Marcus Miller’s collaborations with Miles Davis in the late 1980’s will likely overshadow everything this remarkable musician will ever do. After all, it is no small claim to be the last significant contributor to the legend’s final years.
At the ripe young age of 27, Miller brought Davis squarely into the “real” jazz world of the late eighties with albums such as Tutu and most especially Amandla. Both were magnificent recordings. There may be a bit of eighties sheen to them, but who cares? They stand up well to this day.
The unfortunate reality is that Miles passed just shy of 20 years ago. So what does a young, incredibly gifted musician such as Miller do as an encore? The answer goes to the very root of why I love jazz so much. You keep playing. Hard or soft sales, big or small audiences, musical forays you might one day live to regret, it doesn’t matter. You just keep playing.
And so it was on November 29, 2008 in Monte-Carlo. Marcus Miller was commissioned to play in Monaco, with the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra. The extraordinary bassist/arranger/producer brought his full game for this event, which has just been released as A Night In Monte-Carlo.
The first glimpses that we are in for a “not your usual” night of jazz are heard immediately. The opening tabla and sitar sounds of “Blast!” made me think I was in Madison Square Garden back in 1971. In particular, the first segment of The Concert For Bangla Desh, which featured 17 excruciating minutes of Ravi Shankar.
I was wondering about what we were in for, until about 30 seconds into the cut – when Miller’s monster bass kicks in. The melody is strong, but the whole thing gets really wild a little later. Taking a page from old-school turntable scratchers like Grandmaster Flash, DJ Logic just lets it rip. The scratching is as fast (and wonderful) as Miller’s old friend Herbie Hancock did with Grandmixer D St. on his classic “Rockit” (1983) single. To hear such retro-futuristic sounds against a symphony orchestra is simply genius.
Next up, why not go to the maestro? Miles Davis’ “So What” – from the greatest jazz album of all time Kind Of Blue follows. Somehow Miller finds room in his interpretation of this classic for some turntable magic from DJ Logic as well. And it actually works.
From there, Miller expands his repertoire considerably. We go into Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess with “I Loves You Porgy,” and later opera – with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi: “O Mio Babbino Caro (Oh My Dear Papa).”
There is another visit to Davis included, with what I consider to be Miller’s finest contribution to the trumpeter’s canon: “Amandla.” Hell, Miles liked it so much, he titled an entire record around it. Besides Star People, I consider Amandla to be Miles Davis’ finest album of the eighties.
The disc closes out with a studio recording of the Billie Holiday classic “Strange Fruit.” It was added at the last minute apparently, and certainly saves the day from the nauseatingly reverent version of “Amazing Grace” that the concert itself ends with.
“Strange Fruit” features Marcus Miller on bass clarinet, which totally evokes the pain of Holiday’s vocals in the original. He is accompanied solely by his friend Herbie Hancock on keys.
A Night In Monte-Carlo is a magnificent way to illustrate the various talents of Marcus Miller. The ultimate compliment I can think of is that Miles (might have) done it just the same way.