Marcus Miller: Suspending the Rules

As Marcus Miller catches me up on a major project he’d been working on over the last couple years, he stops mid-sentence to give me some background, humbly explaining, “I had produced an album called Tutu for Miles Davis.”

No big whoop, right?

When you talk to the bassist, composer, producer, arranger, and film scorer, his down-to-earth and disarming demeanor is center stage, while his illustrious career speaks volumes for itself. In the twenty-six years since that landmark album with Davis, Miller has carved out his own distinguished path, setting himself miles apart from the pack. His collaborative efforts include an esteemed list of trailblazers across musical styles and genres like Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Mariah Carey and Herbie Hancock. He has also positioned himself as one of the most highly sought after black film scorers in Hollywood while simultaneously enjoying a successful solo career. On Renaissance (Concord Jazz), his eighth studio album as a leader, Miller’s message away from his instrument is just as profound as the music performed by he and his fresh band of dynamic, young players. “I think that music is really just a mirror to whatever’s going on in the world, and we’re just in a time where people are kind of playing it safe,” Miller proclaims. “People are nervous; people are thinking about money all the time, so they’re not taking the chances they used to take. It’s difficult — even if you’re doing something interesting — it’s difficult to get people to hear it. Record companies are just trying to stay in business so they’re not really concerned with presenting new, challenging music. So it’s more like the business people are calling the shots more than they used to. Back in the day, it was the music lovers who called the shots, and then they’d have to explain it to the business people. Not a lot of guys around like that anymore. Everybody’s just trying to keep the doors open. Music and business has always been an uncomfortable relationship, but right now the music is really suffering.”

Miller’s effortlessness at being completely himself oozes out of every corner of Renaissance, and if it’s about risk-taking, he has accomplished said mission on an album which directly references a span of over thirty years of black culture, including songs from Michael Jackson, WAR, and Janelle Monáe, although for Miller, it’s just a day in the life of a musician bred in the thriving 70s music scene of Jamaica, Queens. “It’s a reflection of the madness in my mind, which sounds really normal to me. It all just sounds like soulful black music. It’s all so related, so I don’t really hear it as eclectic as other people do.” Miller also presents some of his most prolific writing to date, with eight original compositions that showcase his talented band which includes trumpeters Sean Jones and Maurice Brown, alto saxophonist Alex Han, keyboardists Kris Bowers, Federico Gonzalez Peña and Bobby Sparks, guitarists Adam Agati and Adam Rogers, and drummer Louis Cato. The band has been touring extensively over the last two years, and came together around Tutu Revisited, a project started in tandem with the French Miles Davis exhibit, We Want Miles.

“The museum curator who made the exhibit asked me if I would play all the music from Tutu for the exhibit. So I said I would really like to do something in conjunction with this museum. Miles wasn’t really a guy who liked to look back… I’m not sure he would have liked that, but I said maybe if I get some young musicians who could reinterpret it and turn it into something from today, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, so that’s what I did. I found Alex at Berklee, and he recommended a drummer, and the drummer recommended another musician, and next thing you know, I have this band of 20-something cats, and instead of two gigs, it ended up being two years on tour, because people started getting wind of what we were doing. I felt myself being re-energized with this band. The band before, I had for a long time, and I found myself playing different and playing with a different energy and I kind of got hooked on that feeling.” Like his iconic mentor, Miller now finds himself in similar circumstances — a source of inspiration, organically bridging the generational gap.

Marcus Miller and Kris Bowers. Photo by Bibi Green.

“Miles never talked about being a mentor,” says Miller. “I’m not even sure he was consciously trying to be a mentor but just being around him as a young person… that’s how young people usually learn from older people anyway. Not necessarily from hearing them run their mouths, but just observing them and seeing how they run their everyday lives, and I had the benefit of watching him for a little while and how he made decisions and was just getting through life and I think it really affected me. I couldn’t tell you exactly how. The only thing I know is that I try to get the best out of my musicians where they can shine. I try to put them in situations where they can discover something about themselves.”

To his point, Miller carefully crafted the exquisite repertoire found here with this specific group in mind and brought them in on the process, most notably on the arrangement of the 1971 classic, “Mr. Clean”, written by another early mentor and unsung cultural hero — the late, great “Young, Gifted and Black” composer, Weldon Irvine.

“I was born in Brooklyn, but at the age of ten, I moved to Jamaica, Queens, and started my musical life there,” Miller reminisces. “Eventually at about fourteen [years old], I started meeting these bad musicians from Jamaica like Omar Hakim, and Tom Brown and Donald Blackman, and when I first met them, every one of them would refer to Weldon. Weldon was the mentor of the Jamaica cats. He’d put together gigs, because all of us were too young, so he was the one to coordinate and call all the guys together to play, and he was the one after the gig who would have some of us sit in the back of his Chevy Nova and listen to it on cassette (because he would record everything). He’d ask us to explain ourselves… the musical decisions that we made. He’d make us tell him what we had planned for our lives…what our goals were. ‘Mr. Clean’ was like his theme song, and on every gig we’d do with Weldon, we’d play different versions of it. We’d do it really funky and nasty or really jazzy. We had an off day on the road while on tour a couple of years ago, and we decided to rent out a rehearsal studio and we just worked up our own arrangement. It was so great to see these guys discover something I discovered so many years ago.”

Vocalists Dr. John, Rubén Blades and Gretchen Parlato make memorable guest appearances throughoutRenaissance, with Blades and Parlato partnering up on a gorgeous rendition of Brazilian composer Ivan Lins’ “Setembro”. Dr. John is a stunner, dropping New Orleans-flavored rap verses on the Janelle Monáe smash, “Tightrope”.

“I was listening to that Janelle Monáe cut, and I was just like, man this is so sweet! I was listening to that bass line and I said that sounds like one of those New Orleans piano players from back in the day, sort of boogie-woogie. I said I want to do a version of this song and accent the New Orleans aspect of this song and show the roots of where it comes from. With Dr. John, as soon as he says one word, you hear New Orleans. So I called him up and asked him if he’d be interested in collaborating. I said, ‘One thing is you’re going to have to rap, so get ready.’ He said, ‘Man, I don’t know how to rap.‘ I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll teach you.’ So I flew to New Orleans and we worked on Big Boi’s rap, and it was a lot of fun.”

Though Miller is now of veteran status, he insists that the inspiration is reciprocal and he is just as passionate about learning from his bandmates. With a band whose members have worked with artists like Beyoncé, Kanye West and Mary Mary, Miller is seeing first hand how his reputation as a limitless musician is influencing the next generation of jazz players, who can sometimes struggle with a community which can be heavily divided at times on matters of authenticity and does not always reward the idea of boundary-pushing.

Marcus Miller and Kris Bowers. Photo by Bibi Green.

“I think the biggest thing to consider is that if Charlie Parker had listened to people like that, he would never have ended up playing the way that he did because bebop was so different from the music that preceded it,” Miller says. “And then you can go down the line: If Miles had listened to those people in the 50s, if Trane would have listened to those people, he would never have done what he did. [For] people who are a little less secure, it’s really hard for them to accept new music… because you don’t know the rules yet. All the jazz musicians who I admire like Sonny Rollins; he’s not scared of anything. Herbie Hancock; he’s not afraid. Miles wasn’t afraid. It’s just the kind of people who aren’t that talented and that open, who want to set up the rules because they feel uncomfortable; they know they can’t hang. I know jazz guys who put down funk music, and then I’ll be on a gig, and invite him to come sit it with us, and he gets his head blown off [laughs]! He can’t even get started, because funk music has it’s own set of rules. It has its own requirements. A lot of jazz cats don’t have the tools, and vice versa. Although funk cats are smart enough to stay off the stage! But I’ve played with Aretha Franklin. You wanna put down R&B as a jazz musician? Come with me and sit down while Aretha sings in front of you, and I dare you to pass judgement. Stevie, Luther Vandross, Donny Hathaway — come on! That is the top level of musicality. So you just have to respect these different languages. It’s like, stop being a snob, man.”

It would be impossible to have a career distinction as singular as Miller’s and not have such a philosophy, or at least something close to it. It would be even more unimaginable to be a product of the school of Miles Davis, and not push against the status quo. Miller’s ability to do so both unapologetically and authentically, will likely be a significant part of his legacy, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down.

“It’s people in America who still want their music to be like European classical music… because with European classical music, the book is closed. You can’t write like Mozart anymore, you can’t write like Beethoven. That all happened, so European classical music has a real structure to it now because the book is closed. Once the book is closed you can put music in categories because it all happened and I think that there are a bunch of people in jazz who would like jazz to be the same way. They don’t really feel comfortable with what jazz really is. They’d rather it be America’s classical music, and they’re taking that shit too seriously. They’re trying to make it classical music, and jazz isn’t dead yet. Once it dies then you can say, ‘OK, this is jazz, that’s not jazz.’ As long as you got people out here still making it, you have to suspend the rules.”

** Writer’s Picks: “Detroit”, “Mr. Clean”, “Tightrope”

Orrin Evans: On Big Band and Taking Bigger Stands

Photo by Angelika Beener

Last week, I caught up with Orrin Evans for an interview for Alternate Takes.  The pianist, composer and band leader was in town for a gig at the Zinc Bar in Greenwich Village with his much-buzzed-about big band.  A couple of songs into the second set, Evans turns his famously hospitable energy toward the audience, as he introduces the band.  “Welcome to Captain Black Big Band.  For those of you who have read my recent Facebook rants, Captain Black is the tobacco my Dad used to smoke,” Evans defends.  “…but I am wearing a dashiki, so it can mean whatever you want it to!”

He proceeds to introduce the tune the band just played – “Captain Black.”  He then jokes encouragingly to his predominately White audience. “Come on guys, you can take it,” speaking of all of the “Black” references being tossed in their laps at lightning speed.  It is classic Orrin Evans fashion to make his audience laugh, think and cringe, all at the same time.  His honesty, though sometimes tough to hear (depending on where you’re coming from) is distinctively wrapped in warmth and convincingly well-intentioned.

Evans’ recent “Facebook rants” about Blacks mobilizing in the jazz industry in terms of an increased level of participation and ownership on the business side, among some other topics, have received some heated backlash from a few, and even apprehension to concede from some of his Black contemporaries.  For Evans, his philosophies are ingrained; the result of a household filled with robust cultural awareness and exposure, education, and a fierce intention to raise a child who was keenly aware, and secure with his identity.  “My father was Professor of African American Studies for 30 years at Trenton State College, and Professor of English at Princeton University, and I grew up in the Black arts movement because he was also a playwright.  Then I grew up with my mom who was an opera singer who came through Opera Ebony and Opera North which was the Black opera company, so in my house it was constantly ‘hold you head high.’”  When it came to the cruel names his dark-complexioned sister was taunted by, Evans reflects on his parents’ response, citing just one of the countless teachable moments that they would take advantage of throughout his upbringing.  “My father would grab all the kids in the neighborhood, and sit them on the steps and say ‘Check this out.  This is Africa and this is why there are different complexions…’  So that’s how I grew up.  So I can’t do anything different.”

Orrin Evans grew up in Philadelphia, PA, and emerged on the New York City jazz scene in the mid-90s after attending the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. A flourishing time for young jazz musicians, he was quickly recognized as an exceptional talent, and released his first album as a leader in 1994, and has at least ten more albums under his belt, to date.  He has dozens of recording credits, and has played with an array of jazz and popular artists like Bobby Watson, Pharoah Sanders, Antonio Hart, Roy Hargrove, Mos Def, Common, Dave Douglas, Brandford Marsalis, Sean Jones, Ravi Coltrane, and The Mingus Big Band.  He is a label executive, producer, arranger, educator and most recently, a big band director.

Posi-Tone Records

Captain Black Big Band is comprised of a combination of local and renowned jazz musicians from the Philadelphia and New York area and has included Ralph Bowen, Wayne Escoffery, Tia Fuller, Jaleel Shaw, Tatum Greenblatt, Brian Kilpatrick, Tim Warfield, Stafford Hunter, Frank Lacy, Brent White, Todd Marcus, Luques Curtis, Anwar Marshall, Gene Jackson, and Donald Edwards – – to name some.  The album, which bears the same name as the band, is comprised of original tunes by Evans, Ralph Peterson, Gianluca Renzi and Todd Marcus.  It is a joyous and meaningful assemblage of music, life and love, captured via live recording dates in both NYC and Philly.  I was caught off guard when Evans explained the genesis of such an ambitious project.  “The idea behind it was just boredom,” says Evans.  “That’s the truth.  Sometimes living in Philly, and that two hour commute to New York…I just wanted to do something.  And I had just gotten back from Portugal where I led this big band of college students, and I thought, wow, that was kind of fun, and I said well maybe I’ll do this during my down time in Philly. Nothing more.  But then when it started, I said this is really coming together.  And I have to admit, I married the right partner.  My wife was like alright, you’re bullshitting, we’re gonna do a record; gotta do the record.  I just did this to be doing it, and it kinda grew into something.  I called on other friends to fill in where some of the college students who were in Philly couldn’t handle.  I called Gene Jackson and Donald Edwards, and a lot of other people.  And I’ve never arranged for a big band.  And the thing is, people think that I did all these arrangements.  Charles Mingus didn’t do a lot of arrangements for his big band.  I wrote the tunes and then I was blessed to have Todd Bashore do a pile of arrangements and so the band started coming together.  And my thing is, what I’ve realized was like, New York…actually the industry…they want something to talk about.  So, here it is; Orrin Evans’ next thing.”

If you’re trying to keep up with Evans — good luck.  High on energy and ideas, he’s already working on the next big band album, as well as a new release from his group Tar Baby; a trio that includes bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits.  Based on a concept from African-American folklore, Tar Baby represents a powerful message.  “I grew up with Uncle Remus.  My father, like I said, was a playwright and used to read Uncle Remus stories.  The story of the tar baby is pretty much that Br’er Rabbit wanted to trick everybody and you can grab the tar baby and you’re stuck on what is real.  So we all got into a thing that tar baby is jazz. These other musicians — black, white, purple, green — don’t wanna grab onto.  They don’t wanna get stuck on the concept that this is Black music.  So there it is, and Tar Baby was born.”

Last year, Evans also released Faith In Action, which received critical acclaim.  The album is a tribute to one of his most important mentors, Bobby Watson.  A bold and inspiring homage, Faith In Action is a strong argument for playing the music of the living; a seemingly lost tradition in jazz today.  “I’ve recorded Duane Eubanks tunes, a Chris Beck (a 20-something year old drummer from Philly) tune on my last record.  A big part of it is that I have never forgotten where I came from.  Everybody came through Bobby Watson, I don’t care who you are.  If you’re in the same age range as me — between 32 and 55 – you came up through Bobby Watson.  Frank Lacy came through Bobby Watson, Chris McBride.  Roy Hargrove; his first recording date was with Bobby Watson.  Benny Green.  I mean, I can go down the list.  Regardless of what people may think.  People may say ‘Bobby’s cool…’ and Bobby is cool.  Bobby may not be John Coltrane.  Bobby may not be Kenny Garrett; I don’t really care.  The point is, how did I get in the door?  The problem is a lot of us forget where we came from.  I remember being in the Metronome, and I was playing with Rodney Whitaker and Ralph Bowen.  And remember seeing Bilal, Robert Glasper…all of them were there checking out the music.  They’ve always been checking out the music.  They will always talk about that time.  That time meant something to them.  The problem now is a lot of younger musicians are like ‘I’m just here,’ like they’re in Star Trek and they pressed a button and they morphed here.  I cannot deny that I got in the door through Bobby Watson. He opened the door and let me in. That’s all that record was about.  Let me play his music.”

From L-R: David Gibson, Bruce Williams, Orrin Evans, Conrad Herwig, Andy Hunter, Tim Green. Photo by A. Beener

Like so many before him, Evans has kept with the tradition of not just paying homage to those pivotal figures in his life, but utilizing jazz music’s vital role as a means of social commentary with his stirring composition, “Jena 6.”  Songs like Ambrose Akinmusire’s “My Name is Oscar” and “Jena 6” are unfortunate reminders of the world we live in.  I asked about the importance of telling these stories in jazz.   “Now it’s important to tell the story through the music and dot-dot-dot…whatever medium that is.  And when you get the microphone and on Facebook and on Twitter, ‘cuz others need to hear that story.  You never know.  Like today is my mother’s birthday.  But that’s important for me to tell tonight because I’m 36 years old and don’t have either one of my parents.  But I still feel empowered.  So, I tell that story because someone in that audience that I’m gonna play for tonight might have lost their mother, or may have lost their father.   So it’s important for me to play “Jena 6,” because I’m telling a story just like Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus.”  Just like Max, or Miles, but I can’t let it stop with playing a song.  Because sometimes you play the song and nobody knows who Orval Faubes was.  Nobody knows that he’s the dude who prevented desegregation in schools, so you have to say it, too.”

It is perhaps the “saying” that many of today’s musicians are struggling with, especially in the shrinking music industry climate.  “There’s tons of people that come to mind that are really willing to speak up.  But there’s also a lot of people that are scared.  They’re really scared because they’re all grabbing for the same thing.  There’s four booking agents, there’s four managers, and those people are in control of… you look at the top jazz people who I love and respect.  They’re like, if I wanna play there, I need to be cool with this person, so everyone is holding on to the little bit that they have.  That’s number one.  They don’t want to ruffle any feathers.”

For reasons understandable, Evans takes the relationships with his band mates seriously; especially off of the bandstand.  The social climate seems to suggest that bringing up truthful points — not opinion — is enough for an artist to be labeled with unfair and assumed agendas or platforms.  For Evans’ supporters (or supporters of any other Black jazz musician that dare have a mind to speak), there is an understanding that there may be consequence for any level of an agreeable attitude.  To illustrate, two artists (whose names will not be mentioned here) have had their record labels contacted, and were specifically asked not to comment on Evans’ Facebook comments.  Though Evans’ fans and supporters far outweigh the few who are taking issue, the horror of what that kind of action symbolizes in the grand scheme of things is worthy of the dedication of an entirely separate post.  But for Evans, it is quite simple.  “My lead alto player calls me an hour before you got here and couldn’t make it [for the Zinc Bar gig tonight].  So I’m thinking, is there a shortage of lead alto players in New York?  No.  Is there a shortage of lead alto players that are comfortable with my rants on Facebook?  That have known me, known my wife, are familiar with my kids, and know where I’m coming from?  Yes.  So I’m like, shit.”  Of course, Evans gets his altoist before the end of our time together, but his point is well taken.  “I just need family around me.  I wanna look at every person on that bandstand, and they know me.  They know my family.  That’s really important to me.  Not just ‘cuz you the baddest cat.  I can call the baddest cat.  We all can.”

On his way back from Texas to New York to meet me for this interview, Evans’ described his appreciation for the flood of phone calls and text messages he received from an array of jazz industry figures as he walked through Newark airport.  For Evans, the abundance of messages of hopes that he’ll continue to do this all important — if sometimes unpopular — enlightening, is motivation enough.

In terms of music, Evans is proving to be more prolific than ever.  Recently placing in this year’s DownBeat Critics Poll in the Big Band category, and releasing the gorgeous and relentlessly swinging Freedom (Posi-Tone) and several projects coming down the pike, Evans is still one of jazz music’s top contenders. ♦