Interview with Bassist Marcus Miller –
It’s amazing to me how Marcus Miller has remained such an integral part of the Bass Community, as well as one of the most sought after musicians in contemporary music for so many decades. His awards are numerous, and seemingly unending.
(Photographer: Joke Schott)
True art persists… and his contributions over the years personify that philosophy. His dedication to his art, continued self evolution, and the gift he’s been given of truly being a “natural” in every sense of the word keeps him at the top of a very short list of musicians who seem to be timeless with being able to continue to touch us musically, irrelevant of the style, genre, or time frame involved. Legends like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock recognized his gifts in a heartbeat, and if you catch him live, you’d see that same recognition just as clearly from the ‘quote, unquote’ average listener. That, for me, seems to be one of the highest compliments one could ask for as an artist. And with his most recent CD release “Marcus”, we’re reminded that the man is doing well, and is here to stay.
Jake: In my interview with Victor Wooten, he spoke of how his family impacted him in his youth as a player, which set him on a very unique course that he pursues right to present day as far as his approach to music is concerned. I know you also grew up in a very musical environment with your family as well. Did they have an impact on you and your musical outlook in the same sense that Victor’s did?
Marcus: They did. My dad plays the piano and the organ, and his dad, who is a minister in the church, plays organ and piano as well. My dad’s cousin is Winton Kelly, who played piano for Miles in the late fifties. He also played with Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughn, and Wes Montgomery. He was one bad jazz piano player. Basically, my entire father’s family was very musical. But it wasn’t like Vic. Vic had four or five brothers who all played music. It’s one thing if it’s your parents, but it’s another thing when it’s your brothers who are playing. But I found musicians in Queens where I grew up and really kind of formed a family that way. There was Bernard Wright, an amazing keyboard player, Donald Blackman, and Henry White who is a drummer lots of people know very well. These guys were all in my neighborhood. Omar Hakim was also very important to me in terms of introducing me to all the players in Queens. That’s really my musical family in terms of more or less brothers and sisters.
Jake: I remember reading that your dad was supportive, as you came to him at one point and told him you wanted to drop out from school and be a fulltime musician.
Marcus: Well, not at first. He said, “Look, we have a bunch of musicians in the family, but it takes more than just being a good musician to make it as a musician. It takes luck, timing, and a lot of other things that maybe you’ll have or maybe you won’t, so you really need to get a solid education because the music thing may not work—we don’t want you just hung out there.”
The first tour I wanted to do was with Lenny White. Lenny invited me out on the road when I was a freshman in college. I convinced my dad to let me take a semester off so I could do that gig. I had an unbelievable time, but I came back to school after that. Once I was back, I started doing gigs around New York and started to get a name for myself, and began to get into the studio scene. Being in the studio scene was really cool—everybody was trying to get in. It was very lucrative back then. There were no machines at that point. If you were going to record some music, there was a room full of musicians there. But at that time there weren’t that many bass players that could read and play with some soulfulness, so I was able to start getting work in New York, and it got real crazy. So I came to my dad for the second time and told him that going on the road with a band was one thing, but this studio musician thing was pretty serious, and I was losing so much money running back and forth between the studio and school and I felt I needed to let school go, and he was cool about that. He said, “We’ll watch it, and if we need to, we can get you back in school.” But the work never died off.
Jake: I’m sure it’s interesting to look back at that decision by your dad and see it with new eyes at this point being a dad yourself. With the industry the way it is now, that scenario might be a tough one to handle.
Marcus: Yeah, I know. My oldest son is a freshman in college now, and he’s taking business courses. And his younger brother is dead-set on being a musician. So you’ve just got to watch it, and try to keep it balanced. Stay in school until there’s absolutely no question.
Jake: The son becomes the father.
Marcus: Oh yeah. I agreed with my father back then. He didn’t have to spend a lot of time convincing me because I completely understood what he was saying. So it was like, dad, let me go, and he held his ground and said. “I can’t,”… we’ll have to figure this out.
Jake: Speaking of family, I know you’ve stated how your family, your wife and four children are your foundation. Once again mentioning Victor, I know he takes his family with him on the road a lot of the time. With your schedule being as busy as it is, how do you complete as much as you do musically and still find time to be “Dad”?
Marcus: You know, it’s pretty crazy… I’ll wake up early, get to the studio and work till about 4:00 or 5:00, and then go home and be with my family until about 9:00 or 10:00, and then go back to the studio and work till around 2:00. I try to break it up. I’m on the phone all the time, and on the road a lot of the time as well, and doing my homework over the Internet. You have to do everything you have to do.
If you’re a musician in your early twenties, and you’re thinking about getting married, just know that you’re taking on somebody else’s life too. You’ve got to make all your decisions knowing that you have another person in your life. You’ve got to be a really pragmatic, and think about that. You know, when you’re young, you “think” you understand, but the reality of it five or six years down the road is a whole different thing. You just want to give it as much thought as you can. I was lucky. I found a beautiful women who understood where I was, and I was lucky enough to be successful—I didn’t have to get to that, “Hey baby, we can’t pay that the rent scene.” I had enough work, but it’s not always like that. Sometimes you just have to struggle for a while, so you really need to think about that.
Jake: Shifting gears here a little bit, Herbie Hancock, in speaking of his time with Miles, spoke of how Miles insisted that he bring nothing that he practiced to the gig. He wanted each of his players to totally be in the moment. Did you have that kind of… I guess I’ll say mindset… when you were working with Miles?
Marcus: Absolutely. I certainly wasn’t playing what I was practicing in the hotel, I’ll tell you that. I was trying to focus on keeping my ears open and reacting. That was really what it was all about, and Miles didn’t have to tell me. He had already set a long precedent with the music he did in the fifties and sixties with Herbie. You knew what was up with Miles. It wasn’t like you were going to go and run the scales or whatever, at least for me it wasn’t about that. It was about reacting and having enough tools so I could react to whatever was needed. You can tell players who are running their stuff. You can tell if they’re playing from their repertoire—there are no mistakes, and things sound forced because maybe it wasn’t the right place to play something, but that’s all they have. The real guys are the ones who are out there and simply just keeping their ears open, and they have a conversation, and they can still blow you away because everything they play is right…it’s perfect for that moment.
Jake: I saw that phenomenon when I watched a special on Herbie Hancock recording his CD Possibilities. He so easily captured while he was playing that “everything is right and perfect for the moment “scenario.
Marcus: That’s a whole different level of musicianship. Most cats hope to walk into the studio and do it. People like Herbie can walk in and go in any direction, and still be great, and ready to react. You have to understand that you really have to be at a high level to accomplish this with some regularity. It definitely doesn’t work for everybody, and many times when players come in on an unrehearsed format, and try to play in the moment, it just doesn’t happen. You have to be on the other side of that art, that talent art, where you can do a take under those circumstances, and it has quality to it.
Jake: I have to ask this next question or some fellow players will be seriously on my case. You’ve recorded with a very diverse array of musicians, Miles to Elton John, and everything in between. How do you musically or mentally prepare for your sessions, or conversely, does it work for you to not prepare for them at all?
Marcus: When I first started doing sessions I used to think, I wonder what bass I should bring, or I wonder what style this is going to be? But that didn’t last long. We were working so much in New York that you actually didn’t have the time to prepare, even if you wanted to. We’d have a 10:00 to 11:00, and then an 11:00 to 12:00, then a 12:00 to 3:00, and then a 4:00 to 7:00, you know what I mean, then a 7:00 to midnight. That’s basically how we were working, so you had to give up preparing for the session. You had to learn to be a reactor. You had to be aware of the different styles, read music, and then hope to figure something out right in the moment. You just had to do it.
Jake: So it was really a matter of being all ears for the session.
Marcus: That’s right, it’s a studio work. Listening was the most important factor involved, and then figuring out what was most appropriate to play for the music. A lot of guys are great players, but would still struggle with what’s appropriate for the tune. It’s always about finding something that will complement the rest of the music, and that’s a talent in itself.
Jake: Christian McBride spoke of this same methodology as far as session work is concerned, and also stressed how you had to leave any kind of attitude you may have at home.
Marcus: He’s right, and I’ve seen that attitude thing in action. On the other hand, there are players who are experts at being sideman. They understand the game, have their own style, and could always make that style work in any situation. Richard Tee was like that. Richard is a piano player that passed away a few years ago. He was one of the top New York piano players. He had a gospel kind of style, and played fender Rhodes, piano, and organ. And, he played a certain way, but it seemed to always work for every situation. I don’t know how he did it. He was one of those stylized sideman. Eric Gale was another stylized sideman. He had a very distinct style, but it was a very complimentary style, and it worked for a lot of different situations. He played on Mr. Magic by Grover Washington Jr., and on a lot of Bob James material, and it always just worked. There are other players who really don’t bring a personality to the studio, they simply just provide what’s necessary to pull the music together, and they do it very well. I’ve definitely seen a lot of different types of studio players, and watched carefully on how they work.
Jake: Let’s talk about your new CD, which I enjoyed immensely by the way. It sounds like the “written” word, aka some poetry you discovered had a lot to do with some of the compositions involved. How do you go about composing from that perspective?
Marcus: As far as the spoken word goes, I really put the emphasis on the poet, and try to put some music around it that has a nice vibe to it. I also went to a bunch of poets and said, listen to this music… what can you imagine when you hear it. And as well, this one writer came up with this poem that I love, and he recited it against the music, and then I began to change the music to fit more with what he did. So it more or less went back and forth between us. The spoken word in this setting is so word intensive, even more then rap. It’s all about imagery, and sometimes fitting a lot of ideas in a short space of time. So you really have to have the music written to permit a certain space for the writer to project his ideas within that context. I really enjoy this type of collaboration, where the poet has lots of material, and we’ll listen to the music and decide what he has that’s most fitting to what he hears.
Jake: This actually kind of leads to my next question. In my column for the magazine last issue, I talked about how I’m seeing much more diversity as far as the writing is concerned for a lot of CDs, like Herbie’s CDs River, and Possibilities, or someone like Richard Bona who crosses genres left and right. Your new CD seems to fall into that category as far as having a broad musical landscape is concerned. Do you think we’ll be seeing more of this genre leaping approach to writing as time goes on?
Marcus: I don’t know. When you do a broad album like mine, or Herbie’s, part of the challenge is trying to create a vibe for it. If you put on a side ‘A’ record, you know the vibe, you feel like nothing is going to jump out and ruin your mood. If you put it on when you’re driving and you want that mood, the side ‘A’ kind of thing will work. Conversely, if you put on an album that crosses styles, it’s more like a listening to the radio. But I think the thing that I tried to do, and I know it happens with Herbie, is that you hope that your musical personality will be the connector. The album will sound like you even if the beats are a little different. So it’s the personality that unifies the album, and I think that’s important. When people look at artists, they definitely want to get a point of view, they want to see and hear somebody that looks at life in a certain way, and that music serves that concept. So my CD ended up being that way because the poems I used already existed, right. In other words we listened to the music and took a poem that we felt would accompany the music best. So in a sense it happened kind of backwards, but at the same time it had the same affect as far as presenting a point of view is concerned.
Jake: This seems to be kind of a different take compared to the old days when the record company definitely had its hand in the development of someone’s project.
Marcus: It is a different take. The A&R guys used to come up with comments like, “Hey man, there’s no way we’re going to be able to sell this because it’s all over the place.” And now, a lot of us are making albums and then going to the record companies and asking, “Do you want to distribute this or not,” and that’s a different vibe, and they’ll end up saying, “We’ll do what we can with what you’ve given us.” It’s starting with the musician now, and I think that’s opening things up a little bit.
Jake: I definitely feel that’s a positive step, as far as the music is concerned.
Marcus: Yes it is. In terms of the music, it’s very cool. People are enjoying music more than they have ever enjoyed it, especially with the media and the iPod revolution. Musicians are making great music, and then it’s about finding a way to get paid and survive in this environment. Once that’s figured out, it’s going to be a really nice environment for music.
Jake: I understand your point, and it does seem to be a positive move, artistically speaking, to put the music kind of back in the musician’s hand.
Marcus: Well, it depends on the musician. Quite frankly, a lot of musicians need a producer. There were producers out there definitely doing their job. Miles albums in the seventies wouldn’t have been anything like they were without Teo in there. Sometimes without that partnership of player and producer, the music can become unfocused. This is a talent that musicians have to develop. They’ve got their playing and their composition together, but they don’t get an overview, a sense of making things come together. So I think we’re going to be looking for people to do that as well, to keep that balance. For me, I’m always looking at things as a whole. I always tell people if you’re recording with a band, and let’s say you ask the percussionist, what’s the best take, he’s going to tell you the one he played best on, and a guitar player would probably do the same thing. So a lot of the time the producer has to see which track came together the best, which one sounds the best as a performance. This is something musicians should be thinking about, especially since they have control over their music now.
Jake: I found this quote on your site by Herbie Hancock… that being, “You can practice to attain knowledge, but you can’t practice to attain wisdom “…a very cool quote. Opinions on “what to practice” have been all over the board with the interviews I’ve done for the magazine. In your opinion, best that you can articulate, what would you recommend focusing on to an up-and-coming player as far as practicing, or studies, or “knowledge”, are concerned?
Marcus: What you practice depends on where you are, and what you need to get done. If you’re young, you need to practice the basic stuff. You will need to know all your keys, all your arpeggios, all the basic tools, because that’s what you’re going to be using for the rest of your life. And if you do it wrong, you’re going to be doing it wrong for the rest of your life. Those basics are important to get down, but it’s just as important to be training your ear. That’s really, really important. You need to train your ear so you can hear intervals. If you’re on one note, and you want to play another note, you need to know exactly where it is because you’ve heard it in your head, and you know it’s exactly right… like it’s a perfect 5th, or a flat 5th. I think a lot of players these days don’t train their ear. Part of that is because a lot of instruction aids are videos now, where you can use your eyes instead of your ears. So a lot of players don’t “hear” as well as they need to. Hearing is everything! Being able to imagine something and playing it is critical. It helps you compose, it helps you to come up with cool bass lines, it’s a really important side of learning how to approach using all these basics I spoke of that you should know. Basically, anything you’re given to practice can help you in one way or another. But in addition, you’ve got to work on your ear so you’re able to sit in with a band that maybe has some chord changes you don’t know, and you can then “listen” one time through and go, OK, I’ve got it. Once again, I think that’s important.
Jake: How do you feel you personally developed your ear?
Marcus: I listened to tons of music. I listened to horn lines, bass lines, whatever, and learned to hear it, and play it. When you start to play ideas, let’s say from John Coltrane, on the bass, it’s very difficult to pull off. But it makes you start to hear a certain way. A lot of players transcribe solos and the like. I never thought about writing it out because I felt it slowed me down, so I would end up just memorizing it. This made my brain work, as far as structure goes, figuring out how to categorize these musical phrases, and I believe that really helped me.
Jake: Along those same lines, you have managed to make writing, arranging, and producing as much as your makeup as your bass playing. Is there any kind of road to follow to enhance that aspect of one’s career?
Marcus: It’s really about keeping your eyes open for opportunities. It doesn’t matter what happened to me, because one thing you can be sure of is that it’s not going to happen for you that way. I just always had my eyes open. I would always be in the hotel and thinking about the artist I was working with, and then present to them, I’ve been thinking about this tune, and sometimes they say, hey, I’d like to record that on my next album. I’ve always tried to keep a big picture outlook on music. Kind of, how can I grow up as a player and keep an eye out for opportunities as well.
Jake: A lot of times, I am talking about, or referring to a player’s “voice”. With some players like yourself, I can recognize you moments after hearing you, and I don’t mean just the sound of your bass, but your distinctive approach speaks to me just as strongly. Said another way, someone could be using one of your signature basses, but I’ll know immediately, it’s not you. If you would, in your own words, what are the elements involved that you think give you your distinctive voice?
Marcus: I’d have to say that part of the answer is that I’ve never switched instruments. I’ve never had one bass for this and another for that. I’ve been playing the same bass for essentially 30 years. If a player has a sound, you’ll find that most of the time their particular instrument has always gone along with them. You get to learn your personal instrument well. In my case, I know what that note sounds like on my axe, I know that one will ring, and this one not as much, or it will buzz, whatever. I know my instrument. That just made sense to me after doing so many sessions in New York. I needed one bass that could handle most situations, which a Fender jazz bass does, so my environment kind of forced me into it.
But in a sense, that worked for me, because it made me figure out how to get every possible sound out of my bass that I could get. The other thing is when I was young… I recorded everything that I did. I’d always take the time to listen to what I did and see what was going on. What would happen is that I’d hear a lick or something that sounded good that maybe I did by accident, and didn’t realize how cool it sounded when I was playing it. I’d make sure to put that in my little toolbox. And after a few years, you’ve got a hell of a toolbox there. The thing about doing so many sessions is that then you’re able to pull stuff out of your toolbox that you think will be appropriate, and then you realize there’s a fine line between repertoire and style. But I also felt that if something worked, I wasn’t afraid to use it more than once. And so it’s kind of becomes, oh yeah, that’s Marcus. But I also made sure I didn’t do it too much, so it wouldn’t leave the impression that that was all I could do. I was doing so many sessions that I had plenty of opportunities to do the same things over and over again, but I always tried to keep the element of playing something different alive, and I think that helped me find my voice as well.
Jake: You know, there’s something I’d like to say off the record, or maybe I should keep this on the record because it’s a really good point, and I get a chance to share this with you personally. When I’m working on slap with a student, I’ll have them listen to a couple of things you’ve recorded, and I try to get them to understand that it’s not just about copying your lick, or some phrase, but being aware of the rhythmic placement of those notes within the bar as well. I’m trying to get them to understand that it’s that rhythmic placement you chose in the moment, as well as your note choice, that makes it sound hip, and ultimately defines your particular voice as a player beyond just the sound of your personal instrument.
Marcus: A lot of the time when you’re trying to analyze something hard, or easy for that matter, usually you’re looking in the wrong place. Students are usually looking at a fingering, or something of that nature. But part of what you mentioned is dead on. In the studio, especially in the studio, everything was placement. How hard it is to put that note in the right place is the challenge. That’s what gets everybody to “feel” a certain way on a track. A lot of stuff that’s hard, what I would consider to be hard, and the kids hear that and say, oh, that’s nothing. But they’ll never get it right because they don’t understand what makes it hard. For the last 7 years my whole thing has been about phrasing. There are so many different ways to place something within the beat. Even if it’s written out, there are still many ways to take a look at how to play it. I’ve been focusing on that a lot these days, to help refine my playing.
Visit online at www.marcusmiller.com