Marcus Miller’s career keeps growing. After years of studio playing in New York, this American bassist and clarinettist hit the road 15 years ago, and has been conquering stages all over the world ever since. For the 37th edition of the Montreal Jazz Festival, he appeared again on the Theatre Maisonneuve last Wednesday, 6th of July. Accompanied by Brett Williams in charge of the keyboards, Alex Bailey holding the drumsticks, Alex Han blowing the saxophone and Russell Gunn making the trumpet scream, Miller presents his last work, Afrodeezia, a pan-history of black culture featuring collaborations from musicians all along the slavery route through the Atlantic.
The beat is high. Fast. Powerful. Four musicians on stage and rays of light bouncing on the bodies of microphones, on the skin of the trumpet and the sax, on the shiny corners of the drums, on the keys of the two keyboards.
Strong nerves coming from the seating. The audience’s enthusiasm transformed into a wild applause and eventual shouts or whistles.
It’s a steam, floating, directed towards the stage. And there it mingles with the musicians and their auras. Their nerves, their desires, their expectations, their passivity.
And so he comes in. Black small hat and skinny trousers. Grey trainers and a big, beautiful and majestic bass in his hand.
“My job on the stage in my opinion is to manage energy.”
He smiles at the public, and starts playing. Perfect conjunction. Audience stares.
“When a band comes on the stage, there’s an energy coming from the audience, and an energy coming from the stage, and my job is just to kind of… shape it.”
Shaping is a process that takes time and knowledge. And on stage the energy constantly changes. Marcus Miller makes the bass take the lead, something that is not usual. And that means a high beat and rhythm, making the whole speed and essence of the ensemble seem quicker.
But a lot happens at the same time. The keyboards grow, the drums grow, the metals grow. Marcus Miller turns around. Approaches the trumpet and plays face-to-face. Then moves closer to the drummer, moving with the music, dancing. Then he looks at the sax, gives him the go sign.
“If we get to a point where the energy is really high I’m like ‘OK, we cannot keep this here for so long, let’s bring it down, dissipating energy, let’s build a backup, modulating energy’. Recognise when it’s time to start building it: ‘I need more… OK, sax solo, that’s my energy guy, c’mon, give it to me.’ So he’ll start really calm and I’ll go ‘no, no, you know what I need, c’mon give me the fire.’ [Laughs]”
He goes next to the sax, dancing on the way. Moving from side to side. Plays along. Gives a few signs to the keyboard. Keeps playing. Guidelines.
“I’m just always trying to get that energy going up and down, the emotions going up and down… Because we’re trying to tell a story.”
He acts like an orchestra director. Pointing with his finger, making signs, introducing, giving turns. He knows what he wants and looks for it. And it is then when the reminiscences of his studio years flourish.
“It’s not like I come with two notes and say ‘hey, let’s figure that out’, but it’s not like I write everything down. I try to have my own ideas and then really encourage people to add to that. And when we are playing on stage, it’s even more, I want more from you to add, to give your personality.”
Finding uniqueness, finding your own musical self.
“The thing you have to be is honest with yourself”
Willing to create, to grow, and to learn.
On stage, the trumpet is lost. But then finds a way. Marcus Miller approaches it, points with his finger. Asks for all of its energy and attention. Russell Gunn breathes. Marcus Miller lifts finger, saying with his eyes “you go”. And then the metal goes. He speaks sincerely, and gets big and big and big when letting the air out. It is his chest, his lungs, his blood coming out. When being true and fair to himself, the sound is the biggest.
So stage is a turning point. Stage is battle-field, rehearsal room, final cut. On stage music is real, turns true, it can be touched. It goes beyond.
“I think my music is more earthy now, it’s more connected to the ground, because when I was in studios, I was in the studio, I didn’t really know who was listening to the music. But then, on the road, you really start understanding who you’re making music for. And it changes you, it makes you not worried about anything else but your relationship with those people, so I think my music has become more connected to that now.”
He talks a lot. Explains the songs, presents his musicians, interacts with the public in various languages. He takes their energy and his energy and the energy of his musicians and weaves to make a whole: the performance. A performance that becomes a high-speed-full-of-adrenaline succession of tunes, mixing Miles and his Tutu with Afrodeezia and its Caribbean and West-African reminiscences.
“This song started me on this chapter of my music. It tells the story of slavery, but I didn’t want to make it a story only about pain, anger and resentment. I also wanted to tell a story of celebration, of the power that as human beings we have in order to overcome, to hold on to our hope.”
Everybody leaves the stage and Brett Williams stays alone in front of the keyboards. The hearts are heavy. The melody talks about hurt, loss and sadness. Then the drums grow higher and the winds are incorporated. The story advances, including passion, rage and fury.
They jam, they have fun, they sweat notes and ideas and pretentions and desires.
And then Marcus Miller comes in again. Still standing on the side of the stage, he somehow moves, orchestrating. Mixes his gestures with his dance. A true sincere dance, about letting the music run through his veins. He advances. Small steps, hip swings, eyes closed, smiles.
It’s the celebration he has been talking about.
He goes from one side of the stage to the other one, drawing the music with his hands.
The song keeps growing. Strength in drums, pointy sounds from metals, a furious keyboard. Such rhythm. Such energy.
The melody illustrates the tale. Tells the story. Presents the truth. And it ends up right there, high up, in hope.
Original publication in Couleurs Jazz.