Innerviews, music without borders

Marcus Miller
Open Skies
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2008 Anil Prasad.

Fusion aficionados have long implored bass virtuosos Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten to engage in a collaborative project. The fact that the three are good friends made it a regular topic of discussion amongst them for years. However, their incredibly busy schedules as solo touring and recording artists made it logistically daunting. Convinced that the possibilities were too exciting to ignore, Bass Player magazine invited the trio to do a one-off performance at its 2006 Bass Player Live! concert in New York City. The threesome dazzled the crowd, seamlessly integrating their unique bass approaches to thrilling effect. While there were plenty of staggering chops to admire, perhaps the most impressive thing was they worked together in a truly supportive manner, ensuring each musician’s unique personality was heard, while establishing a collective voice for the group.

Most assumed that was that. And with recently released solo albums from all three, as well as Clarke taking part in a Return to Forever reunion—unquestionably the jazz event of the year, and Wooten working with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Chick Corea and Mike Stern, it seemed all but impossible that this trio would exist again in any capacity for a long time. Yet amazingly, they regrouped this year to record Thunder, a studio CD released under the name S.M.V., as well as engaged in a late fall world tour.

Fans had an idea of what to expect from this teaming, and they’ll be pleased to know that’s exactly what was delivered: a high-energy funky fusion tour de force. The disc finds the musicians carefully intersecting with each other by meticulously layering their unique sounds. They also typically ensured everyone occupied specific frequencies on each track to mitigate sonic clashes that might occur when the majority of lead instruments are basses. The album also features several guest musicians to round out the proceedings, including Corea, George Duke, Michael “Patches” Stewart, and Ronald Bruner.

Miller discussed the creative process behind this one-of-kind CD, as well as the other intriguing considerations that influenced its direction. He also offered in-depth insight into his current directions as a solo artist, including his impressive recent release Marcus. The disc is one of his most diverse to date, masterfully blending jazz-rock, funk, R&B, and even Turkish influences into a highly satisfying outing.

Take me through the process of arriving at a direction for the S.M.V. album.

The first thing we talked about was making a complete record as opposed to capturing three guys just doing some technical stuff on the bass or jamming out. That would have been the easy way to do it. We wanted to make a musical record and insert our bass playing into that. That was really important to us. The next step was “Okay, we need some music.” So, we agreed to have each of us go and write stuff and then send it to the other guys. We did that and played the stuff for each other. Once we heard each other’s compositions, we said “Everybody seems to be on the same page, but what’s missing? What do we need now that we have these three or four things?” Everything got easier after that step because it established a direction for us and we were able to move on and finish the picture.

All three of you recently released solo albums, and Stanley took part in the Return to Forever reunion. I can’t imagine a crazier year for all of you. How did you collaborate given everyone’s scheduling demands?

We sent a lot of our music over the Internet to each other. That way, when we had four days together when everyone was going to be in the same place on the planet, we had already listened to each other’s music and didn’t have to start from scratch. We said “Let’s just listen to this music, make our comments in front of each other and inspire everyone to do what we have to do next. Then, let’s get into the studio and start recording stuff.” We had to be really, really efficient because we didn’t have a lot of time.

Describe the creative process in which you bounced stuff off one another to evolve the material each of you brought in individually.

There were a lot of different situations. When we recorded “Los Tres Hermanos,” all three of us were there together and recording. It was so beautiful to see those two cats sitting there while we’re all playing the same instrument, yet having each instrument sound so different. To hear the personalities and the playing was just amazing. It really inspired me to reach into myself to find the thing that makes me unique. It made me say to myself “I really need to sound like myself here, because this album is all about personalities on the bass.” Another time, Stanley had to do something and said he would be an hour late for a session. So Vic and I started jamming on a Stanley song. When he got there, we said “We’re working on your tune man.” We were like kids, playing Stanley’s song for him. [laughs] Stanley got a grin on his face, pulled out his bass and started jamming with us. So, it was a very nice and natural thing. We all get along really well and respect one another. It’s kind of like three brothers getting together.

How would you describe each of your roles in this project?

Stanley served as the inspiration for Vic and myself from the beginning of our careers, so we always looked to him to put the stamp of approval on whatever we were working on. Vic or I would come up with something and we’d say “You think Stanley’s gonna like this? He don’t like everything.” [laughs] Vic was there to really create some excitement. He’d build some fire with his playing and play some particular lick to push a piece along. My role was to hold the whole thing together, provide the glue and ensure the thing kept moving along. I played the lowest part a lot of the time. I also produced the CD, so when the songs needed to be completed or put into a different form, that was my job.

What does Stanley like and dislike?

He didn’t want the album to sound like a chops thing with everyone just going crazy without any musical value. That was no problem for Vic and I because that’s exactly what we wanted too. We also wanted to ensure Stanley liked our versions of his songs. Vic and I jammed up a version of “Silly Putty” with part of “Lopsy Lu” in the beginning. We were concerned he would be sick of playing this 30-year old stuff, but he was really into it.

As the producer, what direction did you give Stanley and Victor?

I said things like “Hey man, I need you to sound more like yourself here. I need you to do something obviously Victor Wooten right here, because it’s what the music needs right now—something really exciting.” [laughs] With Stanley, I might say “I need you to get the right tone on your bass” or “I need you to play a little more at the end of this song because emotionally, we need a bit more action happening.” So, it was those sorts of things. I didn’t have to offer any critiques, because the musicians are too good. It was mostly about getting a little more of this and that.

All three of you are friends and consummate professionals. But each of you are also lead bassists and composers with very specific points of view. Were there any “check your ego at the door” messages at work in advance of the sessions?

None at all. There’s no reason to consider doing a project like this if there are going to be any ego issues. I think that was the first thing everyone was checking for before we even played a note. I think we asked ourselves “Are any of these three guys gonna be a problem?” It was a non-issue because everyone was so cool. In fact, we had the opposite problem. I needed to get Vic and Stanley to play more sometimes and take over more in the right places. Everyone was so into performing as a group that we had to remind each other that “Hey man, people are going to be listening for you, so let’s sure we give people a taste of each of our personalities.”

There’s an art and science to ensuring three lead bassists don’t clash from a sonic perspective. How did you avoid that in this collaboration?

The way it worked is Stanley spent a lot of time on his tenor bass, which is pitched higher than a traditional bass. He ended up on top a lot, because his bass was the highest pitch instrument. We often had Stanley playing the melodies. I play a Fender bass, so mine is the thickest-sounding instrument. I was often playing on the bottom a lot. That gave Vic room to dart in and out of the middle of the music. So, there are several songs where we took those specific roles, which are the same ones we fell into when we jammed at the Bass Day event a couple of years ago that started this collaboration. Once we did a few songs that way, we said “Let’s switch it up.” So, we have things like a version of “Tutu” where Stanley plays the bottom on the acoustic bass and I play lead. Victor and I also switch off when we’re soloing and trade licks.

Both you and Victor typically occupy territory that Stanley helped pioneer. Was it ever strange to hand over those frequencies to him for a lot of the record?

No man, it was really fun. We’ve all made a lot of records. [laughs] It’s not like it was hard to play another role. I enjoy playing the bass and just holding it down. I was a studio musician on 400 albums, so I love that. Vic enjoyed it too. And Stanley had a good time when it was his turn to play the low end for us. It was just a bunch of guys grinning. Stanley was just tickled pink. I’m sure he had no idea when he was 21 that he was going to influence other bass players as much as he did. He was probably just tripping out going “Wow, this is really all my fault.” [laughs] I’m sure he was amused half the time at what Vic and I were doing.

How much of Stanley’s influence is reflected in your own playing these days?

In terms of licks, there’s not that much anymore. But the whole stance—standing in front of a band playing instrumental music with lead bass, that’s all Stanley Clarke. It’s bigger than just the notes. It’s where Vic and I got that from.

So, his influence today is one of confidence and leadership?

Definitely. And the fact that this can be done at all. How do you get an instrument that occupies the low frequencies to stand out in a group that plays higher? Physically, people are drawn to higher sounds, be it trumpets, saxophones, dishes breaking, or babies crying. Those things get people’s attention. How do you get people’s attention with an instrument that doesn’t sit up in that range? Stanley found a way to do it and I found a way to do my version of it. So did Vic and a number of other guys. That’s Stanley’s biggest contribution.

Did you learn anything new about Stanley and Victor over the course of putting the record together?

Musically, there were no surprises at all. I’m pretty familiar with both guys and studied Stanley a lot earlier on in my career. I’ve also listened to a lot of Vic’s work and played with him many times. The only thing that could have been a discovery was understanding everyone’s work ethic. There might have been a case of “Oh, he doesn’t like to work too hard, does he?” [laughs] But that wasn’t a problem. In the studio, everyone was very focused and concerned with making things as good as they could be. It was more about confirmation than discovery for me.

All three of you are considered among the finest bass players to ever pick up the instrument. Was there an aura hanging over the sessions that made you feel “Oh my God, we have to deliver something exceptional because the world is waiting for this”?

Yes. [laughs] Stanley said “This has to be good. We better make sure it is.” For me, it was a case of “Okay, that’s what we always try to do anyway.” I always try to make things the best that they can be, so that took the pressure off.

Other than sorting out the sonic territory and the time crunch, what were some of the other key challenges you faced making the record?

Trying to present everybody’s personality in a distinct way so listeners could say “That’s Stanley there and Vic there.” Also, there was ensuring the CD had enough variety in the type of music so it didn’t occupy the same emotional space throughout. I think we did a pretty good job at that, but in the middle of the project we hit a point where we said “We need something different here that’s more open, not drum-driven and more melodic.” So, Vic and I started fooling around with a sort of obbligato way of playing the bass that was akin to an Italian mandolin. We thought having Stanley play a melody on top it would be cool too. So, I went home and wrote the piece “Milano” which was really different. It was something Stanley had to work on because it’s really in the high register. I think it’s one of his and Vic’s favorite things on the CD. It became a showcase for Vic and I’m really proud of it.

You’ve revisited “Tutu” in a variety of contexts. What did this trio bring to it that was unique ?

One of the things we wanted to do was do one of each guy’s songs. We wanted to do “Silly Putty” by Stanley Clarke, and I had an idea about fooling around with Vic’s “Classical Thump.” But we didn’t want the guy to choose his own song. We wanted the other two guys to pick a song they would like to do by that particular composer. Vic decided he wanted to try and do “Tutu.” He sent me an arrangement of it that I thought was great. I always wanted to do it with more of a go-go feel. So, I started messing around with it myself and we ended up arranging the final version together, but the initial idea was Vic’s. I liked the whole concept of using a different bassline and having Stanley playing upright on it. It gave the song another life and I’m really happy with it.

“Tutu” is widely revered as a late-era Miles Davis classic. How do you look back at the original piece?

Miles’ most classic period was during the ‘50s and ‘60s, but if you go through all of his songs that people recognize, I think people definitely identify “Tutu” as a song that you could capture the entire ‘80s period with. I do feel that way.

In 1977, you opened for Stanley as part of Lenny White’s group and said it was a mess because you were so intimidated. However, Stanley was ultimately very supportive of you and your career from the first time you approached him. What can you tell me about that early period when you were hanging out with him?

I played for Stanley when I was 17 for the first time, and yeah, I wasn’t too happy with my performance. I began traveling with Lenny White and then I was with Roberta Flack in those days. Whenever I was in Los Angeles, I’d call Stanley up. Because I was only 17 or 18 at that time, I had no idea about adult lives and responsibilities, and how an adult doesn’t have two hours to sit around with some kid in their house that just wants to be in their presence. So, I’d just call Stanley and say “Hey man, can I come over?” He always said yes. I’d show up to his place on Benedict Canyon in Beverly Hills. Man, that was something else because I was a kid from Jamaica, Queens. It was amazing to be in that neighborhood, visiting him. He had this big Bösendorfer piano in the middle of his living room and all these awards. It was just so beautiful to be in the guy’s presence. He was so gracious to put up with me. He never gave me the feeling that he was rushed or that I was imposing on him. He just let me hang out and let me play him my demos. [laughs] He was so cool to me and I always left there on cloud nine every time. I’ll never forget it. It really changed me and shaped how I deal with other musicians. I try to be as supportive to them as he was of me. I’ll stand on the side of the stage and make any young bass player deal with that—just like I had to with Stanley. [laughs] If a guy calls me up and says he wants to come by, I try to be as obliging as I can.

Do you see S.M.V. as an ongoing collaboration?

Making the record was great. And if the tour gets the response we hope it will, it could be something that’s ongoing. I hope so. We’re gonna be on the road for quite awhile and the music will take on a whole new life. The band itself will take on a whole personality. So, I think it’s a mistake to start planning before those things happen. We want to see what happens and where the band ends up. By the end of the tour, I think there will be a really obvious direction to consider.

Your new solo CD Marcus, like several of your recent albums, balances many musical directions. Tell me about your desire to showcase so much diversity within one release.

To be honest man, I don’t recognize it as diverse at all. I know I want to start off with a bang, then break things down, then open things up a little bit, and then hit ‘em with something hard, just like I do in a live set. So, it’s a very natural thing. It seems like a typical musical set for me. I know that a lot of other albums by other people have the same sound throughout the album, but I like my records to be a representation of who I am. I come from New York, and there are always a lot of styles going on there. As a studio musician, I used to play on three different albums in a day. In the morning, I might do a Burger King commercial, in the afternoon I might be on a Dave Grusin session, and in the evening it might be Elton John, Grover Washington Jr. or McCoy Tyner. That helped me keep my music wide open. It really reflects who I am and where I come from.

Most of your earlier albums tended to be much more directionally focused.

True. That’s due to people saying “You have to make sure people know who you are. You need to attack from a very narrow standpoint and ensure people can identify who you are, so don’t open it up too much.” When I did The Sun Don’t Lie, I had other things on there and people said “You might want to leave that track off. Don’t give people too much to digest.” They were probably right, but lately I’ve been left to my own devices and this is what happens. [laughs]

The disc kicks off with “Blast,” which was inspired by your travels in Istanbul. Tell me about the influences that coalesced to form the basis of the track.

I was inspired by music I heard on the radio, in the restaurants and in the music stores. I went to one music store where I bought what I thought was a regular clarinet, but it turned out to be a Turkish clarinet. I was playing it and really intrigued by what I heard when I fingered a regular major scale. I was like “Wow, this is some other stuff.” Also, I had been listening to Timbaland’s records and other hip-hop stuff. I was intrigued by how he was using Eastern influences and I thought it would be cool to do something like that and “Blast” was the result. But I didn’t want to go all the way with the Eastern stuff and sound like I was from there. I wanted to combine it with something from my background, so I merged that stuff with the “Planet Rock” beat—the original hip-hop beat. So, “Blast” is what you get when Istanbul meets The Bronx. [laughs]

In general, what influence does hip-hop have on what you do these days?

I think you hear it in the way the music is mixed. If you hear my earlier records and then hear “Blast,” you’ll hear a definite hip-hop influence in terms of the drum sounds. The music has a little more of a forceful nature to it. There aren’t as many chords swirling around. If you listen to The Sun Don’t Lie, it’s very harmonically involved. I’ve aired things out and there’s more space in the music today. I think that comes from the hip-hop influence.

So, hip-hop’s minimalist tendencies enable you to say more with less?

Yeah, I think so. Some people say “Man, I miss all the dark chords.” But music is always a battle between different elements. The more harmony you have, the less urgent the rhythm sounds. The more urgent the rhythm sounds, the less harmony you can have. Melodies that are longer and more involved take away from the rhythm. It’s always a fight for space. It’s pretty interesting to try and achieve a balance.

How does the new album represent your evolution as a bassist?

I know when I come in on “Blast” that you can say “Oh, there he goes again.” [laughs] So, I know it sounds like me. I always wanted to have a very distinctive personality on the bass that I could continue to grow with. It’s about growing within my sound. By that, I mean I can discover new techniques, scales and influences, but I want it to always sound like me growing, as opposed to sounding like a different guy on every song because I’m using a different technique. I hope that’s the case on this album.

How has all of the soundtrack work you’ve done informed the creative process on your own albums?

Doing the soundtracks opened me up in terms of sound and instrumentation. A couple of albums ago, I was really into cello. I used it on my M2 CD because I had done a movie score in which I really discovered the beauty of the instrument. On other albums, I’ve used string quartets. Once, I found a sound on a keyboard that was beautiful, and after I finished a movie score, I took it and started working on Tales with it. Also, working on soundtracks has made me really focus on music serving as an emotional manipulator. When you score a movie, your job is to guide the viewer emotionally through the film. The music tells you if you’re supposed to like or not like some guy, or you’re supposed to feel tense right here, like something’s about to happen, even if nothing’s happening yet. Those considerations have really affected my music. Now, I’m more aware of the mood I’m creating. Earlier in my career, I’d find a chord that sounded unusual and love it just because it was unusual. That can happen now, but I also take into consideration what it does to listeners when they hear it. Does it make you feel a certain way? That’s mainly how soundtrack work has affected things.

In some ways, soundtrack work is very different from making a regular album. When a lot of musicians hear soundtrack work, they say “It sounds so incomplete.” But what they don’t realize is that the lead vocal is whatever the actor is saying. If you listen to the music without the lead vocal, then yes, it’s going to sound incomplete. But if you listen to it with the dialogue and hear the rhythm of the words, it works. That’s what I’m really doing on soundtracks—scoring to the rhythm of what the actor or actress is saying.

Tell me about your philosophy as a bandleader.

My philosophy is that I want to put on a concert in which the audience experiences every emotion they would experience in a day of their lives, including happiness, sadness, love, joy, pain, and sorrow. I want to take them through the whole thing, so when they’re finished with my show, they’re like “Okay, I’m done.” [laughs] I want the musicians in my band to help me do that, so I look for people who play honestly and understand how to build something up and pull back to create drama in the music. That’s really important to me. I don’t want to bang you over the head with my bass for an entire concert. I want to find guys who have good solo voices, so I can hand things off to them. I also love pulling things out of musicians that they didn’t know they had. I love it when someone says “Man, I never heard that guy sound like that until he played in your band.” That means I’m helping that guy grow.

You seem to come from the Ahmad Jamal and Joe Zawinul bandleading school where you determine on the fly when solos happen, how long they go and their general direction.

Maybe that came from playing with Miles, because that’s what he did. A lot of people I’ve worked with did that too. The idea is to leave things open, so no-one knows when they’re gonna solo. That gives every night a different feeling. It’s not as fun when people know “Okay, now it’s time for the sax solo.” I’d rather point at a guy and say “Go.” It’s makes things much more interesting for the musicians. It’s a challenge and they don’t get complacent or bored when they have to do 30 concerts in a row. If you know you’re going to solo at a specific point every night, you’re not going to have anything to inspire you. And musicians really need something different on an ongoing basis to keep them inspired and challenged. I know how important it is for me to not know exactly what’s gonna go down, so I can react and play what’s right for the moment, and I want the musicians to share in that feeling.

What did you learn about bandleading from Miles?

You know Miles didn’t say anything about bandleading to no-one. [laughs] All he did was just be himself. What I loved about that is it was very organic and improvisational. People always debate when they hear my music about whether it’s jazz or this or that. My music is basically a combination of funk, jazz and R&B, but the way we go about putting on the concerts and structuring the pieces is very much improvisational within the spirit of jazz. Anyone who plays with my band for the first time is always surprised. They think “Whoa, I didn’t know it was this open. I’m really uncomfortable. Do you know what songs we’re going to play tonight?” I say “No man. We’re gonna start with these three songs, and from there, just be ready. Listen to the first three notes I play and that will tell you what song we’re doing.” Once they get comfortable with that, you can see it in their eyes before we go onstage. They understand we’re going on an adventure and don’t know where we’re going to end up. Hopefully they think “I can’t wait to get out there and see what happens.”

You’ve covered a lot of interesting material by other artists across your career. What qualities does a song need for you to approach it?

I choose songs I can arrange in interesting ways. I love it when people finally realize what the hell I’m playing and you see their eyes light up thinking “I would never have expected him to do that. I love the song and it really makes me feel good.” The song “Frankenstein” by Edgar Winter is a really good example. When we play it, people who knew the song when it came out just wig out. People who don’t know the song think it sounds like something they should know or do know somehow. Those are the sorts of songs I like to do. Also, another favorite is “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday. Not many people knew the tune, but the melody carried so much of the song’s emotion that everyone automatically got a sense of what it was about. “What Is Hip?” by Tower of Power from my new CD is another tune I love. I once considered doing a Stevie Wonder song on every album, just like some of the jazz guys who do standards always do a Gershwin or Cole Porter song. Stevie is just so important to the current and next generation of music listeners. His music has so much richness.

I did “Amazing Grace” a couple of albums back, and that was beautiful to play as well. I found myself going back to the songs my dad played on organ in church. I play some of them on bass clarinet, because the melodies are so perfectly laid out. With “Amazing Grace,” I can go to some place in Japan and play it and sometimes people start crying. I’m like “You know this song? Do you go to church?” [laughs] It’s a beautiful thing.

How does spirituality inform your music?

It’s really important. I don’t go to church nearly as much I’d like to, but it’s something I carry with me. The most important thing I get from my relationship with the creator is simply acknowledging that the music doesn’t come from me, so I don’t really have to trip. A lot of guys say “Man, what am I going to do next?” That’s particularly true if they have success. Personally, I see myself as a filter and the music is just coming through me. I’m experiencing life and then I’m putting it out there. As long as I can appreciate all of the things life has to offer, including love and the disappointments, and take it all in and send it back out through music, I know I’m always gonna be okay.