Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Marcus Eponymously

By Marcus Miller
Concord Records

Marcus Miller is part of the exclusive “Sons of Miles” fraternity of former Davis sideman. Miller was in fact, the unofficial music director and composer for the group during his tenure with the legendary trumpeter. Yet, those Warner Brothers years remain controversial with Davis fans. That combination of jazz, funk, and pop sensibilities that marked Miller’s collaborations with Davis is also in evidence on Miller’s latest, simply titled Marcus.

Miller has worked with jazz artists like McCoy Tyner, the Breckers, and Lenny White, as well as pop figures, including an important association with Luther Vandross, so he is comfortable continuing to mix genres. In truth, Marcus could be divided into two records, a bass dominated jazz-funk record and a set of pop vocals featuring famous guest stars, including Corinne Bailey Rae and Keb’ Mo.’ While the latter tracks would appeal more to fans of the guest vocalists, the instrumental selections make for a surprisingly enjoyable set of accessible funk-jazz.

As it is his session, Miller’s electric bass is up-front in the mix, but we hear him on other instruments as well, like the sitar on the nicely textured opener “Blast!” Miller sets a kind groove and highlights his solo chops on the following “Blues Joint.” There is a lot of funk throughout, as on “Strum,” which ought to be licensed by a commercial producer for the sense of cool it exudes.

Davis is represented with “Jean Pierre.” Like the preceding “Strum” it benefits from the contributions of French harmonica player Gregoire Maret, formerly of the Pat Metheny Group. He can also be heard to advantage on “When I Fall in the Love,” the straightest jazz performance of the set. With Miller carrying the melody on bass clarinet (his unlikely double), it is an unusual but effective combination of sounds.

Of the vocal tracks, “Free” featuring Rae and “Ooh” with Lalah Hathaway should appeal to fans of the singers. Each also features some tasteful bass accompaniment from Miller, to keep his fans satisfied. However, the very electric “Milky Way,” co-written by Keb’ Mo’ and Miller, may not be what the contemporary bluesman’s listeners are used to hearing from him. He is also heard through samples on the following “Pluck (Interlude),” a driving selection that easily fits with the set’s other instrumental tracks.

Despite the Miles Davis seal of approval (or because of it at that stage of his career), many purists might dismiss Miller as a pop or smooth musician. Marcus makes a strong case for his musicianship and could surprise some listeners. Its instrumental tracks will be red meat for jazz-funksters out there, but certainly will not intimidate the fans of his pop guests.