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Interview: Marcus Miller

Jazz and session legend Marcus Miller talks about recording with Miles Davis, his treasured 1977 Jazz bass, and the stripped-down approach he took on his new solo album, "Renaissance."

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 TutuRevisited—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.

Miller’s primary bass for the last 35 years is a 1977 Fender Jazz model outfitted with a Badass bridge and a Bartolini preamp. Photo by Michael Sauvage

Has your plucking-hand technique changed much over the years?
I attack the string with my thumb pretty much the same way I always have—just beyond the end of the neck—because that’s a really sweet spot on my particular instrument. Some guys do it more on the neck, which creates more false harmonics. I’ve always hit just in front of the end of the fretboard, because I need a sound that’s strong on the fundamentals. But it’s changed with my plucking fingers, and it’s pretty fluid—even when I’m doing the thumb-style playing. When slapping, I used to only pluck with my index finger, but I started incorporating my middle finger, as well. And when I’m using the thumb more like a pick, moving up and down the strings, I have to move my thumb away from that sweet spot to make sure I can get even strokes going up and down.

When I was doing sessions all the time, I’d pluck in the standard spot for a Jazz bass, which is just between the two pickups—where that meaty sound is. When I started making solo records, though, I began to address the fact that I never liked the transition from fingerstyle to slap and plucking style. So I started doing my fingerstyle strokes really close to the neck, using a really heavy attack, so that it almost sounded like a full pluck even though it was a finger stroke. That way, when I switched over to a thumb and a pluck, the sound was more consistent. On my own albums, you’ll almost always hear me using that style.

Over the last few years, I’ve started to move my right hand back and forth a lot more, all over the bass, and it’s helped me realize that I don’t need to fool around with my tone [settings] as much if I just choose a different placement of my fingers—and that allows me to play in very different ways.

What sorts of ways?
You can play way back by the bridge, and another great spot is just about an inch and a half to the left of the back pickup. It still really sings, but you also get a little more of the meat that you don’t when you’re all the way to the back pickup.

Miller onstage with a sunburst Fender J and an EBS TD660 head driving twin EBS 4x10s. Note the Bionic Man ... er action figure sitting atop the EBS rack. Photo by Andrea Scognamillo

What do you practice these days—is it still mostly scales and arpeggios?
I start by just warming up, which is really important. A lot of younger players don’t realize that. I’ll just play scales really slowly, usually when I’m talking with somebody and going over the set before soundcheck—just to get everything moving. And then I’ll find scales that involve all the fingers—for instance, whole-tone scales in different permutations—just to get all my fingers moving. For example, I might play the notes Bb, Db, A, and G using a 4–2–3–1 finger pattern on the E and A strings, and then move that pattern—and variations on it—up and down the neck. I’ll use both scales and arpeggios for that.

Then I’ll move into some bebop-based stuff, because I’m always trying to keep that connection between my imagination and my technique. I’ll improvise and try to play exactly what I’m hearing in my head. And if I get stuck, and I can’t play what I’m hearing, I’ll make a little exercise out of it and work on that until it’s happening. That type of practicing takes me all over the place, and that’s necessary, because I do a lot of improvisation, and I really need to be sure I can get to where I need when I want.

Sometimes, I’m running standard jazz-tune changes. Other times, I may be superimposing harmony over a single chord, like I was talking about earlier, to really get a sense of working the melody, harmony, and rhythm all at the same time. I’ll usually end up playing with different rhythms—keeping the beat, but flipping it around and turning it upside down, while making sure it’s steady and feels good. Because, in the end, if you don’t bring together all the stuff that I’m talking about in a rhythm that feelsgood, it’s kind of meaningless.

Marcus Miller's Gear

Various 1977 Fender Jazz basses, Fender Marcus Miller Jazz signature 4-strings, Fender Marcus Miller Jazz V 5-strings

SWR Marcus Miller bass preamp and SWR Power 750 power amps driving SWR Marcus Miller Golight 800-watt 4x10 cabs (live), EBS Fafner II head driving EBS NeoLine Pro 4x10 cabs (live)

MXR Blow Torch, MXR Bass Octave Deluxe, MXR Bass Compressor, MXR Phase 90 (“for whenever I want to play “Money, Money, Money” by the O-Jays”), MXR Micro Flanger, Dunlop Cry Baby 105Q wah, Fulltone OCD (used on the ballistic third chorus to the new album’s “Detroit”), a Rodenberg GAS-808, Electro-Harmonix POG, Ernie Ball volume pedal, Sanford & Sonny Bluebeard Fuzz, dbx 166 compressor (studio)

Strings and Picks
DR Strings Fat Beams Marcus Miller 4- (.045–.105) and 5-string (.045–.125) sets, DR Hi-Beams

In the ’80s and ’90s, you played and recorded with everyone from Peabo Bryson to Luther Vandross, Mariah Carey, David Sanborn, and Paul Simon. You even played on Donald Fagen’s 1982 masterpiece, The Nightfly. What were those early days as a session cat like?
As a studio musician in New York, there are two types of players. There’s the musician—more of a chameleon—who’s good at finding the sound that’s necessary for a particular record, and then there’s the guy who you don’t call unless you want his unique sound. I was somewhere in the middle. I’d get to the session and see what was required, and if it seemed like they were looking for the kind of sound everybody knew me for, I’d break that out. But other times, it was clear that my regular style wasn’t going to be appropriate.

Donald Fagen, for instance, wanted a straight, clear fingerstyle Jazz bass sound. That was my first time working with Donald and his producer Gary Katz. All the studio musicians in New York were warning me about Fagen. “Man, he’s going to have you playing that thing over and over until you get it right!” He was famous for that. So I came in ready to spend lots of time there, and I did four or five songs, two takes each, and he said, “That’s great!” and sent me on my way. I was like, “Hey, that didn’t hurt at all!” Now, I did hit him with a little thumb [playing]—but he took it off. I hit “I.G.Y.” like a gospel shuffle—like a Luther Vandross “Bad Boy/Having a Party” funk style—and he was, like, “No! Way, way too exciting—thank you very much!”

YouTube It
Need video proof of how badass Marcus Miller is? Click to the world’s TV and find out.

Snapping and popping rule the day in this clip from Miller’s 2008 stint at the annual Lugano Festival Jazz in Switzerland.

Miller displays his impeccable fingerstyle work in this 1982 clip with Miles Davis and guitarist Mike Stern at the Hammersmith Odeon in London.

On this rendition of the Jaco Pastorius/Weather Report classic “Teen Town,” Miller gets in a major hammer-on workout before taking the funk factor to the nth degree.

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