“Jazz Monthly Feature Interview” Marcus Miller
Smitty: Well, once again Mr. Marcus Miller graces the stage of JazzMonthly.com, the incredible funk master himself. He has cut another four-string wonder and let me tell ya, if you liked his last project, you’re gonna love this one. It is self-titled and there are some fantastic tunes and you know he always comes with some swingers to support his project and there is nothing different this time. Please welcome the incredible and amazing, the one and only Mr. Marcus Miller. How you doing, my brotha?
Marcus Miller (MM): I’m doing great, man. How you doing, man?
Smitty: Oh, wonderful, you know?
MM: That’s great.
Smitty: And even better now that I have this new record, man.
MM: Oh, good. I’m glad you like it. That’s nice to hear.
Smitty: This is just some fantastic stuff, you’ve got some great players on here, I mean, you got Lalah [Hathaway], you got Corinne Bailey Rae, I mean, how can you go wrong, you know?
MM: Yeah, if you start from there, man, then we’ve got Keb’ Mo’, David Sanborn, Tom Scott. You remember Tom Scott?
Smitty: Oh yeah. Yeah, man.
MM: Yeah, he’s been doing his thing, so it’s beautiful. I’m really happy to have those people involved.
Smitty: Yeah, you know, when I heard that David Sanborn was on there, I was looking for one of those little jingles.
Smitty: “And that was ‘Blast’ by Marcus Miller.” (Both laugh.) Remember those little jingles?
MM: Right, that’s right, the jingles that he used to do, man.
Smitty: Yeah, man, that was so cool. But this is some kind of record and in some respects this was a nice little reunion with some of your favorite musicians too for this record, wasn’t it?
MM: Yeah, well, yeah, definitely with David Sanborn. We have a long history together. We started making records together when I was writing for him and producing his albums back in the early 80s, so it was nice to get back together with him and then I got a new guy on the album. I mean, he’s not a new musician, but this is the first time we played together. His name is Chester Thompson and Chester was the organist for Tower of Power back in the 70s when they were doing their thing.
MM: Yeah, and now he plays organ with Santana and I asked him to join me on a version of Tower of Power’s “What Is Hip?” So he played the organ on that thing. I was really happy to have him.
Smitty: And that was a swingin’ track, man. I mean, this is unbelievable. I mean, you cats just let the funk out on this one, you know?
MM: (Laughs.) Thank you.
Smitty: Whoo! That was sweet. Yeah, and you’re right, man. He just tore it up on there and that organ is hot.
MM: Yeah, he did his thing. It was nice to finally meet him because I’ve been listening to those Tower of Power records for so long, man, it’s finally nice to see the guy who had so much of a part in that sound, you know?
Smitty: Yeah, and then you brought back some of the cats I like, like Patches Stewart. Man, that cat…
MM: Oh yeah, yeah. Well, I got the guys who are touring with me, so that would include Patches Stewart on trumpet, who’s got a beautiful sound, man, and Gregoire Maret plays the harmonica. He comes from Geneva, Switzerland originally and he lives in Brooklyn in New York now, but he played that harmonica. He’ll remind you like if you took Stevie Wonder and Toots Thielemans and combine them together you get Gregoire Maret.
MM: He’s got a really nice sound. If you hear the album, you’re definitely gonna hear his stamp all over it, you know?
Smitty: Yeah, man, he’s a bad boy.
MM: When he starts, you think, oh, is that Stevie? And then he keeps going to some other notes. You go that’s not Stevie, that’s somebody else, you know? And then people wanna know who he is.
Smitty: Yeah, he’s got command.
MM: Yeah. I don’t know how he does it because it’s such a small instrument and most people you hear playing harmonica, they play kinda basic either blues or kinda the basic music.
MM: But he’s playing all sorts of stuff. I still don’t know how he does that.
Smitty: Yeah, but he can bring it.
MM: Yeah, he does.
Smitty: Well, Marcus, we got to hang out a little bit in Holland and I got to see you do your thing over there.
Smitty: And it was good to bump into you again and Bobby Sparks and, like you said, Patrick and all the cats, and that was a really nice gig, you got your feet wet in the water too, didn’t you? You hosted your first jazz cruise.
MM: Yeah, I hosted the North Sea Jazz Cruise last year, last summer, man. You know, at first I was a little apprehensive. I was like “I don’t wanna be any cruise director,” you know? But they approached it the right way. They said “Look, it’s all up to you with the music. You just invite whoever you would wanna hear.” And I said “Really?” They said “Yeah,” so I said “Okay,” so I got Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner and Kirk Whalum and Medeski, Martin & Wood, James Carter. It was beautiful, man, and everyone was on this ship together and the people who came to listen, they love music so much that it ended up being a beautiful experience for the musicians as well as the listeners.
Smitty: Yeah, love that scene.
MM: To be surrounded by people who absolutely adore what you do, man, there’s just nothing like it. It turned out to be a really beautiful experience.
Smitty: Yes, it was. Talk about some of the stops, the ports on this cruise.
MM: Oh, let’s see, last summer, man, we started in Copenhagen and then we sailed up the North Sea and we made a couple of stops, one in Germany, one in Switzerland, and we ended up at the North Sea Jazz Festival, where they have it, in Rotterdam. That’s where the boat stopped and then it stayed docked there for three days being used as the hotel so the people on the boat could experience the jazz festival, so it was a pretty cool experience.
Smitty: Yeah, it was and you cats tore it up in those jam sessions at the hotel. That was…they were all-nighters.
MM: Yeah, so we just carried it over—‘cause that’s the way it was on the ship, man, everybody was just jamming in different places, so it was really exciting. So this time, the next cruise is hosted by Playboy. It’s gonna be the Playboy Jazz Cruise and it’s gonna leave out of Florida and go down into the Caribbean, and we got Herbie to sign on again and we got Diane Reeves and Poncho Sanchez, and it’s really excellent, man. I’m really looking forward to doing it again.
MM: And I convinced Keb’ Mo’, who’s this amazing blues singer. You know, I don’t know if you know Keb’ but…
MM: He’s a blues singer who sounds like he comes from Mississippi, although he comes from South Central L.A. I can’t quite figure it out.
MM: But he said “I don’t like boats.” I said “Come on, you’ll have a good time.” (Both laugh.) So I convinced him to be on there so, man, it’s gonna be a first. We have Keb’ Mo’ on there as well.
Smitty: That’s gonna be swingin’, man. That is gonna be swingin’.
MM: It leaves January 2009, but if you go to PlayboyJazzCruise.com you can see it. January 25th is when it leaves, in 2009.
Smitty: Wow, that’s gonna be an incredible jam.
MM: Oh yeah, absolutely, absolutely. The thing that’s nice about it is you get to—because these boats, man, they have a huge concert hall right there on the ship.
MM: But the thing is, it’s like you get to hear all this music and then you don’t have to worry about where you parked your car afterwards and you don’t have to worry about catching the train.
MM: You just go up to your room, man. You’re done or go have a drink and then go to your room. It’s all good, you know?
MM: So a nice experience.
Smitty: It’s sounds like a kickin’, kickin’ cruise.
MM: Mm-hmm, yeah.
Smitty: So let’s talk about this record, man, because I am just stoked over this great record.
MM: Oh, good.
Smitty: Now, when you did “Blast”…
Smitty: That must’ve been a blast because when I heard that first, I said “Man, I know this is gonna be a great record.” That is a kickin’ track, man.
MM: I’ve been hearing these musicians starting to experiment with the Eastern sound.
Smitty: Yeah, love that sound.
MM: You know, like Indian sound or Turkish sound. I heard a couple of jazz musicians experimenting with that, I heard a couple of bassists experimenting with it, and I heard like hip hop guys like Timbaland, you know, he was using a lot of the Eastern sound on the record he was producing for people like Beyonce and stuff, and I’m starting to get very intrigued by it. I wanted to see if I could put my own spin on it. And I was actually even hanging out in Istanbul doing a jazz festival a couple of years ago and bought some Turkish instruments and got inspired by those sounds, so the “Blast” that you hear on the record is a result of that whole kind of thinkin’ and that whole feelin’.
Smitty: Man, that is a sweet sound.
MM: But, you know, I couldn’t just go all Eastern. You know, I had to combine it with some New York, so I said “What can I combine it with?” I put the beat from “Planet Rock.” (Both laugh.) So if you like the “Planet Rock” beat with some, you know, Turkish instruments, that’s what “Blast” is.
Smitty: Yeah, man.
MM: With some funky bass, of course. (Laughs.)
Smitty: Yeah, and it’s got that funky Eastern sound, you know?
MM: Right. I didn’t even know there was one, but now we got one, a funky Eastern sound.
Smitty: Yeah, man. (Both laugh.) And then “The Funk Joint.” Whoo!
MM: Yeah, “The Funk Joint,” it’s just really about my band on that one. These are the guys I’ve been traveling with for the last couple of years….Bobby Sparks on keyboards from Dallas, Texas, and Keith Anderson on sax from Dallas, Texas, and Poogie Bell on drums. Poogie Bell is a drummer who played with Erykah Badu. He was doing that “boom-boom-clap.” That clap, you know, that she loves so much. Patches Stewart on trumpet, you know, and Gregoire on the harmonica, so when you hear that song, you really hear the true sound of that group.
Smitty: Yeah, and Bernard, man, he’s got some juice!
MM: Bernard’s my boy. We grew up together, Bernard Wright, he lives in Dallas as well, so I went down to Dallas and got him to put some extra funk on there.
MM: Some pretty stinky, nasty, funky thing.
Smitty: (Laughs.) And you gotta talk to me about the track, “Strum,” man, you know, take me there.
MM: Well, “Strum,” you know, I was just playing the bass, man, and every once in a while I like to write music in my head. I don’t even wanna touch an instrument, I wanna imagine it in my head first, but this was different because this came right off the bass. I was fooling around on the bass. He came up with this nice little sound, you know? And I said “Oh boy, I’ve gotta make us a song right around this sound, right around this.” You could hear it. The song’s all about that bass line.
Smitty: Yeah, very cool approach.
MM: But it’s really cool and that’s the one I got Tom Scott to come and do his thing on it. I hadn’t heard from him in a while and he’s starting to make a comeback. He just did a tribute to Cannonball Adderley, an album that just got released about maybe—or maybe it’s about to be released in a week. It’s a very nice album, so it’s really good to see him back on the scene.
Smitty: Yes it is.
MM: And I’m glad that I have him on the CD.
Smitty: Yeah, I haven’t heard that one. I look forward to hearing it, yeah.
MM: Yeah, it’s really nice, very nice. It’s called Cannon Reloaded or something like that. It has myself on bass, Steve Gadd on drums, Terence Blanchard on trumpet, and George Duke on keyboards, so it’s ridiculous.
Smitty: Yeah, that is ridiculous, man. Well, we certainly look forward to that one. Hey, man, talk to me about the bass clarinet. You are known around the world for the four-string Fender and I’ve seen you with the bass clarinet, but I haven’t been able to talk to you about it. Every time we see each other we’re running in another direction or we’re talking about something else.
MM: Right, right.
Smitty: Man, talk to me about how you got into the bass clarinet.
MM: Well, you know, my first serious instrument at about ten years old was the regular clarinet. You know, they offered it in school in New York, and I played it and stayed with it. I picked up the bass a few years later, but they didn’t teach bass in school at the time, so in order for me to get a good music education, I stayed with the clarinet all the way through college and was pretty serious about it, but that bass just kinda took over, you know?
Smitty: Yeah, man.
MM: And I saw a lot more opportunities for myself as a bassist than I did as a clarinetist, so I eventually stopped playing the clarinet, and then I was working with Miles [Davis], it was like the 80s, and I was talking to my wife and I was threatening “You know, I’m gonna pick up the clarinet again, maybe not just a clarinet, I’m gonna get a bass clarinet, something cool and sexy, you know?” And she gave me one as a present that Christmas. And I honked and squawked on it all Christmas morning, you know, and probably ruined everybody else’s Christmas, but I had a good time, you know?
MM: But I began to get serious about it, man, and it was such a nice thing for me because not that many people play that instrument. It has a very unique sound, it’s very difficult to play, so a lotta horn players shy away from the bass clarinet, but for me it’s worth the work because the sound is so beautiful.
Smitty: It is, man.
MM: You know, so it’s become like my other voice besides the bass.
Smitty: Yeah, it’s got a sweet sound and it thumps hard.
MM: Oh, yeah, yeah, and you can go low and really vibrate people’s bones, you know, or go really high like a regular clarinet as well, so I really like the range of it too.
Smitty: Yeah, I like that thumpin’ sound, man. It’s beautiful.
Smitty: Marcus, let’s talk about something that is serious. To me, a lotta musicians as well as aspiring musicians mention you as a bassist. You are such a measuring stick for so many artists and aspiring artists, but I get a lot of requests or people asking me about their son or their daughter that’s picked up the bass and they say “What advice do you give me?”
Smitty: And I try to be generic and not too overbearing in giving advice.
Smitty: But coming from the master, what advice do you give to kids out there, regardless of the instrument, but especially the bass, in terms of if this is something they really wanna do, what is some of the most important information or advice that you would give for parents as well as students of the music?
MM: Well, the first thing I would say is that if you’re a parent, if you can get your kid a good teacher at least at the beginning so that they don’t develop any really bad habits, that’s important.
Smitty: Yeah, true that.
MM: Like when I first started, I didn’t have a teacher, so I held the bass so that my wrists were bent at very extreme angles and ended up developing a little bit of carpal tunnel, you know what I mean?
MM: So I had to re-learn how to hold the bass. I held it so it looked cool. That’s all I was concerned about, you know? But you gotta hold it so that your wrists aren’t bent, that kind of thing, so getting a good teacher at the beginning is nice, but to the musicians I would say, man, keep your ears open, learn anything that you hear that’s music that you like, try to figure it out on your bass, you know, figure out how all the music works together, listen to see if you can hear the guitar part, listen to see if you can hear the drums, if you can hear the bass line, if you can hear all the different parts so you know how the music comes together so that you then can know how the bass works and what you need to be putting in there.
Because a lotta guys can play well but they don’t really know what to do when they’re playing with other people. They don’t know what makes music sound good. So try to listen as much as you can and look out for every opportunity. Some opportunities, they don’t pay you any money, but they’re valuable opportunities anyway, so just try to play in as many different situations as you can so you can develop that experience which should one day will come in handy.
Smitty: So being ready and being a good listener, man.
MM: Oh yeah.
Smitty: That’s excellent advice, yeah.
MM: Yeah, a lotta guys get focused on playing, which is good. You gotta do that, but you also have to listen and you also have to look for opportunities and opportunity doesn’t always mean just making money. Sometimes, you know, shoot, man, when I was coming up in New York, I played in salsa bands, African bands, I played in funk bands, straight ahead traditional jazz bands, man. I played Jewish bar mitzvahs, I played everything.
MM: And I was in college and I was orchestrating for strings, and I’m telling you, each one of those experiences, man, came to be very useful later on in my life, you know? Even the bar mitzvah stuff, man. (Laughs.)
Smitty: How ‘bout that?
MM: I was scoring movies, man, I need a little Jewish sound, man, I got it. I got it covered.
MM: Or I end up on this jazz cruise, man, and have to play with Herbie Hancock or McCoy Tyner, I got it covered, I’m ready, because I’ve got a wide range of experiences to draw from, so I think that’s very important.
Smitty: Excellent, man. That’s excellent advice. And I must say, coming from you, man, that carries a lotta weight, my friend.
MM: (Laughs.) All right.
Smitty: Carries a lotta weight because you are highly recognized as a great musician and the funk master of the four-string and this record is a stamp on your musicianship and like no other, because this is a fantastic record, and it does show that you can step in with the best because you have the best on this project.
MM: Oh yeah, thank you, man.
Smitty: Yeah, man, and it speaks volumes, my friend. And I know that people are gonna be lining up for this record because it is unbelievably good, and I’m just glad I got my copy! (Laughs)
MM: Yeah. The response has been very good, man. People have been really enthusiastic about it, you know, a lotta nice e-mails and people going to my Web site, www.marcusmiller.com, and leave me nice notes, so, so far, it’s been a very nice experience with this album.
Smitty: Yes, and it was released, what, last week?
MM: Yeah, it came out a week ago.
Smitty: Yeah, man, and it’s doing very well and I love the artwork, man.
MM: Oh, thank you.
Smitty: It’s got that signature M&M silhouette on the back. (Both laugh.)
MM: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. You know it.
Smitty: I mean, that’s like the Michael Jordan silhouette, you know?
MM: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. I’ve been working on that to get a little logo going.
MM: But yeah, we’re just trying to find something that like on the front cover that was just clear and it kinda jumped out at you, so I like the color combination.
Smitty: Exactly, and you’ve still got that four-string working, man. That is a beautiful instrument. Have you named that one yet?
MM: Nah, man, B. B. King, you know, he’s got everybody trying to name their instruments, man. But mine, it’s just a 77. That’s the year I bought it, man, so, you know, they say “What instrument are you playing?”
MM: Everybody knows what I’m talking about.
Smitty: Yeah, the 77. That’s pretty cool, man. Wow, well, Marcus, hey, man, I wanna congratulate you because you’ve done some fantastic things throughout your career, as you mentioned, as well as those of recent. Congratulations on the cruise because I know you stowed away on one and you loved it so much you did your own.
MM: (Laughs.) Well, you know, when they first asked me to host a cruise, you know, like I said, I was initially a little reluctant, and they said “Well, why don’t you come on one of the cruises that we already have going so you can see what it’s like?” And that’s when I said “Oh, this is nice, you know, and the people love music. What musician doesn’t wanna be around people who love music, you know?” So that’s when I realized it was something that I could do and something I should do, so yeah, I was a stowaway. I might stow away on Wayman Tisdale’s next cruise because that’s my boy and I always have a good time with him. I might have to jump in his suitcase or something, you know? He’s so big, I could probably fit in his suitcase, no problem. (Both laugh.)
Smitty: I know. You and me both. What do you mean?
MM: Yeah, exactly. Big fella.
Smitty: Yeah, but a cool cat, though, very cool.
MM: Oh, beautiful, yeah, beautiful. That’s my boy.
Smitty: Yes indeed. Well, Marcus, hey, man, thanks so much for talking about this great record and your fantastic career, and congratulations on everything in 2008 and 2009, my friend.
MM: Thank you.
Smitty: And I look forward to seeing you real soon so we can kick it and talk some more.
MM: Smitty, thank you very much, man.
Smitty: All right, we’ve been talking to the incredible bassists, Marcus Miller. His fantastic new record is self-titled Marcus. You can’t miss it. It is already out in stores everywhere. You must pick up this great record. I highly recommend it. Marcus, thanks again, my friend, and we will speak very soon.
MM: Sounds good. Talk to you soon.
Baldwin “Smitty” Smith
For More Information Visit www.marcusmiller.com and www.3deuces.com and www.concordmusicgroup.com and www.playboyjazzcruise.com
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