Photo by Michael Sauvage

Marcus Miller is one of the cornerstones of modern electric bass—a veritable 4-string titan who has played alongside jazz giants (Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Mike Stern, Wayne Shorter, and Stanley Clarke), recorded with rock outfits (Scritti Politti, Doves, Bryan Ferry), and been sampled liberally by hip-hop artists (including Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg). Considering that he’s got signature Fender basses, his own line of DR bass strings, and a massive and dizzyingly diverse discography—as a solo artist, player, and producer—surely he has nothing to prove.

Or does he? Chatting from his home in Los Angeles, the New York City native sounds anything but complacent as he discusses the process behind his new album, Renaissance—his fifth solo effort. “This time I just wanted to make it about the performances,” says Miller, who eschewed the slick R&B production of previous solo albums like 2008’s Marcus and 2001’s M2 for a stripped-down live sound augmented by ace young guns like guitarist Adam Rogers, drummer Louis Cato, and saxophonist Alex Han.

“That’s where the renaissance idea comes in for me,” says Miller, 51. “It’s a return to five or six guys playing in the studio, doing things that, frankly, not everybody can do.” Supported by sultry horns and smart, sassy original compositions like “Detroit” and “Mr. Clean,” Miller lets his funk flag fly high, turning in dangerous grooves and chord changes, as well as stellar solos. Throughout, his cherished 1977 Fender Jazz bass pumps out a fat but intensely detailed tone that perfectly complements his unrivaled thumb technique.

But even after 35 years on the scene—and with his place in music history long since secured—Miller remains creatively restless and determined to push himself even further.

Marcus Miller plucks one of his Jazz basses outfitted with a faux tortoiseshell pickguard. Photo by Michael Sauvage

Is the new album title, Renaissance, intended to suggest a musical rebirth of sorts?
About five years ago, right after my last studio album, I said, “Okay, I’m going to really try to find a new sound.” I intentionally put myself into musical situations where I could find some fresh, creative inspiration. I did a live album with an orchestra in France [2011’s A Night in Monte Carlo], I did a live project with Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten [2008’s Thunder], and I did the album Tutu Revisited—an homage to an album I did with Miles Davis—and many other things.

During the Tutu Revisited tour, I started working with some younger musicians. I hoped that would bring a new energy to some of that Tutu material, which at that time was already 25 years old. I really enjoyed playing with them, and we developed a very interesting sound. I thought it would be nice to write music specifically for this group and do an album that focused on great performances and compositions, not focusing so much on the production, like I had on my last few records.

Electronic music production seemed to define the last decade, but there’s a huge return to more organic recording lately.
Yeah, I mean it used to be that if you were working with samplers, you really had to know your way around a studio to make music. But now all you’ve got to do is know your way to the Apple store, and you can figure out how to do that stuff. For me, what makes what we as musicians do special is our ability to perform it right there in real time. So I figured I’d try to display that instead. I mean, the sampling thing is cool—whenever new creative approaches present themselves, it’s up to us to see what we can do with it, and I love what we were doing with the samplers—but at this point, it feels like what’s really fresh is just to strip it down.

Miller on His Go-To Jazz Basses

“Man, there are advantages to playing the same instrument for 35 years!” laughs Marcus Miller, whose workhorse 1977 Fender Jazz Bass—outfitted with a Bartolini preamp and a Badass bridge—is the very same instrument he played on Miles Davis’ Man with the Horn album in 1981 and on late-’70s sessions with artists like Luther Vandross and Joan Armatrading. “When you’ve played an instrument that long, you really know all the sounds it’s got to offer.” Miller’s Fender signature model Jazz bass pays tribute to the original and features a natural finish, a 2-band active EQ, a Badass II bridge, and, of course, the distinctive chrome pickup cover.

“I bring one of my [signature Fender] 5-strings on the road with me,” Miller adds, “but a lot of times I’ll just tune my 4-string’s E down rather than take the time to switch basses—because I got so used to doing that from my session days. A lot of those old Luther Vandross R&B records were drop C, and even with Miles I was often down to an A on the bottom. I had octaves going, A to A, on the bottom, and man, it was pretty tubby sounding. But back in the ’70s, before they had extended-range basses, that’s how you did it—and you knew your fingerings in D and C just as well as you knew them in E.” —James Rotondi

“Redemption,” “Mr. Clean,” and other songs on this album have some great solos. How is approaching a bass solo different than approaching a guitar solo—does it come down to harmonic support?
For a bass player, there’s an inherent requirement to maintain a sense of rhythm and to really present the harmony very clearly—because usually there’s no one else holding that down for you. I have a couple of different ways to approach it: A lot of my solos are basically glorified, involved bass lines. So, in a sense, it’s as if there were someone still playing the bass—it just happens to be me while I’m soloing. I like to play “question-and-answer,” where I’ll play the question up high, and the answer down low, so there’s always a kind of rhythmic and harmonic motion going on. So that’s one challenge, that there’s no bass player behind you.

But also, a lot of the time, there’s no harmony behind you, either. If the piano and guitar player are playing too busy, obviously it can cover up what you’re doing. But if you ask them to be more sparse, then you’re going to have to be more clear about the harmony. Unfortunately, a lot of bass players aren’t that familiar with harmony, and that’s where they can get into trouble. You don’t have those kinds of concerns with guitar. If you play an Ab major triad on guitar over a D bass note, it’s clear what you’re doing. If you do it on bass, it’s just an Ab triad, unless you’ve figured out how to make people hear that D as well.

Personally, I don’t really enjoy hearing a bass playing melodically by itself with no underpinning. To me, it sounds like a lot of the information is going on in the bass player’s head. Sure, he’s hearing the harmony and the rhythm, but no one’s actually playing it, so what is the listener really getting? Another solution, of course, is to just have somebody play bass under you—which I’ve done from time to time—and there you’re a little more free to leave space and to phrase in a more vocal-like manner.