A couple of years ago when bassist/composer/bandleader Marcus Miller revisited Miles Davis’ Tutu, a late-period Miles album that was essentially a Marcus Miller album with Miles as the primary lead voice, Miller was revisiting himself, too. Back as a young, hotshot bass player, he found himself playing for guys he grew up idolizing, like Miles, Grover Washington, Jr., and George Benson. Tutu Revisited saw his life come full circle, because the young musicians who helped to bring a fresh perspective to Tutu Revisited (2011) looked to him for musical guidance just as many of jazz’s past legends guided and influenced Miller.
Thus, Renaissance is an outgrowth of Tutu Revisited, an opportunity to take the band from that album and tour and see how they respond with material Miller has written specifically with them in mind. For this latest project, the band includes at various times Sean Jones and Maurice Brown on trumpet, Alex Han on alto sax, Louis Cato on drums, Adam Rogers and Adam Agati on guitar and Federico Gonzalez Peña, Kris Bowers and Bobby Sparks on keyboards. Brown, Han, Agati, Cato and last year’s Monk Piano Competition Award winner Bowers make up Miller’s current touring band.
The album begins, however, with an intensely funky Miller exhibition “Detroit,” his blizzard of thumb popped bass lines staying perfectly in the pocket and sends the bass master wannabe’s back to the drawing board again. But listen beyond his clinic and you’ll find he still cares a lot about harmony and adding in a horn chart that bespeaks his deep knowledge of jazz and swing. The guitar adds just a taste of rock and the drums sound alive, too. It is that all-round know-how from Miller that makes his music a little more sophisticated, sleek and discreet than your average fusion fare. So far, the new guys are holding up well.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Miles' 1986 release Tutu marked his first record by a new label in thirty years and the beginning of his final fully-realized phase, his collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Marcus Miller.]
On a lot of other places does Miller marry his two main loves — funk and jazz — into a kind of fusion that’s so contemporary but retains the major elements of jazz. Miller has the horns blow Don Grolnick type charts on top of a groove on “Redemption.” Han plays a modern jazz solo over Cato’s 21st century rhythmic pattern on “February,” a song that’s easy to forget that it’s all acoustic save for Miller’s bass guitar. “Jekyll & Hyde” is a bop song at heart that Miller makes into a funk-rock-jazz workout that retains its swing. The subdued “Gorée (Go-ray)” finds Miller articulating nicely on his second instrument, the bass clarinet.
“Slippin’ Into Darkness,” covered earlier this year by acid jazz outfit Lettuce, gets a nod here from Miller as well. A great, forgotten hit by War with a reggae type rhythm invented for the song, Miller lets his band stretch out, especially Jones. Weldon Irvine’s “Mr. Clean” is extensively reworked from Freddie Hubbard’s 1971 version, keeping the head but converting the rest into the crisp groover; Miller’s solo is off the hook. The final cover is the final track of the album, a mostly solo bass take on the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There”; Miller is able to pick out all the crucial parts of the song and incorporate into his instrument, making it feel complete with just one instrument.
The former Miles collaborator has the swag to bring in anyone he wants on his record, and he does so, but only on a couple of occasions. Gretchen Parlato and Ruben Blades sing background vocals as Miller plays liquid, pretty bass notes on “Setembro (Brazilian Wedding Song).” Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope” is that fun, loose, old style two-steppin’ RnB, and he’s got Dr. John just rapping along to it.
Miller, a two time Grammy winner who has been in the thick of funk, jazz, fusion and R&B for more than three decades, has seen a lot and his survey of the scene today gives him the urgency to hand down to younger generations the forward thinking approach to music he’s learned from the masters. “I feel like a page is turning,” he opines, “the last of our heroes are checking out and we are truly entering a new era. Musically, we’ve got all these cool ways to play and share music…but the music is not as revolutionary as the media. It’s time for a rebirth.” Renaissance isn’t a revolutionary album, but there’s an attention to detail, the openness to a multitude of styles, and Miller’s strongest set of songs in some time. All of those things seemed to inspire the younger generation of players in his band to play up to the material and respond to Miller’s direction with a rare combination of looseness and preciseness. Where those guys go from here, that’s where the real rebirth will happen.
Renaissance is set for release August 7 by Concord Jazz.
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