Marcus Miller: Burning Up the Bass

Marcus Miller: Burning Up the Bass

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Born in Brooklyn in 1959, Marcus Miller grew up surrounded by music. His dad was an organist and church choir director who made sure his son had classical music teachers from an early age. Miller learned clarinet, saxophone, and keyboards. But he’s best known for his versatile bass guitar playing, which some very big names – Miles Davis, David Sanborn, and Herbie Hancock, among others – have wanted on their albums. He seems to be equally comfortable with every genre, from bebop and contemporary jazz to rock and opera.

In his teens Miller came to love Davis’ playing, partly because his dad’s cousin, Wynton Kelly, played piano with the trumpet master. But when Miller was a kid, his big obsession was with the Jackson 5. His determination to play R&B was what inspired him to start learning electric bass when he was about 12. He didn’t turn on to jazz until he became friends with drummer Kenny Washington when they were both students at the High School for the Performing Arts in NYC. A quick study, by age 15 Miller was already doing jazz gigs around New York.

Miller continues to play, and since 2010 has been the host for a floating summer series called The Smooth Jazz Cruise. He has also had success as a film composer, most notably for Spike Lee’s School Days.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Marcus Miller.

  1. Track: “The Only Reason I Live”
    Album: Suddenly
    Label: Warner Bros.
    Year: 1983

Miller’s first album is mostly R&B and contemporary jazz, but this fun number blends in funk and jazz fusion. He’s singing his own song here, and his tight bass line punches up the energy. That’s him on keyboards, too, with a very 1980s electronic twangy sound. The deep drumming groove comes courtesy of Yogi Horton, known for his strong backbeat.


  1. Track: “Panther”
    Album: The Sun Don’t Lie
    Label: Dreyfus Jazz
    Year: 1993

With his move to the Paris-based Dreyfus Jazz label, Miller’s solo albums focused more on instrumentals and the jazz end of the spectrum. That’s not to say the R&B influence ever really disappears.

The wide-ranging musical skills he displays on this opening track are in on a rare plane inhabited by Prince and… honestly, that’s the only equivalent I can think of. He’s playing bass clarinet, bass guitar, keyboards, and the first half of that fine guitar solo (the second half is by Dean Brown).


  1. Track: “Strange Fruit”
    Album: Tales
    Label: Dreyfus Jazz
    Year: 1995

Tales is a very good album, with several tracks featuring duets between Miller and alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett. Yet the real gem among these tracks is Miller’s stripped-down and gut-wrenching version of “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching song made famous by Billie Holiday’s record in 1939.

The bare arrangement, just bass clarinet with sustained synth chords underneath, brings out the sorrow in the melody. You don’t even need to hear the lyrics to know how tragic they are.


  1. Track: “Burning Down the House”
    Album: M2
    Label: Dreyfus/Telarc
    Year: 2001

One of the hallmarks of a great artist is their choice of what material to borrow and how they make that pre-existing music their own. Miller gets full points for originality on both counts here. Yes, this is indeed David Byrne’s “Burning Down the House,” as recorded by the Talking Heads. Miller turns it into a jazz funk juggernaut that picks up power as it rolls along. Kenny Garnett and Maceo Parker step in on sax. The way Miller plays with the harmonies on synth after the six-minute mark is worth sticking around for.


  1. Track: “La Villette”
    Album: Silver Rain
    Label: Koch
    Year: 2005

Miller’s ability to shape phrases on bass guitar is on display in “La Villette.” He shows the difference between using the instrument as an active part of the emotional content of a song versus just using it as the lowest sound to help keep the beat, like an average player does. The lead vocals are by Lalah Hathaway, who also composed the song, with Miller singing backing vocals and beatbox. Longtime collaborator Poogie Bell plays brush snare, and Dean Brown is once again on guitar.


  1. Track: “Free”
    Album: Marcus
    Label: Concord Jazz
    Year: 2008

The album Marcus leans toward the funk side, but there are still plenty of contemporary jazz elements. There’s a varied line-up of lead singers taking turns on this one (a good choice, since Miller’s voice is not his strong suit), including Keb’ Mo, Taraji P. Henson, and Shihan The Poet. Miller tapped the wonderful British singer Corinne Bailey Rae to handle the vocals for “Free.” Her supple, lacy voice is the perfect foil for Miller’s textured bass guitar sound.


  1. Track: “February”
    Album: Renaissance
    Label: Dreyfus Jazz
    Year: 2012

Miller’s return to the Dreyfus label for Renaissance brought with it a return to a purer jazz sound, if you will. He composed all the tunes on this album. There’s an Afro-Latin flavor on the track “February,” underpinned by the piano playing of Frederico Gonzales Peña plus Luis Cato on djembe drum as well as standard drum kit. The record is more of a collaborative effort than a solo album; Miller does fine ensemble work here, playing with top-notch fellow musicians. “February” features Alex Han on alto sax and Maurice Brown on trumpet.


  1. Track: “Preacher’s Kid”
    Album: Laid Black
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 2018

Although Miller’s most recent album, Laid Black, was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album, voice is used in various ways. For example, Miller turns the Earth, Wind and Fire song “Keep ’Em Running” into a rap. And the final track, “Preacher’s Kid,” is a moving tribute to Miller’s father that uses wordless singing by the gospel group Take 6 to represent the church choir he grew up hearing every week. With Miller on bass guitar and bass clarinet, he trades nostalgic solos with the soulful saxophones of Alex Han and Kirk Whalum.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Bengt Nyman, cropped to fit format.

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