within the feel to create this trickling water sound. I tried to emulate that in my solo, and when they heard it they wanted to double it, so the first part of my solo sounds like an ensemble part [see Lesson].

What led you to cover “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” and what inspired your groove solo at the end?

The final part of the journey, after slavery ended, was when many African-American families moved North to the big cities, like New York, Chicago, and Detroit. I wanted to do a Motown tune, and “Papa” [by the Temptations] was one of the first ones I learned. It’s still unclear whether Jamerson, Bob Babbitt, or Eddie Watkins played bass on it, but what I found out for sure was the composer and producer, Norman Whitfield, absolutely forbade the bassist to play anything but those six bass notes for the 12-minute length of the track! It’s such a cool bass line, with so much drive to it. When we play it live, it’s incredible to watch the audience after the first two notes, just waiting for the last four. Because it was the last stop in the journey, I added all the elements from the album: African percussion, New Orleans trumpet, Delta guitar, and [guitarist] Wah Wah Watson, who played on the original, which blessed it and gave it authenticity. The end is my nod to Jamerson and all of the old-school bassists who used to step out in that way during the fade of tracks. I favored the neck pickup to get a P-Bass-like sound.

“I Can’t Breathe” deals with timely subject matter.

I was mixing the album, up against deadline, and I thought, I can’t complete the journey without taking it up to today’s headlines. I called up Mocean Worker, whom I’ve known for years, and told him I wanted to do an electronica- based track with African instruments added in. We thought about rappers, and I had recently worked with Chuck D. at a Hollywood Bowl celebration of the Black Movie Soundtrack. He said he was down, I gave him a few ideas, and he came up with some powerful lyrics that echoed what I was feeling. Basically, there’s fear on both sides, but bringing these issues to light is the first step toward overcoming them. The key is communicaton—getting to know each other and realizing what we have in common. That’s what UNESCO is all about.

You produced David Sanborn’s new album. What was your concept, and what is the acoustic-sounding fretless you play on it?

David wanted it to be an intimate album, fairly stripped-down production- wise, and with the Fender Rhodes back in his music. It’s reminiscent of a record I did for him in 1980, called Voyeur [Warner Bros.]. I wrote a track, David wrote a couple, and we’re both big D’Angelo fans, so we covered “Spanish Joint” [Voodoo, 2000, Virgin]. Bass-wise, I was looking for a sound for the album, something woody and electric at the same time. We called Rudy’s Music on 48th Street and they sent over a fretless, semi-hollow Pensa J4. I ended up using it on most of the songs.

What can you share about your new Sire signature basses and Dunlop signature strings?

The line of basses came about after meeting a group of Korean bass-builders who have their own factory, which allows them to build quality basses in the $400–500 price range. They showed me a couple, I worked with them to make some changes, and I got into it. I’d been wanting to come up with a way to put some inexpensive, well-made instruments into young players’ hands. I always hear from parents who want to buy their kid a bass but have concerns that they’ll move on to something else after two months, so they ask me about an entry-level option. The move required me to leave Fender after almost 20 years, which is a relationship I greatly valued, but they were cool about it knowing this was something I truly wanted to do. What has surprised me is that all the pros are trippin’ on the bass. I think it’s going to be a game-changer and have a pretty big impact.

With regard to the strings, I’d been wanting to get a more aggressive, midrange sound, like I had in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and Dunlop was excited about the idea. We started experimenting and came up with something I’m very pleased with, so I made the switch. Even though I have an established sound and style, I’m always trying to grow, and right now is a period of change for me: new basses, new strings, new record label, new publisher. It’s a new day.

INFO

LISTEN

Solo albums Afrodeezia [2015, Blue Note]; Renaissance [2012, Concord Jazz]; David Sanborn, Time and the River [2015, Okeh/Sony]; Bryan Ferry, Avonmore [2014, BMG]; Al Jarreau, My Old Friend: Celebrating George Duke [2014, Concord]

EQUIP

Basses ’77 Fender Jazz Bass, fretless 2014 Music Man Sterling Bass (with piezo pickup), French acoustic bass from Stein on Vine
Strings Dunlop Marcus Miller Super Bright Bass Strings
Amps EBS TD660 head with two ProLine 410 4x10 cabinets
Effects Custom M2 Rodenburg; MXR Octaver, Bass Wah, Carbon Copy Analog Delay & Phase Shifter; Fulltone OCD Overdrive; Sanford and Sonny BlueBeard Fuzz/Distortion
Recording Old Demeter tube DI, Radial JDI Passive Direct Box

Root Routes

Marcus Miller’s fretted and fretless basses serve as the trade winds between his global stops on Afrodeezia, whether providing a steady groove flow or blowing up a storm of slapped and plucked solos and melodies. Example 1 shows the main groove of “Hylife,” as finger-plucked at 5:24. Note Miller’s more-midrangy tone, and the B’s in the second measure. Says Marcus, “The midrange tone is from my new strings, as well as me backing off the bass and treble boost on my bass somewhat. As for the B’s, while the chords are C#m7–F#m7, I was trying to emphasize E major as much as possible.”

Example 2 has the opening melody (stems up) and bass line (stems down) of “We Were There,” at 0:19, where Miller plays both parts at once (using thumb and index-finger plucks), before the ensemble states the melody. “I find myself doing that a lot, like on ‘I’ll Be There,’ from my last album. Because I don’t play 6-string, full chords would be too muddy, so I just try to find the most important notes to outline the harmony. The key here is to figure out where both parts fall together first, and then add the in-between notes.” Example 3 is excerpted from Miller’s solo on “Son of Macbeth,” at 4:20. Having played inside the E minor tonality to this point, he steps “outside” with a burst of 4ths starting on beat two. Note his thumb, index-, and middle-finger plucks on beat three, his only variation from thumb slaps and index pops. “It felt like I needed to step outside, and moving up in 4ths is always a good way to accomplish that. Head for the 15th fret while you’re playing the open strings on beat two.”

Example 4 shows Miller’s fretless melody in the bridge of “Xtraordinary,” at 3:04. Dig the expressive, Jaco-esque three-note hammer-ons in each measure. “Be mindful of your intonation in the upper register, because the spacing is tight up there. Use the open A in bars 1 and 3 as a guide.” Finally, Ex. 5 excerpts Miller’s solo on “Water Dancer,” at 5:47, which mixes straight 16ths and sextuplets against the triplet feel for a “trickling water” sound. “Keep your eighth-notes strong and on the beat. The 16ths and sextuplets are just embellishments you’re tickling the music with.”