Review: Marcus Miller at LJF

Francis Graham-Dixon catches Marcus Miller and band on a high at the Royal Festival Hall, part of London Jazz Festival

Miller prefers to retain an immediacy and freshness to the music he records, not by rehearsing it, but by discovering how well it works on the stage. The lengthy standing ovation from the captivated full house at the Royal Festival Hall at the end of a thrilling night’s jazz bore witness to a set full of sustained intensity served up by one of black music’s evergreen greats performing alongside his new line-up of precociously talented and mostly still young co-performers. The current band evolved from Miller’s 2012 Renaissance CD, a project germinating from his finding new musicians to revisit Miles Davis’ landmark 1986 Tutu, the album on which the Brooklyn-born bassist set his distinctive seal as composer, arranger and producer.

As he describes it, what sets the writing on Renaissance apart from his usual way of writing in relative isolation is that the compositions performed on this current European tour were written specifically with these musicians in mind. This is great to see, as we get to hear excellent musicians whose profile otherwise might remain below the radar. Such a selfless demonstration of confidence in giving others a platform to showcase their ability and humanity was richly rewarded in the coherence and conviction of the collective as well as the individual performances.
The chemistry and rapport between the band members was obvious from the word go. The telepathy in their interaction and the magic that this spontaneously generated was remarkable. It made for an anything but formulaic set. At times it was like experiencing four different bands as the energetic exuberance of the ensemble playing shifted seamlessly into more intimate groupings while piano, guitar, saxophone and trumpet in turn combined with Miller with Robert "Sput" Searight’s sensitive precision and propulsive drumming. Only one small gripe - at times the sound balance should have been better. The guitar was almost inaudible. Thankfully, this improved.  

There were many highlights, too many to mention. Alex Han is a tour de force. The 22-year-old delivered a quite outstanding display on soprano and alto saxes of technical virtuosity and lyricism in equal measure, everything that you dream of in a live performance - tone, technique and passion. Miller has said before how unusual it is to find a saxophone player possessing all three elements in equal measure - "the whole package". Han is clearly such a man, and the same should be said about the qualities of Atlanta-born Lee Hogans, on trumpet. The two complemented one another brilliantly.

Another happy discovery was the repertoire of Pittsburgh piano and keyboards prodigy, Brett Williams, who recently joined the band, as has guitarist, Adam Agati, ex-Berklee scholar, interesting in his ability to combine obvious blues influences with a natural flair for improvisation, most evident in his rip-roaring solo on Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, one of the six selections from the CD. Gorée (Go-ray) was inspired by a visit to former slave houses in Senegal. It began reflectively with a duet between Miller’s bass clarinet and Williams’ Steinway before the tune was taken up by soprano and trumpet, propelled by Searight’s brushes. The tempo increased as Miller switched to his fretless bass, quite different in tone to the signature sounds of his 1977 Fender Jazz Bass. Slippin’ Into Darkness, echoing the hook from Get Up, Stand Up, featured a Miller/Searight polyrhythmic jazz reconfiguration of Sly and Robbie.

What makes this latest stage in the Marcus Miller musical journey so interesting is how hard it is to stereotype his music. He succeeds in combining what he calls his primary languages of funk with jazz - the result is refreshingly not regulation "jazz-funk" but so much more. In his eulogy for George Duke at the memorial service in Los Angeles, Miller talked of Duke’s humanity, soulfulness and generosity of spirit, and how his example inspires Miller to try to affect others in ways that they have affected him. Those same qualities were all on show last night. No wonder that he connected.   

Photography by John Watson

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