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Marcus Miller :: "Your most important inspiration is probably very close to you"
April 10th, 2005 - Blue Note Milano
by Eva Simontacchi
Photo by Alberto Gottardelli
I meet Marcus Miller at Blue Note Milano during his European “Silver Rain” tour. He’s been having a great success, and at Blue Note it’s all fully booked. The first part of the interview has taken place during the press conference, held in the afternoon. He had just finished keeping a bass master class with bass players at Blue Note. He takes his place and starts his speech:
M.M.: We have just begun our European tour. We started in Paris, and now we're here in Milano. Last time I was here I played with Miles Davis, twenty years ago. It's very nice to meet you. And I'll just start talking a little about my new CD which is calld "Silver Rain". I began to write the music for this CD while I was travelling. I had been doing a lot of playing all over the World for three times, and I realized that if I didn't write music on the road, I would never write music again, but on the road it was very interesting, actually, very inspiring to be in various places, so it was a very interesting way to prepare my CD. So in addition to the songs that I wrote, this album is special because I did a lot of cover songs, songs that already existed by other people, and I did my interpretation of them. There is a song by Edgar Winter called "Frankenstein" which is an old jazz-rock song, and we did a Jimi Hendrix song, a Prince song, and even a song by Beethoven, called "Moonlight Sonata", so I think it's very interesting to hear our interpretation of this music that you already know. It kind of gives you an idea of how we think.
In terms of the musicians, I have a band that I've been playing with for maybe ten years now, and they're represented on the CD: Poogie Bell plays the drums, Patches Stewart plays the trumpet, Dean Brown is on the guitar and then I also have some guest artists: Macy Gray is a guest Singer, and Lalah Hathaway is a fantastic singer, and also Kenny Garrett plays saxophone, Kirk Whalum and Eric Clapton.
The only other thing about the Cd is that the bass is very loud! So when you turn it on, be careful with your system because it might be damaged! (He chuckles).
E.S.: How did you decide which covers to include in your new album?
M.M.: Well, you know, we have sound check, we come in the afternoon to make sure all the instruments work when we arrive in a new city, and we already know our music, so I start experimenting, and I say: "Hey guys, do you remember this old song?" and I play "Frankestein", and they go: "Oh yeah..." Then I go: "Well, it sounds pretty good, let's try playing it tonight and see how the audience likes it". And the audience wigs out, and everybody's jumping up and down, so I decided OK, we'll record this on the new CD.
With the "Moonlight Sonata", the Beethoven piece, my son is 16 years old and he plays classical piano, and he's practicing his piece, you know, at home, and I'm walking around my house going: "Man, isn't Beethoven such a soulful cat? He just needs a drum, he needs a beat." So I just start singing the beat to myself, along with my son playing, and my son thinks I'm crazy, you know, a crazy jazz musician. But I say "You know, this is really interesting and I would like to try and see if I can make this make sense".
Also, with cover songs, I think it really tells you a lot about the artist if you already know the song, and then you hear a certain artist do the song. The things that they change tell you a lot about who they are, and the way they interpret the song really gives you a good insight into who they are. So I like doing cover songs.
E.S.: What about the guest artists in your album? Have they been called because you already knew them?
M.M.: Well,some of the people on my CD I have known for a very long time, like Kenny Garrett and Lalah Hathaway, but Macy Gray, I didn't know her, I mean, I met her in a club, but I decided I wanted to do a Prince song, I wanted to do it instrumental, and I needed someone to sing the chorus, because the chorus is fantastic. So I said: "Who do I know who has a lot of character who can just sing a little bit but still make a big statement? I said: Macy Gray!" So I asked people: "Do you know Macy Gray? Do you know Macy Gray?" And we found somebody who kew somebody who knew Macy Gray, and said: "Would you be interested in performing with Marcus?" And she said: "Let me hear the music". And she heard it and then she said yes, so I met her the day we performed the song. The thing that's interesting about the song is that because we didn't know each other, you can hear her discovering my music on the record. She goes: "Ah! Bass! ... wow! Saxophone! Alright, Marcus!" You know, she's yelling and she's talking to me through the whole song! So I left it all on there, so I think it's very cool.
E.S.: About five years ago you had two concerts with Eric Clapton, Steve Gadd and Joe Sample in Perugia and in Sardenia: "The Legends", which were very successful. Do you think you're going to repeat the experience and do something similar in the future, maybe with some other artist?
M.M.: Yes, it was very successful, very difficult to put together, because everyone had their own schedule, and everyone was so famous. It was difficult, but it was really exciting to do and we have to do it again. Maybe I'll call Eric Clapton now, and make a reservation for five years from now, you know (he chuckles).
E.S.: Are you collecting any material for a DVD during these concerts?
M.M.: Yes, we have a DVD that will be released sometimes soon from my last album, but we are really excited about doing a new DVD for this music. The band is getting really tight now, so I think very soon it will be time to record.
E.S.: What are your plans after the Italian tour? Any projects?
M.M.: We finish this tour, and then I have a CD that I'm working on, that I'm producing for a great operatic tenor named Kenn Hicks that I know from the United States, and we're going to combine some opera with jazz and we're going to see what Italian people think about that. You probably don't know Kenn Hicks. What he does right now is: he teaches pop singers how to sing. He teaches Jennifer Lopez, Spice Girls, he uses all of his knowledge about classic singing to help them just sing one song.........
And I also do music for films, back in the United States, so I'll probably do a couple of films, and then it will be time to start thinking about some new music, because you have to think way ahead.
E.S.: Have you tried or have you thought of involving Prince in your new album?
M.M.: I didn't think of it, because I assumed he would say no. But you know, my record company in the States called me and said: "We just got a note from Prince: Please send Marcus'es CD to me immediately.... So I don't know, depeding on his reaction, I might ask him next time, and say: "Come on, let's play together!" And since Prince is a fantastic musician, he plays bass, he plays guitar, he plays keyboards, so all we need is just us: we have a whole orchestra! (He chuckles).
E.S.: Going back to covers, have you ever had the artists that wrote any original version tell you they liked your interpretation?
M.M.: On my last CD I did a song by Billy Cobham, called "Red Baron", and you know, it's always tricky when you do somebody's song becuse they obviously love the way they do it, so you never know what you're going to get. In this case he liked it. But if you wait a long enough time they're just happy that you keep their song alive, so don't do it too soon.
E.S.: Are you going to play your bass clarinet tonight?
M.M.: Yes, I am definitely going to play my bass clarinet, you know. It's important for me because my bass guitar sound is very metallic, very hard, and I think it's difficult for people to hear that sound for a whole concert. But the bass clarinet is a nice departure: it's warm, it's wood, it's exactly the opposite, and I really like the contrast, and then when I pick up my bass guitar it's welcome.
E.S.: What kind of music do you listen or like?
M.M.: Oh, I like old fifty's jazz like Miles Davis Quintet, and I like Brazilian music: Djavan, Milton Nascimiento. I like to listen to hip hop music a lot, because I live in the United States, and it's everywhere. I like to listen to a wide variety of things and maybe take from here, take from there, take a little of everything and see if I can influence it with jazz.
I would just like to say this: the first time I was in Italy I was with Miles, and we played in a big tent, and there were maybe 20 or 30 thousand people in this big tent, and Miles only played about 20 minutes, and then he left, and so I followed him, we all followed him. The audience thought it was an intermission, and Miles got us all in a car and we drove away. And I saw the audience realize that he was gone, and I saw the tent begin to shake. So I just want to apologize, and let everyone know that it was not my decision. Miles left and we had to follow.
E.S.: In what way does the audience influence you when you're on stage? Now you're playing at BlueNote, where the audience claps at the end of your piece, but you've played in Montreal last year in July, in front of 4.000 people who were absolutely crazy for you, screaming and shouting. How do the different settings influence your playing?
M.M.: One of the most powerful elements of touring is that the music and the musicians stay the same, but the audience is always different. Yes, we played in Montreal and the people were going crazy from the very first note, or we played in Paris the other day, the same thing, or sometimes we come to a Club, and the audiences are different. So it’s usually the first three songs it takes time to get used to it, but after that you begin to realize that people are listening, you know, they finished their food, and they're starting to listen, and by the end it all feels the same. It's just the first three songs it takes you a while to get used to it.
My favourite audience....... you know, sometimes they're just too enthusiastic, because there's so much power coming at you from the audience that you feel like you have to climb up high to play, you know what I mean? So, everything is too strong, everything is too powerful... So I like an audience who is maybe a little bit more calm, so that we can play a little more subtly. So this audience is wonderful, because, you know, they're listening. And then they get excited. They get excited because of the music, not because of you. You know what I mean? Sometimes you just walk on the stage and they go crazy... and I didn't even play! So I really actually prefer an audience like this.
E.S.: What do you think about contemporary jazz?
M.M.: Well, I think that contemporary jazz is a little bit supressed right now because we're coming out of a period where people were very interested in the older-style jazz, and it was very exciting to hear this style come back, but I think now people realized that in order for the music to continue we have to have some people who are adding something to new jazz. I'm very excited about it now and I think we're in for some very interesting music.
E.S.: What do you think about the music market right now, after the introduction of the iTunes and the digital music?
M.M.: Well, at first it's kind of scary, because you don't know whether people will continue to be able to make CDs and make a living from it, but now I think I'm a lot more comfortable. I think that iTunes is making people excited about music again and that's really what you want. You want people to be excited about music, and now everywhere you go you see people with the headphones on listening to music gain. Because for a while people didn't want to hear music without seeing something. You know, for a long time, maybe the last five years, they were going: "I wanna see the video! I need to see what I'm hearing!" For me it was always interesting to hear without seeing because you can imagine so many different things, and DVD and video had taken over, but iTunes, I think, is bringing back just music again.
E.S.: What movies will you be writing your music for? What movie did you like best?
M.M.: In America they had me doing a lot of romantic comedies. Romantic comedies are difficult to write the music for because you can't be too silly, but you have to have humor, and it's very difficult to find a balance, and I've been enjoying doing that. The last one I did is called "King's Ransom", and it should be released this month. The movies I like the score to, you know, I was just talking to Quincey Jones a couple of days ago, and he was telling me about his old movies, "In The Heat Of The Night", some really interesting movies, so I've been studyig those to remind myself about how great he was, he was a great composer. Quincy Jones also told me: "Don't let them have you do the same type of movie every time. At Hollywood they don't think very well, so make sure you keep changing or else they will just put you in a hole".
E.S.: What about the two movies you are going to work at after the tour?
M.M.: The director is Reginald Hudlin, and he's doing movies that don't have a name yet. He just has an idea. It's funny because I told Reggie years ago about this guy who was impersonating me. People didn't know who I was yet, they didn't know my face, but they saw my name on the CDs all the time. So there was this guy in San Francisco going around and telling people he was me, and he was doing all sorts of crazy things. And I told Reggie this story, and Reggie decided: "I'm going to make this into a movie". I think it's the next thing he'll try to work on.
E.S.: Could you talk about your greatest professional challenge and tell us about your professional dreams?
M.M.: Well, my dream these days is just to continue to stay creative, you know, to try new things and to improve as a musician. I think it's a great thing about being a musician; you don't stop until the day you die, you can improve. So it's a wonderful thing to do. One of my biggest battles, you know, is that my brain works too fast and I try to do too many things in one time, and I'm very good at it (doing many things in one time), but I'm always pushing it, pushing: one more thing, one more thing.... And I think that sometimes it's good to slow down and concentrate on one thing. That's the biggest thing, and there's a lot of other things: being a black guy in America has its issues but I try to stay so focused on my bowl that I won't let these things affect me. Think if you find something that you love, and you're very serious about it: it's very difficult to be distracted, and that's how I am. I don't get distracted very easily.
E.S.: Do you know the Italian jazz scene, and is there any Italian musician with whom you would like to collaborate in the future?
M.M.: I don't know the Italian jazz scene that well..... I know the Italian American jazz scene, you know Joe Di Francesco? But he's American.....This is as close as I can get, so I need to spend more time here and see what's going on!
The press conference is over, and I follow Marcus Miller upstairs, in a quiet office for my interview.
Eva Simontacchi: You’ve had such a rich carreer: producer for great artists such as Luther Vandross, Miles Davis, David Sanborn; you’ve been a top call studio musician, appearing on about 450 recordings. You sing, play clarinet, piano, and many other instrments, apart from bass guitar. You’re a composer and compose for yourself and for other artists; you score movies. In 1993 you released your first solo album “The Sun Don’t Lie”, and since then you’ve released 8 (2 live) albums, and “Silver Rain” is your newest release. How can you cope with all the different directions your love for music is branching out to?
M.M.: You know, if you think about it the way you just did.... it makes me tired just hearing it!
E.S.: Of course you did all this over the years....
M.M.: For me, I'm the kind of person I like to have many things going on at the same time, and sometimes I think that if I only have one thing going on, it doesn't work that well for me. Too much energy goes into one thing, it comes out too complicated. So for me, I like having maybe three or four things together, but whatever I'm dealing with now, that's the only thing in the world. So if I'm talking to you, nothing else distracts me. You know what I mean? If I'm working with Miles, there's nothing else. And if somebody goes: "Hello? You have to be over here", OK. You know what I mean? And I think that what allows me to do it is that wherever I am, that's the whole World, and it allows me to concentrate. So I don't have to worry about anything else. If I'm doing this, I don't go: "Oh, man in five minutes I have to go over here".... I'm lucky to have people in my life to help me do this. I say: "Listen, you call me at five o'clock, and tell me that I have to go". So I can work, and when the phone rings, and they tell me I have to go, O.K., I go. So, when I'm focused on something, I really give it 100%.
E.S.: A standard Marcus Miller day (not when you're on tour).
M.M.: A standard Marcus day, OK. I wake up at 7 a.m. and my wife is getting our children ready for school. I drive the two girls to school. After they go to school I drive to gym, and this is at 8 o'clock. I play basket-ball, I lift my weights for one hour, maybe two. Then I go to the studio, and I work in the studio on whatever I'm working on, movie or composing for myself all the way till maybe seven or eight o'clock. Then I go home, say hello to everybody, help with homework, maybe watch TV with my family, everybody goes to bed, and I go: "I'm going back to the studio". I go back to the studio and I work until I get so tired that I can't see straight, and then I go home. So that's my typical non touring day.
E.S.: So you've got the chance to stay with your family, do things with your children, and also do something for yourself, like getting fit.
M.M.: And then, you know what happens is that all of a sudden I get into a heavy period, like I'm working on a film, and it's due in one week. Then everything changes. Or I'm working on my CD and I have to turn it in very soon, or else it won't come out in time.... So I say: "Hello everybody! I'm going into a crazy time". And everybody knows I'm in a crazy time, and then I'm working all around the clock and coming home.... like everybody's going to school and I'm coming home. But I try to manage it. It happens at the end of every project. I work maybe a month and then I have bad days at the end of the month, or two months and then I have an intense week.
E.S.: What about a special Marcus Miller day?
M.M.: Well, sometimes I say to my wife: "You know what? I'm taking off today"... "Taking off?"... "Yeah, come on, let's go!" So we just go, take a walk, you know, relax and do something. Or if she's busy, sometimes I just drive. I put on some music and just drive, very fast (he chuckles).... Just driving around listening to music. I think the car is a very special place, you know. You're by yourself but there's things going on and it's not television. It's real life going on and you can listen to your music, so I really enjoy that.
E.S.: For how long had you been thinking about a solo project of yours before the release of 1993’s “The Sun Don’t Lie”?
M.M.: Maybe six years.... I wrote a little bit, played for somebody.... "How do you like this? It might be in my album".
I finished "The Sun Don't Lie" maybe in 1991, but then it took time trying to make a deal. People were going: "We don't know.... He's a side-man". So, eventually it was released in 1993. So I think maybe four years. Your first album you have plenty of time: your whole life. Second album: eighteen months. You know what I mean? So first one you should take your time, because there's only one first album. For me actually it was two, because I made two albums very early on in my life, maybe when I was twenty-one or twenty-two years old, more R&B albums. Then I decided: "I'm not ready, I need to grow more". And then I waited, so actually I had two opportunities to do this, but I really considered "The Sun Don't Lie" the first time that I could say: "Yes, this is really me".
E.S.: I learned you said you’re a lot inspired by vocal in your phrasings and technique, and this is intriguing, since many singers and vocalists say they’re inspired by instruments. Do you think this is so because you sing?
M.M.: Well, I think that all my favourite musicians they sound like singers, you know. If you listen to Miles, you can sing his solos. If you listen to some other musicians, you can't sing. If you play an instrument that requires your breath, saxophone, trumpet, singing, you have to phrase: you have to start and you have to stop because you have to breathe. If you play bass, guitar, piano, drums, you don't have to breathe. You can play as long as you have energy. But what happens is that it makes your music harder to understand, because with human beings we're used to hearing phrases, we're used to hearing sentences, right? But if you just continue to play, there's no sentence. So what I began to do was play as if I'm singing. It makes me stop. It makes me start. It makes me make ideas, you know. And I think musical ideas, particularly when you're improvising, it's important to try to use sentences. And I try to tell young musicians: "Please, don't just play with your hands, don't just let your hands go. Think about what you want to say, and say it clearly, and then say something else, and something else. Every once in a while there might be a very long line, because you do play piano, you do play bass, and there's nothing wrong. But think about sentences: beginnings and ends. And singers do that naturally. And then singers taught me how to use vibrato. Don't go right to vibrato. Hold the note, and when the note's almost too long, then you add vibrato. These things are things that you do as a singer. I learned them on my instrument and it made my playing more expressive. Singers like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, when they sing, the beat is here, sometimes they wait. They sing way behind, and eventually catch up. Well, bass players, most bass players don't understand this. They play right on the beat, because they play rhythm. But for me, for soloing, I say: "You know what? This is more expressive. Let the beat go, catch up. Get ahead even, sometimes." But you have that freedom that bass players don't normally know about. I know about it because I live with singers, I'm producing singers, I'm singing myself. Speaking is the most fundametal form of communication for us, so the closer you can make your music to speech, the easier people will understand you.
E.S.: An artist with such an experience in many different music styles but with a very personal sound is difficult to encounter. Do you remember any experience in particular that surprised you, inspired you or opened “a special door” for you?
M.M.: Well, I remember wanting my own voice on the bass very badly, and I remember not having any idea how to achieve this. And I would speak to my older musician friends, you know, Lenny White, great drummer, and I would say "Lenny, how do I get my own voice? My own style?" And he said: " Don't think about it, just play, all the time. One day you'll hear a recording and you will say: Hey! That's me!" So I just played and played and one day I get a call from Miles Davis: "Call Miles". I was on a record date, I don't remember who it was, but I got a note: "Call Miles". So I called Miles, and he said "Be at Columbia Studios in one hour". "Is this the real Miles Davis?" "Yes" "OK". So I go to Columbia Studios after this session's over and I go to the next place, and within one hour, I'm recording with Miles. And this is very important, there's Miles, right there. So I have to play something special, I want to play very badly something special, so I'm fishing deep to find something appropriate, something special. Then we finish recording and we go into the control room to hear the playback and listen to what we did.... and I'm listening to the bass, and I'm going: "Hey, that's me.....That's only me. I know me. That's me......" I'm so surprised because the words that Lenny White had said to me, I remembered them: "One day you'll just hear it, and it will surprise you". And I was so surprised, you know, and also happy because there was no better time for me to recognize this than with Miles. I was very happy. And I think I probably had my own style two years before that, but this was probably the first time that I recognized it, that I realized. I was conscious, I was focused on it. That was very important to me, you know.....And I took that little germ of a style and I tried to develop it. Anything that I heard that I did, that I don't remember anyone else doing, I made a note: this is yours, make sure that you develop it, man. And that's what I've been working on; trying to make that grow since then.
E.S.: In what kind of situation are you most creative? Alone, in a silent place or in the nature, or when you’re under pressure, or what else?
M.M.: Well, you know, I can start something in a quiet place. I can never finish anything in a quiet place. I need: “We need this done, Marcus, come on!” because deadlines force you to make decisions, you don’t have time. So you have to go to your instinct. Quincy Jones told me that when he had a deadline, he would turn on the TV and watch TV, and he would write with the other part of his brain, the subconscious part of his brain. So, no second guessing, I can’t do that, you know... But for me deadline helps! It makes you make decisions.And it makes you find your true-self! If you have too much time it doesn’t help you. You go: “I would like to be somebody different.... Let me try it...” But no, with a deadline you have to be you.
E.S.: What would you like to say to all the aspiring professional young bass players that spend countless hours on your records, trying to get into your style?
M.M.: Well, you know.... I would say: “Your most important inspiration is probably very close to you.” I notice that musicians who have very good styles.... it comes from their home, it comes from their original neighbourhood where they live. You know, like Miles, his original hero was Clark Terry who lived very close to him... You know, people come from New Orleans, and they have a specific sound, I come from New York, people from Japan have a certain sound. I think that you really have to look nearby first to establish who you are, because no one else can do that, and no one else can play like they come from Sardenia, no one else can play like they come from Poland. You have to make that your center, and once you have your center, then you look everywhere, and you grab, and you add to your center. But your center never changes. I listen to Brazilian music, I listen to old ‘50s jazz, I listen to hip hop music, but at my center I’m in New York, funk musician, with jazz. That’s who I am. Then I just use everything else to help me grow. So you really have to work on your center. And a lot of musicians, particularly if they don’t come from a big city, they feel: “I have to get out of here, I can’t wait to leave this small town!” But you listen to Toots Thielemans! Toulouse, France.... Don’t you hear that in his playing? And no one else can do that! No one else can play like Toots! Because he’s who he is. You listen to Bileli Lagrène, he plays this gypsy thing... and this is him! I can’t do that! I can listen, I can admire and maybe take a couple of things, but that’s him, and I think that the World is getting small, and it’s becoming more difficult to be original musicians. You know what I mean?
E.S.: You keep hearing lots of different ideas, coming from everywhere, and very quickly. And young musicians have this very early on....
M.M.: So now you hear very young musicians, even great musicians and you go: “O.K., That sounds like Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon... There’s John Coltrane... Well, maybe it sounds so, because he has that combination, but before you could say: “Oh! That’s a Texas sound! That’s got to be Eddie L. Davis... Because I hear a Texas sound. Or I hear new Orleans, or hear the Bay Area. In the United States all the regions have their own sound... But that’s getting smaller and smaller. That’s the bad thing. The good part is that we get to experience one another a lot more easily and we don’t have narrow minds, but the one drawback is that musicians are all starting to sound the same.
published 29.07.2005© 2005 jazz news :: home page