Jazz-pop bassist Marcus Miller's joyful noise

ON POPULAR MUSIC

April 03, 2008|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

Marcus Miller is in a happy space these days, and the jazz-pop bassist didn't even have to tell me so. Just listen to his new album, simply titled Marcus. Practically every note glows.

"There's a lot of joy in this album," he says. "Every album has a different flavor. This one is more upbeat. I don't know. That's just where I am right now."

The two-time Grammy winner, who plays Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis on Monday night, says no particular personal event inspired the mood. At 49, with an acclaimed, lucrative career spanning nearly 30 years, Miller says he just feels more settled, and his musical scope is sharper. It's all felt on Marcus, an impressive CD that amalgamates elements of jazz, pop, R&B and funk.

In fact, the funk factor is more prevalent on the new album, bolstered by Miller's slap-bass technique. Though the musical moods and textures shift song to song, the CD manages to be one of his most cohesive sets.

"That wasn't easy to do," says Miller, who last week was in Los Angeles, taking a break at his home recording facility, Hannibal Studio. "I was looking to open and go in different directions. The problem with that is the album could end up sounding like radio. But the sound of the bass unifies everything."

Miller's popping, virtuosic lines and fat tones masterfully anchor the 14 cuts. He plays the bass with the kind of beauty and grace that only comes after years of living and breathing all aspects of the instrument. Also over the years, Miller has worked with some of the giants of pop and jazz, and all influenced his craft in some way. In addition to his own albums (Miller has released 12 since 1984), the artist has scored films and produced records for others, most notably Miles Davis and Luther Vandross.

"Luther wasn't the lowest singer or the highest singer. He sang the right notes somewhere in the middle," says Miller, a longtime friend of the late soul crooner. "He knew how to make folks feel something, man. You want to make people feel. Same with Miles. He wanted you to feel something, and the way he played -- you felt it."

To sharpen the soulful edge on Marcus, the artist enlisted top-shelf song stylists. Corinne Bailey Rae croons "Free" with an affecting fragility slightly reminiscent of Deniece Williams' approach on the 1976 original. Modern blues man Keb' Mo' sounds more R&B on the strutting "Milky Way," one of the CD's highlights. But the smoked honey vocals of Lalah Hathaway are underused on "Ooh," a ho-hum track.

For more diversity, Miller added spoken word to the mix, courtesy of the talented Shihan the Poet and actress Taraji P. Henson, who spins likable lines over an instrumental of Robin Thicke's "Lost Without You."

"I wanted to find distinctive singers, ones that you know their voices after one or two notes," the bassist says. "And I like spoken word, which is still popular out here in L.A. I wanted to know how it can be integrated in the music while still maintaining the integrity of the poem."

Beyond the love lines and funky bass, the feel of the music is warm and ingratiating. It's probably the only Marcus Miller album I've listened to all the way through.

"When it's all said and done, the thing that gets to people, that keeps them coming back, is the connection they feel to the music," the artist says. "They remember that music made them feel good. That's what music should do."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

See Marcus Miller at Rams Head Tavern, 33 West St. in Annapolis, at 6 and 9 Monday night. Tickets are $35. Call 410-268-4545 or go to ramsheadtavern.com.

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