Review: Marcus Miller at the Sage

Fred Grand is impressed by Miller's energising set, full of vibrant and accessible music with a polyrhythmic emphasis, imbued with the spirit of Miles Davis

One of the most widely respected producers of the last 30 years and a man whose influence spreads well beyond even the most broad-church definition of jazz, Marcus Miller is currently in the midst of a short UK tour which also touches down at the Cork Jazz Festival.

He's now part of the revamped Blue Note family, and his current band presents the best opportunity for many years to appreciate his great virtuosity as an electric bassist and multi-instrumentalist.

But before Miller took to the stage there was an all too brief loosener from Dennis Rollins' Velocity Trio. Featuring the molten Hammond of Ross Stanley and the phenomenal Mark Mondesir (standing in for regular drummer Pedro Segundo), Rollins tackled a couple of pieces from his recent album Symbiosis and also paid electrifying tribute to the great Larry Young. Occasionally redolent of the more populist side of Ray Anderson, he kept one eye on the groove while pushing the envelope. "Greasy" and "gutbucket" are two suitable adjectives to describe the trio’s boogaloo arrangement of Pink Floyd’s Money, and every single minute of their half-hour slot was made to count.

Much as I admire Miller (pictured above left), I must confess that I struggled with his slick collaborations with Miles back in the 80s. They just seemed a little too airbrushed for my tastes, but with the many benefits of hindsight Tutu and Amandla in particular have stood the test of time far better than I would have predicted. This is due in no small part to the great alchemy of Miller’s studio productions, and listening to the music now I hear only his richness of palette and unmistakable signature sound. Rather like Davis’s celebrated collaborations with Gil Evans, Miller’s great strength was to create an optimal environment for his central protagonist to perform in. Before Davis he’d worked his magic for David Sanborn and Grover Washington Jnr, and in a career spanning five decades his much sought-after talents have been harnessed on over 350 recordings by a bewildering range of artists, from Eric Clapton to Chaka Khan, Snoop Dogg, Frank Sinatra and Beyoncé Knowles.

During the course of an energising set I found myself in broad agreement with so much of Francis Graham-Dixon's insightful analysis of Miller's set at the 2013 LJF. With no new material to road-test, the focus was very much on his Blue Note debut Afrodeezia. Conceptually the album is a musical journey tracing the rhythms of jazz, blues and soul back to their African wellspring, dropping anchor at numerous ports on the slave route. Now a spokesman for UNESCO’s Slave Route Project, Miller eloquently tackles some weighty themes while simultaneously offering a life affirming celebration of so much of the music that we take for granted today. Although none of the stellar guest vocalists from the album were on the tour, there was at least one pleasant surprise in the shape of Miller’s former Davis band-mate Mino Cinelu.

It was fitting that Cinelu was positioned centre stage, given the strong polyrhythmic emphasis of the music. Also in the band was trumpeter Marquis Hill, alto and soprano saxophonist Alex Han, guitarist Adam Agati, multi-keyboard player Brett Williams and drummer Alex Bailey. Entering with a casual slouch, Miller was the last man up on stage. Replete with trademark pork-pie hat he launched straight into the album’s opening track, Hylife, with an eye-wateringly technical solo. Williams dialled up some Rhodes tones to transport us back to the 70s, before Han blew a solo with biting Sanbornesque precision. B’s River took us to West Africa as Miller stated its simple but unforgettable theme on the three-stringed gimbri. Cinelu conjured a solo packed with drama and suspense before the endlessly inventive Agati nailed a solo packed with oblique phrases that he somehow managed to resolve. Jumping across to Detroit, Whitfield and Barrett’s psychedelic Motown hit Papa Was A Rolling Stone provided an object lesson in the art of funk. Built slowly and from the ground up, it was a reminder (if any were needed) of the origins of so many of the building blocks of today’s popular music.

Dedicated to George Duke, We Were There showcased the sounds of Brazil. As the ensemble built up an unstoppable head of steam, Miller traded licks with Han in an impressive piece of stagecraft. As much as anything in the set Gorée demonstrated just how well Miller’s studio-friendly music can be adapted into real-time. A sombre reflection on the horrors of this notorious island slave centre, its dark and complex form was nevertheless laced with optimism and hope. Miller displayed an impressive range on bass clarinet before laying down his horn and dancing freely across the stage as Han blew chorus after chorus. Closing the set with Son Of Macbeth, the bassist travelled back to the Caribbean of his immediate ancestors. Whilst Williams’s keyboard generated steel-pans might have been a little contrived, the energy of the music was infectious and Miller’s virtuosic solo even borrowed some impressive fret-tapping techniques from Eddie Van Halen. An encore of Jean-Pierre brought a nod to Miles, particularly fitting as both Miller and Cinelu were there for the 1981 We Want Miles sessions. Neatly segueing into Blast, I could easily have imagined Miles digging both the vibrancy and accessibility of Miller’s current music - he was certainly there in spirit!

Photo by Selcuk Polat

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