A generation is roughly defined as a period of about 30 years. 30 years ago – early ‘80s - America was rolling with Ronald Reagan at the wheel and his conservative “back to family values” tenets. A similar traditionalism was also being adopted by several prominent up-and-coming jazz musicians. While most of the then-young flock was looking back, Marcus Miller was looking ahead. By the middle of that decade in 1986, Marcus - the musician, composer and producer - was at the helm of one of the most impactful modern jazz masterpieces of the era with some futuristic roots music he composed for the legendary Miles Davis entitled Tutu.
Now with Renaissance in 2012, Marcus Miller surveys the landscape of not just music but society as a whole. In the same profound way that anointed gospel-soul singer Sam Cooke prophesized 50 years before in 1963, Miller feels that “a change is gonna come.” And just as with Tutu, he is ahead of the storm. Fortified by a team of hungry young players that includes trumpeters Sean Jones and Maurice Brown, alto saxophonist Alex Han, drummer Louis Cato, guitarists Adam Agati and Adam Rogers, and keyboardist Kris Bowers along with veteran keys wizards Federico Gonzalez Peña and Bobby Sparks, Miller is creating the soundtrack for this musical, cultural and spiritual revolution.
“I feel like a page is turning,” Miller muses. “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.”
Renaissance finds Miller offering up an especially emotive 13-song collection that includes eight richly inspired original compositions that swing from a tip of the porkpie to the CTI Records sound of the `70s (“CEE-TEE-EYE”) to an introspective and ultimately hope-filled rumination about the island off the coast of Dakar in Africa known as “Gorée (Go-ray).” Renaissance also includes five cover songs that canvas works by soul-jazz culture band WAR, new wave-soul starlet Janelle Monáe, New York jazz dignitary Weldon Irvine, Brazilian musical ambassador Ivan Lins and Christian composer Luther “Mano” Hanes. Though the CD primarily features Miller’s smokin’ new band, it also features special guest vocalists Dr. John, Rubén Blades and Gretchen Parlato.
“Renaissance is a word that resonates on a lot of different levels for me,” Miller explains. “It’s about getting back to the essential aspects of art. I’m focusing less on production and more on composition, so this is a very clear album for me. People have often called me a ‘Renaissance Man.’ 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. Over the past three decades of my career, I’ve been blessed to produce a wide variety of music that means something to people. I didn’t just do some cliché’s in different genres, like a guy who says he can speak 20 languages but all he’s saying is ‘how are you’ and ‘can I get something to eat.’ The real challenge is can you communicate something of substance to the people through these languages that you speak?”
Marcus Miller’s Renaissance opens strong with the slick funky bass feature “Detroit” and there is plenty more where that came from, with varying levels of heat and spice. “CEE-TEE-EYE” pays homage to extended studio blowing jams by the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Grover Washington, Jr. and Bob James in the tradition of producer Creed Taylor’s `70s contemporary jazz company CTI Records and includes a blistering mid-song ensemble break followed by a virtuosic bass solo by Marcus. Covers of WAR’s 1971 classic “Slippin’ Into Darkness” (which adds Ramon Yslas on congas) and Janelle Monáe’s 2010 debut breakthrough “Tightrope” (destined to be Marcus’ new jazz festival party-starter featuring the soulfully jovial Dr. John) both explore the dark and light sides of the musical threads that New Orleans weaves throughout African American culture. Marcus reaches back and brilliantly rearranges a composition by early mentor Weldon Irvine titled “Mr. Clean” throwin’ down a jam that will leave listeners in need of a neck brace by the mid-song bass break. Then there’s the two-headed cobra that is “Jekyll & Hyde.” Miller elaborates, “It starts off with that Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers type of horn melody…then all of a sudden it goes to Hendrix – the kind of rock the Black bands like Mother Night would play when I was coming up in New York - edgy but funky. We keep shiftin’ back and forth. In the middle I’d say, ‘Hyde’s wreaking havoc - better get back to Jekyll!’”
Beauty also abounds with Miller’s homage to Michael Jackson in a virtuosic cover of The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” (“one of the first melodies I learned on the bass”) on which he references parts of the original’s vocal, rhythm and string arrangements simultaneously AND solo. Then there’s his own haunting “February,” penned on and for piano. “That song was written quickly and recorded quickly. That’s when you know you’ve got something special. ‘Tutu’ was like that. When we got to the solo, Alex broke a piece of his soul off onto the song. I thought, ‘Where is this cat from…to understand this thing so quickly?’ It’s beautiful but not sentimental. You know how some cats always play beauty like a bouquet of flowers? Alex didn’t do that. He just played from his soul.” Then there’s Miller’s thoughtful arrangement of legendary Brazilian composer Ivan Lins’ “Setembro,” made world famous in a version on Quincy Jones’ 1989 CD Back on the Block. Marcus switches to fretless bass here, à la Jaco Pastorius, and trades breathtaking melodic lines with swiftly up-and-coming singer Gretchen Parlato – the first vocalist ever admitted into The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance program. “I added an Afro Cuban section with the bass line from Dizzy’s ‘Manteca.’ Then I asked Rubén Blades to add something that would pull it all together. I reminded him the piece is subtitled ‘Brazilian Wedding Song’ and that I wanted him to share something profound about love. He came back with ‘Con amor todo se puede’ – ‘With love all is possible.’”
Deeper still, Renaissance houses some of Marcus’ most inspired and emotionally penetrating writing to date – particularly “Gorée (Go-ray)” which was inspired by a visit Marcus and his impressionable young band paid to the African island historically remembered as a warehouse for human cargo before it was shipped from the motherland to places elsewhere for the people to become slaves. “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.” Fittingly, “Gorée (Go-ray)” features Marcus on his second signature instrument, the bass clarinet.
“Revelation” is a richly cinematic sojourn that provides spine-chilling showcases for Alex Han on sax and Adam Agati on guitar. Its opening interlude is the Mano Hanes composition “Nocturnal Mist” for which Marcus originally played bass clarinet as a featured guest on Israel & New Breed’s album A Timeless Christmas. On Renaissance, he rearranged it as a melodic bass feature. Finally, there’s the Zawinul-esque “Redemption.” Miller elucidates, “When you’re ready to go into this new phase we’re calling a renaissance, you need to understand what your redeeming qualities are so you can use them as your weapon. Never stop working on the things you need to improve but figure out what makes you a special human being. So this song has a searching quality to the melody – trying to find itself. Meanwhile the bass line is steady pushing…saying, ‘Don’t stop looking.’”
Marcus’ current touring band consists of trumpeter Maurice Brown (Tedeschi Trucks Band, Maya Azucena, Aretha Franklin), alto saxophonist Alex Han (Paquito D’Rivera, James Moody, Geri Allen), drummer Louis Cato (Beyoncé, Q-Tip, Sean Jones), guitarist Adam Agati (Lalah Hathaway, El Movimiento and Mary Mary), and 2011 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition Award winner keyboardist Kris Bowers (Louis Hayes, Jay-Z & Kanye West, José James).
“I’ve got these next generation musicians in their `20s with me now that aren’t afraid of breaking boundaries,” Marcus concludes. “They’re absorbing and admiring the whole picture – from Clifford Brown to J.Dilla - honestly feeling both sides which, to my Black Experience, is what it’s all about. This young band fears nothing so we are free to go anywhere. I’m finding that to be incredibly inspiring. I am writing music for us that encompasses the full landscape.”