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The Mentality of Music: An Interview with Marcus Miller

Matthew Kassel
Staff Writer

On Monday, February 7, I did a phone interview with Marcus Miller. He was in Los Angeles and I was in Montreal. It was quite cold that night in Montreal. When we talked, the protests were well under way in Egypt.

Matthew Kassel: So, let’s talk a little about your new record, “A Night in Monte Carlo.”

Marcus Miller: Let’s see, “A Night in Monte Carlo,” there’s a guy names Jean-Rene Palacio, and Jean-Rene is the director of culture for the principality of Monaco, which is at the southern end of France. They have a Monaco Jazz Festival, and a couple of years ago, Jean-Rene asked me if I would be interested in performing at the festival, and whether I wanted to work with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra. He said he could put it together, so I thought it was a good idea. And I’m often looking to do different things. You know, in the last few years, I did SMV with Stanley [Clarke] and Victor [Wooten] and I did Tutu Revisited. So I’ve been looking to branch out and do different things, and I thought this would be really nice. So I wrote some arrangements for some songs from my catalogue and some that I thought would be nice and we had about three days of rehearsal in Monaco with the orchestra, and we used my current band at the time, which was Poogie Bell on drums, Federico Pena on keyboards, Alex Han on saxophone; and then I had, as a special guest, DJ Logic on turntables, Roy Hargrove on trumpet, and Raul Midon on vocals and guitar.

MK: Yeah, it was quite a nice assortment of people.

MM: And I was happy about it, because I’ve always been a fan of Roy Hargrove, ever since he came to New York like in the early nineties. And I was always looking for an opportunity to do something with him, and this seemed like a good way to do it because it was going to be such a special event. And then I heard Raul Midon a couple of years ago and was really impressed with his talent. So this seemed like a good opportunity to work with those two and I’m really happy with the way it came out.

MK: Yeah, I liked the arrangements you made. I was wondering what it was like to work with an orchestra in the jazz idiom, because when you’re doing something that’s good, like, say, a solo, and you want to keep on going, did you have any cues or anything with the orchestra so you could continue that in any way?

MM: Yeah, the important thing is your conductor. And I had a great conductor named Damon Gupton. And I said to him, “You know, if we get hot, man, I need you to just extend the section.” So we had sections where we knew that they were on cue: I would give the conductor the cue and then he would give the orchestra the cue. So you need an orchestra that’s a little bit more flexible, because a lot of orchestras have never done that. And the orchestra was pretty hip and pretty open to that kind of thing, so it ended up not being such a big problem.

MK: And you only had three days to prepare for that?

MM: Yeah, we had three days. So, you know, I would have liked to have a few more days, but when you know you only have three days, your concentration goes way up. Everybody was really focused, and we got it done. But it was a lot of work in those three days.

MK: What are you working on now, if you don’t mind my asking?

MM: Right now I’m just writing some music. You know, I’d like to start my next CD soon, and so I’m writing some music for that. I think I’m going to do some gigs with George Duke and David Sanborn in the next few months, so prepare for that. And just planning it out. I’m going to attack 2011.

MK: Do you feel like you’ve settled musically, or are you still searching?

MM: I’m never settled. I think that’s a real dangerous feeling, to be settled. I’m really always trying to find new situations for myself and meet new challenges to create something new and meaningful. So I’ve got to avoid that feeling of settledness.

MK: Yeah, I know what you mean. Working with Miles [Davis], did you get that notion from him?

MM: I think I was influenced by him. You know, me and a whole generation of musicians were influenced by that aspect of his work: the not-to-get-complacent aspect. I think Miles and John Coltrane, these kind of people, Herbie Hancock—they really have influenced a lot of guys into feeling like you can have a long, wonderful career in music if you have the talent and you have the ability to continue to push your whole life.

MK: What about looking back? Are you opposed to that?

MM: Well, Miles hated it. I don’t mind it so much. But I don’t like to stay there, you know? Once in a while, it’s nice to look back and see what’s back there, but I try not to spend too much time on it. We did Tutu Revisited over the last couple of years, and it was nice to revisit that music, particularly since we were trying not to play it in the same style as we did 25 years ago. I found some young musicians, and we approached it a little differently, and that was nice. I think we actually ended up creating something new, for today. So that was a different way of looking back, as opposed to just going back and playing in the same styles that you did back then and wearing the same clothes…

MK: Did you feel at all like Miles in that situation, with the Tutu Revisited tour? Because you were sort of the veteran with the younger players.

MM: Well, when I was thinking about doing Tutu Revisited, you know, I knew Miles didn’t like to look back, so I figured, what would he like about something like that? And I thought he might like if I found young musicians like he liked to do—and introduce them to the world, introduce the world to them, and help them get to the next level. So I didn’t feel like Miles, but I definitely took inspiration from him.

MK: Yeah, I guess that you wouldn’t feel like Miles, because you’re not Miles. [laughs] I read in an interview that when you worked with Miles, it was like, if you did something, and he liked it, you knew it was good, because his approval was sort of it. But after he died [in 1991], did you feel unmoored in any way? Like less confident by doing something and not necessarily having his word on it?

MM: I think I had enough great experiences with him so that by the time he left I was OK. But there definitely was a void. You know, I would always think, “I can’t wait ‘til Miles hears this,” even if it was something he didn’t have anything to do with. And I used to get a kick out of his reaction to different stuff. So I knew I was going to miss that. But by that point I felt pretty confident in what I was doing, so that I could move forward.

MK: What other musicians were you influenced by, who sort of boosted your confidence?

MM: Luther Vandross, really, is important to me. David Sanborn. Who else? Way back in the day there was a guy names Lonnie Liston Smith who gave me a lot of encouragement because of my compositions. And then Ralph MacDonald, who is a producer who produced Grover Washington Jr. and a lot of other people. He wrote songs for Roberta Flack, and he was really important in giving me encouragement.

MK: Any non-musicians?

MM: Well, if I want to go back, you know, my parents were the first ones. They were always sure that I was going to do something good, even when I was a teenager. They stated that as a fact. So it was really nice to have that kind of support from my parents. And I had a music teacher in high school, named Mr. Guarino, who was really supportive and really important in my life in terms of me feeling like, “You know what? This is something I’m good at.” He let me try any instrument I wanted to try, he pushed me to try other instruments, and not to just stick on one instrument. And so he was very important to me.

MK: Were you learning clarinet at this time?

MM: Yeah, I started with him on clarinet at the age of ten or eleven, and pretty soon after he made me try saxophone as well. And then he encouraged me to try the percussion instruments, and the bass guitar, and whatever I was in to, he just encouraged it, man, he was just really supportive.

MK: The bass clarinet is something that’s sprung up throughout your recordings and your performances. With the bass, you have a front line role with it, but you’re also holding down the rhythm. Is it different for you to play the bass clarinet because you’re not necessarily in control of the rhythm in the same way?

MM: Yeah, it’s a different feeling. It’s a nice feeling, where you just get to ride on top. And you’re not responsible for holding the thing together. You’re just responsible for adding the top layer. And I really like that other perspective. That’s the thing that fascinates me about all the other instruments. It’s not really the instrument as much as the mentality of that instrument. Like if you’re a trumpet player in the back of an orchestra, your job is to wait and wait and wait and then supply power. The same with a percussion instrument in a classical orchestra, where they wait and wait, and then they supply this kind of accent. That’s a different mentality than if you play the violin in an orchestra, where you’re playing all the time. And whether you’re in the front of the orchestra or the back, or you’re in the rhythm section of a funk band and you’re holding it down, or you’re in the horn section just waiting for those little accents to come, you know, I’m really intrigued by all those different mentalities.

MK: Well, the bass clarinet, you know don’t hear it very much, but I really like it.

MM: Oh thanks, yeah, it’s pretty unusual. Eric Dolphy’s probably the most famous jazz bass clarinetist. And then Bennie Maupin, who played with Miles in the 70s, and Herbie Hancock, too, he used it a lot, and he’s very good on it. And he really encouraged me with the bass clarinet. When he saw that I was interested in it, he gave me some tips, and some equipment suggestions which really helped me.

MK: Do you practice that often?

MM: I practice enough to say what I want to say on it. But, you know, I don’t try to go too far with it because I really use it just to express my melodic sense. I don’t want to try to be Eric Dolphy on it. So I practice my bass guitar, and I just use the bass clarinet to express myself.

MK: In your performance in Monte Carlo, when you were playing the bass clarinet, was there a bassist playing that wasn’t you?

MM: That was Federico Pena on the keyboard.

MK: Oh, he was playing the bass line at the bottom?

MM: Yeah, with his left hand, he was playing synth bass.

MK: OK, interesting. I was wondering about that because you were the bassist, and then you weren’t playing bass.

MM: He does a really good job with that, it’s very nice.

MK: Yeah, I couldn’t really tell the difference, or at least, I didn’t think about it until now. So you’re a parent as well, right?

MM: Yup, four kids.

MK: Does your music interfere with your family life at all?

MM: No, I wouldn’t call it interfere, but it’s definitely a part of who I am. And it definitely presents some challenges in terms of the fact that I have to travel a lot. So when my kids were young, I didn’t travel on the road as much. When they were between the ages of like two and twelve, I didn’t travel so much. When they got older, and we got computers and Skype and Internet and all that stuff, it’s a lot easier to stay in touch. So I started stepping it back up when they got to be teenagers because they understand and they know what I do. But I definitely dialed it back and focused on other things. I focused a lot on doing movie scores in those years, where I could stay at home and work, but still stay creative.

MK: Well, that’s a good way to balance it. Do you feel inspired by your family to write music?

MM: Oh yeah, you know, most of my inspiration comes from there. I have a wife and four kids, and there’s so many emotions that go on when you’re raising a family that you can use in your music. So it’s really inspirational.

MK: Do you have any…I’ll give you an example. I was reading, in my first year in university, I was reading a Dostoyevsky novel, “Crime and Punishment,” and I really, really liked it a lot. But then I found out that Dostoyevsky was an anti-Semite and I had problems respecting him after that. But I still wanted to enjoy his book. So with Miles, for example, he didn’t have the most stable family life, so do you feel like you have to look at his art and separate that from whatever problems he may have had with his life?

MM: Well, with Miles I didn’t have to separate it because I basically looked at his music as the purest representation of who he was. And then the other stuff that happened in his life that wasn’t so cool, it was just him being a human being, and struggling with whatever demons had. But it just made me really appreciate his music more, because I’d go, “Wow, as much stuff as he’s going through, his spirit shines so clearly through his music.” I was really amazed and impressed by that, so I just focused on that, you know? I have had situations where…you know, I met a cat, man, whose personality ended up being so much different from what I expected that I lost a little respect for him. But that hasn’t happened often. You know, usually, with great musicians, their personalities are pretty close to who they are musically. So when I met Wayne Shorter, he was exactly what I had imagined him to be. And the same with Herbie Hancock. I know that there’s some guys like Wagner, whose music is beautiful, but I definitely don’t listen to as much Wagner as I might have if he had come from a different part of the world with a different mentality. But because I knew Miles so well, I didn’t lose anything there.

MK: So you’ve found that the community of musicians that you’re a part of is pretty supportive?

MM: No, everybody’s weird, everybody’s crazy, man. But the thing you got to realize is that the people who have it all together, you know, they’re not always the best musicians. They don’t have anything they need to work out. So the guys who are really finding ways to express themselves are people who really need to express themselves. So you’ve got to accept that if you’re a musician, you’re going to run into some characters. No question. That’s just how it works.

MK: So I’m sure people have approached you looking for support, like Alex Han, for example. Or did you approach him?

MM: Yeah, I went to Berklee to do a master class for a week, and I heard him there and just called him to make a couple of gigs with me. Our relationship started from there, and it was very nice. I was very impressed by his talent and his drive and spirit, so it was a pretty natural thing.

MK: Are you going to be recording with him any other time?

MM: Yeah, I’m hoping to get him in the studio in the next couple of months.

MK: And you’re in L.A., right?

MM: I’m in L.A., yeah.

MK: When did you move out there?

MM: I moved out here about sixteen or seventeen years ago because I was producing Luther Vandross, and those pop records take like three months. And he moved out here, and I always ended up spending three months in hotels away from my family, so during one project with Luther, I rented a house and my family came out and we hung out here. And the same thing happened the next year, and the next thing you know, we had to put our kids in school. And roots started going into the ground here in L.A. And then I got into scoring movies, and at the same time, the New York scene over there was changing. It wasn’t as vital as it had once been—this was like the early nineties. So I, along with my family, decided to make a permanent move.

MK: Did you feel any pressure to change musically as a result of the stylistic changes in New York at the time?

MM: No, I didn’t feel any pressure. I mean, no new pressure. I always feel a desire to listen to what’s happening in the world, musically, and try to take what I think is relevant to me so that I can keep my music fresh. So I’ve been doing that all along, and New York was a great place for that. And although I live in L.A., I’m in New York all the time. You know, my dad still lives in New York, so I’m there all the time continuing to listen and see what’s happening. And I basically do that everywhere, all over the world.

MK: What young musicians are you drawn to today, speaking of New York, or wherever?

MM: Well, I like Alex [Han] a lot. I think he’s a great musician, and then Louis Cato, who’s been playing the drums in my band for the last year and a half. And he’s very, very talented. He plays a lot of bass, too, does a lot of recording on bass as well as drums. Esperanza [Spalding] is very talented. I enjoy listening to her. I like the piano player Aaron Parks.

MK: Aaron Parks, yes, I interviewed him a couple of months ago.

MM: Oh yeah, was he cool?

MK: Yeah, he’s a smart guy.

MM: Yeah, I enjoy listening to his music.

MK: Yeah, he sort of has a film-score-type mentality in his playing, and in his arrangements.

MM: Right, right, very visual. He manages to keep your interest, and I like that.

MK: Yeah, I guess that’s the most important thing. Have you ever felt like you’ve had to sacrifice anything to maintain the interest of your audience?

MM: No, not really. I’m very lucky that the stuff that I like, the stuff that moves me, it moves a lot of people. So I’m fortunate in that way. I haven’t ever felt like I’ve sacrificed for my audience. I feel like they’re on my side and I can go where I want.

MK: Well, that’s good. That’s probably the best situation you could have. In terms of the decline of records, has that affected you?

MM: Yeah, in terms of the decline of CD sales, I think I find myself on the road more than I was fifteen years ago. One reason is because I wanted to be with my kids. But also, we had record royalties that were coming in, and that’s not as much now. So I think a lot of musicians find themselves doing it the old-fashioned way, getting out there and touring a lot more. And I think the musicians find themselves holding a lot more of the responsibilities for their careers because they’re making their CDs on their own, they’re promoting themselves, they’re selling their CDs after their shows. I think it’s really changed the dynamics. You’ve got to be really an entrepreneur, and you can’t wait for a record company exec to come in and just say, “Hey, I’m going to be your guy, I’m going to be your godfather and usher you through the music business.” You really got to do it on your own these days.

MK: Yeah, that’s true. Do you ever find yourself teaching?

MM: A little bit, you know, I’ll sometimes do a clinic, or visit schools. I end up doing more talking than playing, just trying to talk about the mentality of being a musician because that’s a thing that a lot of the kids are missing. They can play, but they don’t know why they’re playing yet. Well, they know why, but it’s a young mentality where they’re trying to just impress other musicians. It’s a real athletic kind of mentality. And I just talk about how, overtime, that will change, and you’ll start to make music for different reasons. And you should kind of monitor that, you know, monitor why you’re making music—make sure you’re aware of it and what you’re trying to achieve. Make sure there’s no accidents, that you’re doing everything purposefully.

MK: When did you come to that sort of awareness?

MM: I came to that awareness when I started having people come up to me and tell me what my music had done for them in their lives. You know, they’d say, “Man, I listened to that when I went through a difficult period,” or, “That music was playing when my son was born,” or, “That song helped our people when we were struggling for independence.” I heard that with a song called “Tutu” that I wrote for Miles. And when you realize how powerful music is, it might change your perspective. It certainly changed mine to where I realized that music is more powerful than just impressing other musicians. You know, that’s nice, too. But I think there’s so much you can do with music, and if you have those kinds of experiences, it starts to change you.

MK: Did that intimidate you at all, when someone said, “This helped me get through something.” Did you feel like, “Oh no, maybe I won’t be able to do that again.”

MM: No it doesn’t intimidate you because if you can’t do it again, they’ll just keep playing that record they love. You’ve already done it. And you realize the more heavy you make it for yourself, the less chance you’ll have to do it again, because the music has to come from an uncluttered, unstressed place. So you really got to work hard to keep yourself there, no matter how many great things happen as a result of that music.

MK: Yeah, I read an essay about how music is different because if you’re listening to a CD, say, when you’re fifteen, and you feel really inspired by it, you can go back to it ten years later and relate to the person that you were then, listening to that CD. And then you can sort of figure out more things about yourself and find new things in the music.

MM: Yeah, exactly, because, you know, music basically helps you take snapshots in your life. It basically underscores whatever and whoever you are at the moment. So that’s why, to me, it’s so important to make music for this moment because if someone is listening to my music fifteen or twenty years from now, I want them to be able to see clearly what the world was like right now. I want them to be able to remember how people dance, how people move, how people sounded, how the world sounded, and then remember their own life as well. So that kind of mentality is what keeps me focused on creating music for now. You know, some guys really like to play in older styles, but for me, I really like to try and represent the current world.

MK: Are you inspired by what’s happening in Egypt right now?

MM: Yeah, what really intrigues me the most is that it’s so youth-driven. One of the main guys who organizes that protest is a young guy in his twenties who uses Facebook to coordinate it all. So that’s pretty incredible to me. It just shows how different the world is now—it lets you know we’re truly in a new world.

MK: Do you ever listen back on what you’ve recorded and feel refreshed, knowing that it’s documented and you’ll always have it?

MM: Yeah, lots of times, it’s like looking at an old picture. You go, “Yup, that was me.” [laughs] The good and the bad. Playing jazz, you learn to accept that pretty quickly because with jazz, particularly the older jazz musicians from the 40s and 50s, they didn’t have time do twelve takes. So they played the song once or twice, and whatever it was, that was what they had to live with forever. Imagine that: You can’t go back and fix something that you know is going to last forever. So as a jazz musician, you really have to learn to live with your imperfections like no other artist. If you’re a painter, you just erase. If you’re an author, you just delete and rewrite. As a jazz musician in the recording studio, you just got to live with it. That’s a whole other mentality, and it creates a whole different type of person.

MK: Yeah, that’s the finality of imperfection.

MM: Yeah, and the fact that it’s probably a truer representation of your humanity than something that you could perfect.

MK: I actually prefer imperfection.

MM: Unless you’re doing it. People love hearing other people’s imperfections. When you’re sitting there, and you know you’re supposed to be playing E flat, and it came out D flat, that’s hard to live with.

MK: When you solo, is it like what you hear in your head is what you play?

MM: Yeah, you got to imagine everything first, a split second before I play it. Sometimes you take a mental break and play a scale or something just to get you to the next section of your solo, and you use these tools, but most of the time you try to stay mentality connected to what you’re playing.

MK: Can you hear that in a musician? Like can you tell when a musician is not doing that?

MM: Oh yeah, you can tell musicians who play with their hands instead of their minds. And some of them are good. I mean, there are great players who play with their hands. Lots of rock guitar players, you can tell that they don’t really hear everything they’re playing. They just know I want go from here to here and I want to create this energy. And they have these musical devices that they use to create that energy. And they’re not connected with each note. But it’s different for all musicians. It’s not like there’s any one way to do it. For me, I like to stay connected.

MK: Yeah, are you playing any straight-ahead styles at all in your touring?

MM: I just finished Tutu Revisited and went into some straight-ahead a few times in the course of a concert.

MK: Were you playing stand-up or electric on that tour?

MM: I was playing electric. But I can swing on electric, so it’s not so horrible. For a lot of electric players, it’s just horrible.

MK: Well, I guess it’s like you have to move your fingers in a different way.

MM: Really, you just got to have that feeling. If you didn’t grow up with that feeling, if you didn’t get to that feeling early in your life, it comes out fake.

MK: Is that what you felt earlier, when you started listening to records?

MM: I started playing straight-ahead early, as a teenager. So when you’re a teenager, you learn music in the same way you learn language when you’re like a four- or five-year-old. You absorb it rather than intellectualize it. And the music that you absorb is always more authentic then the music that you intellectually learn. So a lot of electric bass players just learn how to play straight-ahead too late. And then others don’t understand that you have to approach it a little differently because you have to understand the envelope of the sound. The acoustic bass has a really quick envelope. And the electric bass sustains. So you got to figure out: How am I going to make this swing? The best thing I would tell electric bass players is to listen to Jimmy Smith on the organ. Because he walks the organ bass, and it’s long and sustained, and just like an electric bass, even more sustaining than an electric bass, and he still makes it swing. So that’ll show you how electric bass can swing.

MK: Yeah, I love Jimmy Smith. He’s actually one of the first jazz musicians that I started to listen to.

MM: Yeah, he’s incredible.

MK: Did you ever meet him?

MM: Yup, I met Jimmy Smith at A&M Studios, which was Herb Alpert’s studio. And I had the honor of meeting him, and I’m very happy to have met him, because he’s an incredible musician.

MK: What other jazz musicians are you happy to have met, who are gone now?

MM: Well, I’m glad to have met Dizzy Gillespie and Walter Bishop Jr.; Al Haig—he’s like an original bebop guy—and I’m happy to have met Milt Jackson; Stanley Turrentine and Dizzy Reece, who is another trumpet player; Sonny Rollins; you know, the guys who came on the scene in the 60s: Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter—I’m honored to know them; and Chick Corea and John McLaughlin and Stevie Wonder and Larry Graham—really important—and Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius. I basically met all the guys who were my heroes, and I feel very blessed to have done so.

MK: Any you didn’t?

MM: Well, I didn’t get to meet Duke Ellington, you know, the guys who were from the 20s and the 30s. I didn’t get to meet Louis Armstrong. I would like to have met those guys. But after that, I’m just glad to have met who I’ve met, you know? And I’m glad to not have been disappointed by them. You run a big risk when you meet your heroes, man. It can end up crushing you. First thing Dizzy did when I met him, he got on the floor on his back and he raised his feet up seven inches and he raised his head up seven inches. That’s all ab work. And he said, “Can you do this?” And he was like 70 years old. Wow, man, that’s pretty impressive. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by showing him I could do it, too. [laughs] And then he showed me the chords to a song he had written, a bebop tune called “Tin Tin Deo.” And, man, when he showed me the chords that were going down, because in bebop a lot of the stuff was going by so quickly you couldn’t really enjoy the beauty of the harmonies, but when he showed me the chords, I was like, “Oh my goodness, that’s what’s going on?” And I got a whole new appreciation for bebop and for what these guys were doing at that time. Because I like to find out how the guys think, rather than how they play. What makes them smile? What makes them feel like the music is good? You know, Joe Sample and the Crusaders, and all of these guys, what makes it good? And what’s your mentality? I’m really into that.

Matthew Kassel is a fourth-year at McGill University studying political science and Arabic. When he can, he writes--often about jazz. Find some of his work at