After a 30-year association with Columbia Records – which had begun with ‘Round About Midnight’ way back in 1956 – MILES DAVIS decided to sever ties with his old company and jump ship to Warner Bros. That was in 1986 and although a large amount of money helped facilitate his move, the iconic jazz trumpeter was in search of fresh musical inspiration. He found it in an unlikely source – MARCUS MILLER, a 25-year-old Big Apple bass player who had first played with the ‘Dark Magus’ on his 1981 comeback album, ‘The Man With The Horn.’ As Davis discovered, Miller was much more than a mere bassist – he was a gifted multi-instrumentalist who could write, arrange and produce (he also had a parallel career in the R&B world as Luther Vandross’s collaborator). Miller came up with ‘Tutu,’ which with its reliance on synthesizers, drum machines and inclusion of pop elements and funky bass lines horrified many jazz critics. But it was an influential album and took Miles’ music to a new generation of listeners….
25 years after ‘Tutu’s’ release, Miller – now 52 – explores his ’80s collaboration with Miles Davis on ‘Tutu Revisited,’ a double album that was recorded live in France in 2009. Miller was persuaded to re-acquaint himself with the album by the director of a Miles Davis exhibition (the exhibition was called ‘We Want Miles!’) in Paris, who wanted the Brooklyn-born bassist to close the exhibition by performing ‘Tutu’ in its entirety. Initially dubious – knowing that Miles Davis never got nostalgic and looked back on his career – Miller eventually agreed and put together a young band for the project. But what started as a one-off venture led to a three-year tour of ‘Tutu.’ Now the music from that tour can be seen and heard via a combined CD/DVD package that is released on May 16th via the Paris-based Dreyfus Records.
SJF’s Charles Waring recently talked to MARCUS MILLER, who not only reminisced about his time with MILES DAVIS but also spoke of his collaborations with LUTHER VANDROSS and cast his eye back over the full length of his career.
On your new album, ‘Tutu Revisited,’ you lead a young band that includes the acclaimed young trumpet sensation, Christian Scott. How did he feel about taking Miles’s role playing trumpet on ‘Tutu’?
At first he thought it was going to be a really formidable task but I said to him ‘look, I don’t want you to stand up there trying to sound like Miles. Miles would hate that and so would I. Rather I’d just like you to reference him from time to time and let’s play this music and see if we can find your own voice in this music.’ I said that to all the musicians. The first rehearsal sounded just like the CD from 1986. I was like ‘okay, thank you guys, that’s really a nice memory for me but I don’t really want to go out on the road trying to sound like 1986. Let’s open it up now and see what we can find of our own.’ So once we all got past the reverence part of it, we could really get comfortable and open it up and it really became something really cool. Anyway, we were supposed to be doing it for one gig and then word got out man, and the next thing I know we were touring for three years on this thing.
Going back to 1986, what circumstances led to you work on ‘Tutu’ with Miles Davis?
He had been on Columbia for years and then for some reason he decided he wanted to move and he moved to Warner Brothers. I was talking to Tommy LiPuma at Warner Bros, who was the senior A & R guy over there. He said ‘man, Miles Davis just came over here.’ I said ‘oh really? What is he looking to do?’ He said ‘he’s looking to do something different so if you’ve got something in mind let me know.’ I had been writing a lot of stuff for different acts on Warner Brothers – David Sanborn, Al Jarreau and I also had my own group. He said ‘Let me send you what George Duke wrote that Miles really likes’ and he sent me the demo that George Duke had done of a song called ‘Backyard Ritual.’ It had drum machines and Synclavier and all the hip stuff from 1985. I was like wow, man, if Miles is ready to go in this direction, I’m game. So I just started writing. I wrote three things and called Tommy back up and said ‘I have some things I want you to hear.’ He said ‘come out to LA and we’ll check them out.’ So I went out to LA and Capitol Studios and I played Tommy my demos, which were fully realised because I was playing all the instruments. He said ‘man, this sounds great. Let’s start recording.’ I said ‘okay, great – where’s the band?’ Tommy said ‘we’re not going to use a band. We’re going to do it just like you have on your demo.’ I said ‘man, this is a Miles Davis record, Tommy. This isn’t like a pop record.’ He said ‘but Miles wants to do something different. That sounds different. Let’s do it.’ So I called the record company and got all the instruments into the studio and began the recording, not knowing whether Miles was going to dig it or not. A few days later Miles came in listened to what I was doing and said ‘that sounds great. Keep going. Let me know when you need me.’ So three songs were done and then I got a call a while later with them saying ‘we want you to do more: we want you to finish the album.’ It turned out that they had been experimenting with a lot of different producers and a lot of different directions, but they thought that this was something that they wanted to explore.
Hadn’t Miles been working with Prince around the same period?
I know he had done a couple of things with Prince. One, which I worked on, they tried to finish. It was called ‘Can I Play With You.’ But in the end I think Prince didn’t think it fitted on the ‘Tutu’ album and it was left off.
How did Miles feel about new electronic sounds and not playing with an actual band in the studio?
It didn’t even faze him, man. It seemed like it was something he had been doing all along – and in just saying that it’s just occurring to me that I’m sure he hadn’t really done a lot of overdubbing or anything like that. But that didn’t occur to me because he was so comfortable. He was having such a good time. He listened to the sound and said ‘I like that sound.’ He’d do a couple of takes and he seemed really comfortable. I remember him telling me that Cannonball Adderley couldn’t overdub. It just didn’t work for him. He had to have live musicians in. But with Miles it just seemed like he was very comfortable.
Did you prepare most of the tracks beforehand and then have him come in and do his part?
Yeah, I prepared the multi-tracks beforehand and he’d come in and I’d have something written to show him what he should play.
Did you feel a little apprehensive about showing him what to do and play?
Oh yeah, man, the first time was nerve-wracking. I just played him the track and just stood there while he noodled around. Then he stopped and finally said to me: ‘when are you going to tell me what the hell to do? You know what it’s supposed to sound like. Come on, man.’ So I began tentatively to give him instructions but then once the music started happening and it started sounding pretty good I got lost in the music and forgot my apprehension because the music was so important. I used to forget nervousness when the notes started playing.
What sort of input did Miles have on the album?
He would say things like ‘oh that sounds good. I think that needs another section.’ Or he’d say ‘take that piano out. I don’t want to hear acoustic piano.’ That kind of thing you know.
As well as playing bass on the LP you played a whole array of instruments including keyboards, soprano saxophone and bass clarinet.
I’d been playing those instruments for a long time but bass is my voice. But when Tommy (LiPuma) had me working in the studio I’d been making records like that – you know playing on different instruments – for years by that point because I’ve been influenced by Stevie Wonder, Prince and Sly (Stone), who were doing that kind of thing since the ’70s. I was a little nervous at first because I was like ‘wow this is a really different way to make music,’ particularly with somebody who is considered the jazz artist of our time but it’s kind of cool. It’s sounding good and I figured well this is something different for Miles: he’s always up to be different, let’s see this thing through.
What did you learn from working with Miles?
Well, first of all I just got so much confidence because of the fact that he just put the project in my hands like that. Once you’ve had somebody like Miles give you that kind of responsibility it really boosts you. You know your sense of who you are. Knowing that I’d write for him made me stretch and find harmonies and melodies I might not have found otherwise because it was so inspiring just creating something for him. And then once the record came out, to see him ride that wave, that wave of popularity and controversy and everything that came with it, was really exciting and I think I learned a lot from that as well.
Looking back at Tutu 25 years down the road, what do you think you achieved with it?
I think we helped create part of the soundtrack for that time. When you hear ‘Tutu’ it literally brings you back to that time, and it was really a soundtrack for that moment. We had new technology and we were trying to figure out our place and relationship with the technology. When I hear ‘Tutu,’ I hear Miles with that frazzled sound of his making his way through this new urban landscape – the same guy who came from St Louis and who was playing bebop in the ’40s with Charlie Parker. Now he’s in this new world and he’s found a way for his singular voice to make a mark in a new era. The guy was 60 years old and was still making music that was relevant to that time, not just rehashing what he had done earlier in his life.
He was always looking forward.
Yeah man, looking forward is hard, particularly when you have success behind you. If you got failure behind you, you need to look forward (laughs). But when you’ve got success behind you – and multiple success – and still feel a drive to look forward, that’s pretty impressive.
Of all the tracks on the album, have you got a favourite?
Well, I think ‘Tutu’ sums it up. It was a great leadoff. Not only did it become a soundtrack for that time but it also directed a lot of attention towards Desmond Tutu – who it was in dedication to – and pointed Miles and his fans in that direction of what was going on in South Africa at that time. So I feel very proud to have contributed to that struggle which ended in the dismantling of apartheid. I found out that it provided strength for a lot of South African people who were actually in the struggle as opposed to just us who were outside the situation. So that was amazing to find out.
One of the surprises on the album with the inclusion of the Scritti Politti song ‘Perfect Way’ – whose decision was it to include it on the album?
It was Miles. I thought he was crazy. I love Scritti – I’m on those records – but I have to admit it never occurred to me to do it but Miles heard it. Scritti sounded so different at that time. I thought what in the world is this? It sounded like little elves made it like they made a clock; like all the ways the parts fitted into each other. I couldn’t really imagine Miles in the midst of it so it took me a minute to work on it. I tried to see how I could open it up to allow Miles to do his thing in it. I’m sure David Gamson (of Scritti Politti) got a kick when he heard that Miles had covered his song.
Can you remember when you first met Miles and how did you get into his band?
Miles had been in retirement for about six years from maybe ’75. In 75 I was 15 or 16 years old so by the time I was 21 he hadn’t been on the scene since I was a teenager. For a teenager five or six years seemed like forever so I wasn’t even sure where he was or whether he was alive. Then I started hearing rumours that Miles was coming back. They were just rumours you know. But I got called for a Miles Davis record date. I was 19 and I showed up and Paul Buckmaster was the conductor for the session. It was really interesting. There was an ace marimba player and a lot of interesting things but Miles never showed up. So I assumed okay, well, the rumours were created by desire rather than fact. We wanted Miles to come back even though he had no intention to. So, a year later I got another call. I was doing studio work at the time and I was on some session and I got a call and they left a note saying call Miles. So I called and it was him. He said ‘can you be at Columbia Studios? I got a session in a couple of hours.’ I said ‘are you going to be there,’ in reference to the fact a year earlier I had been at a session and he wasn’t there. He said ‘yeah, motherfucker, I’m gonna be there – but are you going to be there? (Laughs). I said yeah, I’ll be there so I showed up at Columbia Studios and we started recording music for his comeback album, ‘The Man With The Horn.’ Barry Finnerty was playing guitar, Sammy Figueroa was playing percussion, Al Foster playing drums and Bill Evans on saxophone. That was the beginning, man, and that ended up being his band – but Miles replaced Barry Finnerty with Mike Stern eventually. So I ended up being in the band on Miles’s first return to the scene.
How did it feel to be a young 21-year old guy working with a jazz icon?
It was exciting. I was on cloud nine just to be in his presence. He wasn’t giving us any directions though and that was kind of worrying me because we didn’t really know what we were going to do. We knew that everybody in the world was going to be checking us out. We really ended up having to make our own way because Miles wasn’t helping us. He was shaking his head when he didn’t like something and nodding his head when he liked it. It was like going out to battle without a plan (laughs). But since I was young I said ‘whatever, I’m sure we’ll work it out.’ It was beautiful, man. I wasn’t the first one in my family to play with Miles. My cousin played with Miles in the late ’50s and early ’60s. His name was Wynton Kelly. So I was just happy to be part of the story.
Going right back to the beginning, how did you first get involved in music?
My dad’s a piano player. Wynton, his cousin, was a piano player. My dad’s dad was a piano player and all of his sisters were singers and musicians so it was a very music-oriented family. My dad’s father was a minister of the African Episcopal Church, which Marcus Garvey started in the 1920s. So there was a church that we’d go to in Brooklyn every Sunday. After the service, everyone would perform for one another in the basement of the church. And then my dad would have choir rehearsals at the house during the week and he’d be practising Beethoven and Bach. And then my mother would be playing Ray Charles records, so that was my life. My life was very music-oriented from day one. I started playing the recorder when I was eight, which is a little wooden wind instrument, and moved over to the clarinet when I was 10. I had been goofing around with my parents’ piano since day one, because that’s what my dad played and I was imitating him. After I started the clarinet, I moved to the saxophone eventually but I wanted an instrument that was more central to the R&B scene. So at the age of 12 or 13 I started fooling around with the bass and really felt a strong connection to it. I said man, ‘this is me right here.’ That was that.
Who were your main influences and musical role models around that time?
When I started, in terms of the bass, it was the early to mid-’70s, man, so it was the heyday for the bass. Sly (Stone), Isaac Hayes and Kool & The Gang had all these amazing bass lines. Sly and the Family Stone had Larry Graham, and Motown, on all their songs the bass was the loudest instrument on the record thanks to James Jamerson. I was into it all. And then when I got to high school one of my classmates, Kenny Washington, ended up introducing me to jazz. He said man, ‘you’re a talented musician: you need to learn jazz because that’s where all the really talented musicians end up.’ I said ‘okay, if you say so.’ So I started studying jazz and he actually explained to me who my cousin was. I knew Wynton was a great musician but I didn’t know anything about jazz. He had to educate me and Wynton had only just recently passed maybe two or three years earlier. Anyway, I got into Paul Chambers, and I got into Ron Carter. From that point it was Stanley Clarke, Larry Graham, Jaco Pastorius, Paul Chambers and Ron Carter.
You started session work as a teenager. How did you get into that?
I was born and raised in New York City so if somebody hears you in club you’re likely to get a card saying call me I’ve got a session for you. So I started doing demo sessions for people when I was 16. Then I got an audition to be in Bobby Humphrey’s band. Bobby Humphrey was a really popular jazz flautist at the time so I was in her band and then Ralph MacDonald was producing Bobby and Bobby convinced him to let me play on one song on her album. After that he started recommending me to the studio producers. That was really the turning point because once Ralph put the word out, man, the next thing I know I was working all day everyday.
In those days your name turned up on almost every R&B album that was being made. I remember you being on Chaka Khan’s ‘Naughty’ album.
(Bassist) Anthony Jackson didn’t show up to the session. I was in Queens, which was like forty-five minutes away from the city. I got a call saying Anthony Jackson can’t make it: how fast can you get here? I had a Chevy Monte Carlo and I was really humming on the freeway. I got to the session and there was Steve Ferrone, and Hamish (Macintosh) playing and Arif Martin was producing and directing.
And then you had a heap of success with Luther Vandross, as his co-writer and co-producer. How did you first hook up with Luther?
Well, we were both studio musicians. He was the number one background singer in New York. He was singing for (David) Bowie, Bette Midler and singing on all the commercials because commercials were bread-and-butter in New York for studio musicians. He was singing on all the jingles. So we’d see each other passing by all the time. And then Roberta Flack hired us to play gigs on the weekend. Luther was doing background singing so we got to be good friends. Luther said man, ‘I want you to write me some tracks. You write grooves all the time, I’m sure you can figure something good out. I said well, man, I’m more of a jazz guy. He said screw all that (laughs) – write me some R&B, man.’ So I started fooling around and writing him some stuff and we played on a demo for Luther that became his ‘Never Too Much’ album. That was a big success. After writing ‘Never Too Much,’ Clive Davis (head of Arista Records) called and said to Luther ‘listen, man, I know you’re a big fan of Aretha Franklin: I’d like you to produce her. Would you be interested?’ Luther said ‘oh, yeah, man.’ So Luther called me and said ‘okay, you’ve really got to write something now because I’ve got to produce Aretha Franklin.’ So I wrote a little track and handed it to him and he wrote the melody and lyrics and that was ‘Jump To It.’ So that was a big hit and after I saw that first R&B cheque, I said ‘okay, I’m officially a jazz/R&B musician.’
What was it like working with Aretha?
It was amazing, man. I’d worked with and played with her on an album before called ‘Love All The Hurt Away.’ So Arif (Mardin) called me and flew me out to LA to play on that album and it was with Jeff Porcaro, David Paich, Steve Lukather and Greg Phillinganes. That was my first time working out there. But I got to meet Aretha and it was amazing. So when we did ‘Jump To It’ it was the actually the second time that I had come into contact with her.
And then you did the ‘Get It Right’ album with her as well didn’t you?
Right. So we had the follow-up to ‘Jump To It’ with ‘Get It Right.’ By this time Luther and I were getting very comfortable working together. So then we wrote a song for Luther’s next album; ‘Bad Boy’/’Having a Party’ and then the relationship, our songwriting collaboration thing, really started to take off. The next thing I know it’s 20 years later and we were still doing it.
What’s been the highlight of your career so far? You must have many.
Yes, man, I’ve got a lot. One was playing on (Grover Washington Jr’s) ‘Just the Two of Us’ when it was big – it was the first real number one hit I’d played on. And then ‘Funkin’ for Jamaica’ (by Tom Browne), because that was all of us from Jamaica, Queens, where we grew up. That was our theme song. And then joining Miles’s band and then watching Luther’s career start from ground zero and watching him become who he ultimately became, was an amazing journey. I learned so much from watching somebody stick to their guns. Luther had a hard time finding a record deal because the execs said ‘oh, man, all you do is sing; you don’t have outfits or 14 guys in the band.’ Luther had to stick to his guns and he walked around the streets of New York going from record company office to record company office trying to get a deal for a year before he got signed. And to see all that payoff was an amazing thing for me and to get thrown into that world was amazing. Then working with David Sanborn – because we met around the same time and we had a lot of hits. ‘Maputo’ was big and there was a lot of them, man. So that was beautiful and then playing with my own band once Miles passed because I was like a super shy. I really enjoyed being in the shadows just being like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. So to step out there and really start to do my thing was very rewarding.
Marcus Miller’s ‘Tutu Revisited’ is out on May 16th via Dreyfus Jazz.