Our podcasting pals from Liverpool bring us an exclusive chat with a giant of the jazz, funk and soul worlds
Though he may not exactly be a household name, to fans of jazz, funk and soul, bassist, songwriter and producer Marcus Miller should need little introduction. As well as recording some 20 albums under his own name, he’s worked with everyone from Frank Sinatra to LL Cool J, via (deep breath) Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Mariah Carey, George Benson, Chaka Khan, Grover Washington Jr, Carly Simon, Bryan Ferry, Dr John, Bill Withers and Lonnie Liston Smith. Not an unimpressive CV, we’re sure you’ll agree!
Born into a musical family in Brooklyn in 1959, Miller was proficient on clarinet, piano and bass by the age of 13. A graduate of the High School of Music & Art, he spent many years working as a highly sought-after session musician (hence the stellar list of collaborators above), before becoming the primary songwriting partner of his friend (and fellow session man) Luther Vandross and writing pretty much all of Miles Davis’s albums Tutu (1986), Music From Siesta (1987) and Amandla (1989).
Along the way he’s picked up umpteen Grammys – as a producer, songwriter and solo artist – and provided the score for over 20 movies. All of which means we’re very happy to present you with our good friends Sodajerker’s chat with the legend that is… Mr Marcus Miller.
You came from a musical family, is that right?
“Yeah my dad plays the organ and the piano. He played every Sunday in church, and directed the choir. And then my dad’s cousin was like the jazz part of the family, his name was Wynton Kelly and he played on some great recordings with Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery. I’m very proud to be part of the same family as Wynton Kelly. So a very musical family. I wanted to be an athlete, of course… but around 11, 12 years old my blood, my soul started going ‘Hey man, we really don’t have any choice here.”
And you’re another High School of Music & Art alumnus…
“Yeah, I probably can trace everything that I’ve done to attending the High School of Music & Art, meaning I basically met two guys. Omar Hakim, who was a drummer, and another drummer named Kenny Washington… between those two introducing me to this guy and introducing me to that guy, it’s like the root of a tree, it just grew.
“For instance, Omar introduced me to a local band in our neighbourhood of Queens, New York and I met the guitar player, who got me a gig with Bobbi Humphrey, and Ralph MacDonald was producing him. I wrote a song for Bobbi and played it for Ralph and Ralph goes ‘Hey man, I’m going to use you on some sessions’ and next thing you know I’m a studio musician! So things like that were all a direct result of Music and Art.”
You majored in bass clarinet – was bass guitar something you took up outside of school?
“Yeah I played regular B♭ clarinet from the age of 10, all the way right through college. The bass guitar is really a new instrument: in the 70s it was only 15 or 20 years old and there wasn’t really a curriculum for the bass guitarists. So yeah, I played bass guitar in funk bands in New York and then my formal musical education was with the clarinet.
“It’s funny because those really important years between 13 and 20, that was like the heyday of the bass guitar, it was James Jamerson, Bootsy Collins, Larry Graham, Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke. Sting was leading The Police with a bass and Paul Jackson played with The Headhunters. Some incredible bass players were all packed in that seven-year period, and so for me that was the coolest instrument.”
“I hadn’t made the transition from being a studio musician to an artist”
We’re big fans of your 1983 album Suddenly. But in a way it kind of gets overlooked?
“Well here’s the thing, I was a studio musician and I was into all sorts of stuff. I was doing all the stuff with the Jamaica, Queens crew which was Bernard Wright and Donald Blackman and Bobby Broom. And then I was working with Miles and Luther Vandross and Aretha Franklin at the same time, so the thing about that album is you can hear that this guy’s going in a lot of directions at once. I hadn’t made the transition from being a studio chameleon musician to an artist – and it is a huge difference.
“A lot of people have difficulty making that transition because studio musicians win by being able to change hats, change heads, provide what’s necessary, whereas to be an artist you have to have a really specific point of view. That’s what people are looking for from you, they’re looking for how do you see the world. So it’s a different head, and on Suddenly, I hadn’t really found myself yet.”
We were listening to Instant Love by Cheryl Lynn today. What a track!
“Yeah man. What happened was, Luther and I would see each other in the studios. I’d be cutting a track with the rhythm section and we’d be leaving, and I’d see Luther coming in because they were going to add the background vocals. I’d say something smart-ass like ‘We did a good job, don’t mess this up Luther!’ and he’d roll his eyes at me. We became good friends – we were doing stuff for Roberta Flack on the weekends when we weren’t doing studio work and I learned a lot from him about singers, what to look for from singers and how to direct them.
“We did his demo for Never Too Much and that became his first record. After that, Clive Davis started calling him saying ‘I need you to produce Cheryl Lynn, I need you to produce Aretha Franklin’ so he said ‘Marcus I need you to write something, I need to have some songs for these people!’ So I started writing R&B stuff. I hadn’t written too much of it before, but he encouraged me and we had some pretty good hits. We had Instant Love, we had Jump To It by Aretha Franklin, and then Luther and I continued writing together for his stuff, and we continued that for 20-25 years.”
How did you and Luther work together – did you have different roles?
“Yeah, I would come up with the track. There weren’t many people in those days who could come up with a track. Nowadays people use samples and sequencers but I played all the instruments on my demo and then sent a cassette to Luther. He would just drive in his car listening to my tracks, imagining lyrics and melodies. It’s really how people in the pop world write today, except that there weren’t that many people doing it like that then, because not that many musicians could create the tracks like that.”
What was it like to have that voice in your ear all day?
“When you’re young, you don’t even realise how special it is: he was my buddy and we were just having fun. We had so much fun in the studio, cracking jokes, laughing, but we were very serious at the same time. Luther started like I did, as a session guy who could sing any style. He could sing for commercials like McDonald’s or Miller beer, but he had his own ideas about what he wanted to do as an artist and once he started he never looked back.
“I learned a lot from him about having a singular point of view about music – he knew what he liked. Whenever I would try to make it too jazzy he’d be like ‘Nah, nah’, so I’d play something else and he’d be like ‘There you go.’ There was no grey with Luther: either he loved it or he didn’t need it.”
Did his approach to singing influence how you constructed your melodies?
“Absolutely. When I was writing stuff for him I always imagined his voice. Whenever I’m writing something for somebody, I can imagine their voice. I know whether it’s even in the ballpark if I can imagine them singing or playing something.
“I could always imagine Miles swaying to the music a specific way, and Luther used to sway a certain way and if I could imagine him doing his little move I’d go ‘Okay, this is something I could send to him.’ But also the way he phrased, the way he sang was really important. I think the way I play melodies even on the bass is very much influenced by hanging out with him and listening to him work on his music.”
We really loved the recent documentary Marcus – the stuff about Miles Davis in particular was just fascinating. But the prospect of writing music for Miles would send shivers down the spine of most musicians – how did you approach that on Tutu?
“Well, I’d heard Miles wanted to do something different. He’d just signed with Tommy LiPuma at Warner Brothers and I was on the phone with Tommy and he was like, ‘Miles is looking for some stuff’. He sent me a demo that George Duke had sent him and it had a Synclavier and all the things that were really hip in the mid-80s. I was like ‘Wow, Miles wants to do something like this? I can come up with something!’ So I wrote Tutu right away and called Tommy and said ‘I’ve got something for Miles’ and he said ‘Bring it to the studio’, so I came out Capitol Studios in LA.
“It was just Tommy in the studio and I played my demo and he said, ‘Man, this is great, let’s record it’. And I said, ‘Okay, where’s the band?’ and he said ‘No, I want you to do it exactly like it is on the demo.’ So I had to call a rental company and get my emulator and the snare drum and the bass and the guitar down to the studio, and I started getting to work, layering this track just like I’d done for the demo.
“Miles said, ‘You’ve got to tell me exactly what you want’”
“Miles hadn’t heard any of this, it might all be for nothing, but he showed up a couple of days later. I’d even been cheeky enough to have a Miles Davis sample playing the melody and I put a little solo in there… I don’t know what I was thinking! Anyway, Miles said ‘Who’s that playing trumpet… is it Nat Adderley?’ But I said ‘No, that’s just me fooling around,’ and he said ‘Sounds great, call me when you need trumpet,’ and he left.
“So now at least I felt like I wasn’t completely on the wrong track, so I continued layering this stuff and he would come in, play some trumpet, make a suggestion on his way out like ‘add another section to that’ or whatever. It was hard to give him direction initially, I was a little timid and he was looming around, but he finally stopped me and said ‘You’ve got to tell me exactly what you want. Because I know you know, so just tell me’. So I very tentatively began to give direction and then it started sounding like I’d imagined. Then I got bolder as the music took over and by the end I’m dancing around and pointing at him – ‘Stop! Start!’ – and he was rolling his eyes at me. We always had a great relationship.”
It sound amazingly collaborative – you’d think he’d be dictating the process…
“He was like ‘This sounds right, I don’t want to mess it up’, or he’d say things like ‘Take that acoustic piano out of there’ or ‘It needs a third section’ but all he really told me was ‘Just keep writing, you’re in a creative period so keep writing’. I don’t know if he would have been like that in 1955 but it was 1985 and he was like ‘Yeah, this sounds modern, this sounds cool.’
“He never asked me when is it time to put the trumpet on, he never asked me what chord is this… in fact I’m realising now that he wasn’t asking any questions! He just heard it all and started playing and it was incredible. When I did Tutu Revisited in 2010, 25 years later, I had a couple of trumpet players that were asking me all sorts of questions. Miles never asked me anything!”
After all these years do you still have to work hard to keep your playing skills up?
“I guess so. I don’t know if I have to practise, I just do. Not even to keep the dexterity – I’m trying to improve. I don’t want to slow down, I want to find new things, I want to try and continue on my path. That’s the jazz mentality. You’ve got a lot of blues guys, once they get to be 25 they’ve settled in and they’re going to be playing the same thing for the rest of their lives. A lot of jazz people have the mentality of ‘I’m going to keep growing until I’m done.’ Herbie Hancock’s not practising to keep his chops up, he’s practising to find something new and that’s my mentality also.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have 80 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Lamont Dozier, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 50-minute interview with Marcus Miller – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes. For more information about Marcus Miller, hit up www.marcusmiller.com