Marcus Miller: keep 'em running

Marcus Miller
(Image credit: Getty/Peter Van Breukelen/Redferns)

“I’m trying to expand while keeping the essence of my sound—seeing how many different ways I can still sound like me.” So says Marcus Miller addressing the many shades of bass found on his latest album, the straight-up throwdown Laid Black

Coming off the ambitious, globally recorded Afrodeezia, Miller’s impulse was to lighten up and relax a bit. So he headed into the studio with his touring band to bust out their take on contemporary urban grooves, filtered through the historic lens of black music. 

That left plenty of room for Miller’s singular bass voice, with its feel-good signatures: back-pocketed slaps and pops, hard-plucked melodies that float over bar lines with vocal-like phrasing, and spontaneous solos, whose polyrhythmic intent arrives via hammers, trills, tapped passages, and three-finger rolls. 

But those are not the only hats Miller’s famed ’77 Fender Jazz Bass wears. There’s his deepest dive yet into distortion pedals, filters that bring out the instrument’s feminine and masculine sides, and amp simulators that allow Marcus to dialogue with himself. And of course there’s his gift for layering basses, including synth bass, foundational bass guitar, and 4-and 5-string fretless forays.

The Marcus Miller file is well known by thumpers who long ago dubbed him the Thumbslinger for his funk-fueled fretboard prowess. Born in Brooklyn on June 14, 1959, and raised in musically rich Jamaica, Queens, Marcus parlayed early studies on woodwinds and the bass guitar into an unparalleled breakout. 

At age 21 he was simultaneously playing, producing, and writing for Luther Vandross, David Sanborn, and Miles Davis. After another dozen years of augmenting his multi-Grammy-winning skill set via countless album sessions and jingles, producing a wide range of artists, and film composing, Miller officially changed the course of bass with his 1993 solo effort, The Sun Don’t Lie

Over ten more studio albums, a couple of live albums, and Thunder with S.M.V. (his 2008 collaboration with Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten), Miller firmly established himself as a bass icon, with a thriving solo career and a line of signature basses, strings, and amps—all while maintaining his music-mogul status as a composer and producer. 

With more recent adventures, such as his popular jazz cruises, his appointment as a UNESCO Artist for Peace, and his SiriusXM radio show, Miller Time with Marcus Miller, the 59-year-old can add musical ambassador to the mix. Much of that came into play in our late-June discussion, but we began with the hows and whys of Laid Black.

What was your concept for this record?

Coming off Afrodeezia, which involved working with a lot of international musicians and looking back at the music along the Slave Route, I wanted to bring everything up to date and do my interpretation of what’s going on now in urban music—and also kick back and have some fun. 

The title refers to black music being the foundation of a lot of contemporary music, and how it shares roots with early blues, jazz, R&B, and rock & roll. I recorded with my band for four days at Sear Sound in New York City, and that was the foundation.

Hip-hop is the one style that emerged after your developing years. What has been its main impact on your playing?

I draw a parallel to when the “Great American Songbook” era ended and rock & roll came in and stripped music back down to its core elements. In the late ’70s, R&B had become very produced, with layers of keyboards and strings. 

When the rappers started sampling, they took the four bars of those R&B records that had nothing but the groove. They stripped it down. Plus, they weren’t musicians—largely the result of not having music and instruments in schools—so it became very raw. 

Hip-hoppers boiled it down to what we were getting away from, and it had a vast effect on music; it made the whole world pay attention and see that the groove is the most essential part of music. Specific to the bass, I had already found a voice for myself using a lot of notes and playing percussively. 

But I love that deep, fundamental bass you find in hip-hop—I love having that component on my tracks. The key is figuring out how to use it and be recognizable.

How about hip-hop’s programmed component?

That’s the rhythmic DNA of hip-hoppers, having come up with drum machines. They’re more focused on sounds and placing things in the beat in a very specific way. Nothing is incidental; the programmers work on the same four bars for like two days. 

And if something is behind the beat, it’s the same amount behind in every bar. As rappers and DJs began adding live musicians to create more energy onstage, those musicians were required to respect the minimalist vibe. All the drummers wore headphones, and there were tracks and loops running. 

Now, a couple of generations later, musicians are comfortable functioning in that setting. They’ve even figured out how to play busy and creatively, while retaining the hip-hop vibe. The guys in my band do that. 

So, in a way, it’s come full circle. We get a lot of 14-and 15-year-old hip-hop fans coming to our shows who are loving the musicianship; they want to get out of their virtual worlds and go see bands play and sweat.

What is the live component of the opener, “Trip Trap”?

That was one of the earliest songs we recorded—actually in a studio in Seattle, while on tour. It was so early that we were playing it live before I finished the album. As happens when you play a studio-cut song live, it takes on a different vibe and lets you know what’s important and not so important about it. 

I was listening to live versions and I found one we did in Germany, and I mashed that up with the studio version. The song is my take on trap music, which is a Southern hip-hop style that uses a [Roland] 808 drum machine playing at a slow tempo, with double-time snare fills, and a button that produces a distinctive-sounding roll. I use a synth bass for the foundational bottom and my ’77 Jazz Bass for the melody.

What led you to cover Sly Stone’s version of “Que Sera Sera,” and how did Larry Graham’s part influence what you played?

I have Sly on constant rotation when I listen to music, and my wife encouraged me to cover the song. She thought Sela Sue, who had guested with us in Europe, would be perfect because she can sing from sweet to raw, which is what happens between the verse and chorus on the Sly version [Fresh, 1973, Epic]—and she was right. 

I added a third section, where Sela improvises and Adam Agati plays a killer guitar solo, to give this version a different flavor. Larry, of course, had a profound impact on me, having invented slapping. But people forget he started as a guitar player, so he also embraced the guitar part of the bass guitar—using distortion and effects, and playing upper-register chords and fills. 

He opened up that language on the bass, in addition to his thumping and popping. I echoed some of the double-stops he played on the original, and one lick at the end of the first chorus is a note-for-note rip—so the next time he sees me, he’s gonna be like, “Really?” [Laughs.]

“7’T’s” has a guest solo from Trombone Shorty.

That song came to me while walking down the street in Detroit, and I sang it into my phone. When I played the band the melody, they all jumped on it, and things fell into place. Then it needed a C section, and I remembered a tune from when I was in Lenny White’s band in 1978 called “Stew, Cabbage and Galactic Beans” [The Adventures of Astral Pirates, Wounded Bird]. 

It was a Hendrix-y tune written by [bassist] Alex Blake that had a bass line I never forgot [see music, page 32]; sometimes when I’m soloing I’ll slip it in, because I dig it so much. So I put that in, and I called Alex to let him know. 

The song has horns, so I asked Trombone Shorty to play on it—we’d been talking about doing something together. His sound is so distinctive and massive.

“Sublimity ‘Bunny’s Dream’” has an Afrodeezia vibe.

It was a groove we were messing around with during Afrodeezia, and it came back to me in New York. So we went in and recorded for a good 20 minutes. When we’re playing in the studio, I use a mic so I can call out directions as we jam. From there I became [Miles Davis producer] Teo Macero, listening back and picking out parts and melodies to form the song. 

Then I brought it to the band and we recorded it again. I played it for my wife because it’s dedicated to her mom, who was ill at the time. She thought it was beautiful, but a little too basic for me, so I went in and re-harmonized the final A section. Finally, we brought in [guitarist] Jonathan Butler, who’s such a badass. He said, “Just roll the tape.”

“Untamed” and “No Limit” have contemporary feels.

For “Untamed,” I had asked my keyboardist, Brett Williams, to bring me something for the record. He plays in a group called Peculiar 3, with a former drummer of mine, Charles Haynes, and keyboardist Mitch Henry. 

They sent me the beat, the changes, and the muted trumpet part. So I said to Brett, “Ahh, this is your impression of what I do.” He said, “Yeah, we had to put some Marcus chords in there.” [Laughs.] I added a melody and a section for my fretless solo, using my Mayones Patriot 5-string, which had just the right timbre.

“No Limit” is one of my favorite tracks. I was trying to take a modern hip-hop feel you hear on the radio, along with a contemporary gospel sound, with the three horns in the chorus. Then the bridge is pure ’70s Chaka Khan with George Duke-style piano—everything has an envelope-type sound on it.

The fretless ballad “Someone to Love” sounds like something you might have written years ago.

It’s been kicking around in my head for a long time; if you find yourself singing a song as you’re driving, you need to get it recorded. It’s like a pop song someone would write lyrics to, but I’m only hinting at them, singing around the title at the end of the choruses. 

The fretless is my Sire V7 5-string. I also added a tag at the end of the tune, with new changes. For me, harmony is that magic place where you can find flavor. Artists don’t seem as concerned about it now as they were back in the day, but I still love it; it’s the way to get people to feel things in your music.

How did you put together “Keep ’Em Running,” your nod to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Runnin’”?

I had interviewed Verdine White in his home music room for my SiriusXM show, right after Maurice White passed, and talking to him and seeing the gold records that lined the walls inspired me to do a cover. 

Some of my favorite EW&F songs are the instrumental tracks, where they stretch out. I always dug “Runnin’” [from All ’N All, 1977, CBS], so I put a hip-hop beat to it and we got a good, solid take in the studio. 

Then I asked my son, Julian, to add a rap, and he sent back a great track within a few hours. Because the beat is in half-time, we had to play the melody very fast, so it might be unrecognizable as an EW&F melody at first. 

The C section has more recognizable themes. Bass-wise, I have synth bass and my Fender on the bottom, and every four bars they play a descending line together that sounds like elephants running through the room. 

For my solo, I changed my sound via an amp simulator and distortion pedal every four bars, so it sounds like a different bassist is responding to what I play on the clean side.

You close the album with your bass clarinet feature, a redo of “Preacher’s Kid,” from Afrodeezia.

I always like to get away from the bass for a minute. I wrote the song for my dad, who would accompany me on piano for woodwind recitals when I was a kid. After he passed, I wanted to cover it again. 

This time I have Take 6 [and saxophonists] Kirk Whalum and Alex Han. On Father’s Day, we released a video of us playing the track in the studio. The response to the video has been incredible.

You play upright exclusively on your soundtrack for Marshall, Reggie Hudlin’s film about Justice Thurgood Marshall.

The story is focused on one of Marshall’s early cases, in 1941, so there wasn’t going to be any electric bass on there. I was thinking early Duke Ellington, and I had Wynton Marsalis and some of his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra musicians play on it, as well as [saxophonist] Jimmy Heath. 

I started with two themes, one on piano and one on upright bass, and Reggie chose the bass theme—so the upright became quite prominent as one of the lead voices of the film, with a couple of main themes. John Patitucci saw the movie, and he called to say he could tell it was me. 

I said, “On upright?” And he said, “Yes, because of your inflections.” He heard some guitar-like hammer-ons, and he pointed out that most upright players don’t use those, but electric bass players employ them regularly.

You seem to be enjoying your SiriusXM Satellite Radio show.

We’re going into year four, and I’m having a blast. When Real Jazz Program Director Mark Ruffin first approached me, he said I could play whatever I want. So you’ll hear everything from Slim Gaillard and Louis Jordan to Derrick Hodge and MonoNeon. 

It was originally supposed to run one hour, but I go close to three hours—and I don’t mind stopping a record and saying, “You gotta hear this part again!” It’s like hanging out in the basement listening to records back in the day, as [drummer] Kenny Washington did with me. 

The problem I have with jazz is people treat it like it’s a secret society, and if you don’t know it, no one is going to take the time to explain it to you. I’ll do that. I’m so enthusiastic about the music, it’s gonna be hard for you not to get into it.

How did you connect with Markbass for your new signature rig?

Marco De Virgiliis got in touch with me, and he said the reason he began making bass amps is because of an old interview where I said I was looking for an amp that reproduced my bass sound without coloring it too much. 

I came up in the studio scene, where we played basses that sounded good direct. I told him, to be honest I wasn’t feeling Markbass because they sound like fusion-bassist amps, favoring the midrange. He explained that was the result of meeting the demands of the artists who were using Markbass amps, who had come by the factory. 

He said, “When you come, I’ve got some surprises for you.” So I stopped by while we were on tour in Italy, and he pulled out a ported cabinet that had plenty of booty and low-end punch. I was like, “Where were you hiding this?” 

Next he had his techs come out with various tweeters, and I found one with just the right highs. Then he brought out a head. I told him one of my beefs is turning a knob to its extreme and getting a harsh, unusable tone. 

So we adjusted the range of the EQ knobs so you can turn them without wrecking your sound. I asked about the two knobs on Markbass heads that say VLE and VPF. He said the first one pulls the highs down and gives the bass a thicker, more classic sound. I said, “Let’s rename it OLD SCHOOL.” 

And he said, “Okay, and I’m gonna name the other one the MILLERIZER.” He said it exaggerates the highs and the lows, creating more of a mid scoop. So we introduced the head in four different power ranges [1000, 800, 500, and 250 watts] along with 4x10 and 2x10 cabinets. They’re light, not too expensive, and they sound great.

How is it going with your line of Sire basses?

The success has taken me by surprise. The folks at Fender were the first ones to tell me that—“It’s going to be bigger than you think.” Man, the floodgates have opened; people contact me saying, “I’ve got two of them!” 

We had a $500 price point, but some kids said they still couldn’t afford it, so now we have one in the $250 range. We’re competing against PlayStation and Xbox with young people, and encouraging musicianship. 

We’ve also added some features at the top of the line: body tops, heavier hardware, different pickup and preamp options—stuff that allows you to trick out the bass a little. But the bottom line is they all sound great; you can use them in the studio right out of the box, and I have.

What lies ahead?

This year will be about supporting Laid Black. I have a movie score upcoming that I can’t talk about yet. And there’s a project proposal with Larry Graham that would involve more than just Larry and me collaborating, so watch for an update on that.



Marcus Miller, Laid Black, 2018, Blue Note; Afrodeezia, 2015, Blue Note; Renaissance, 2012, Concord; Marcus, 2008, Concord; Silver Rain, 2005, Koch; M2, 2001, Telarc; Live & More, 1998, GRP; Tales, 1994, PRA; The Sun Don’t Lie, 1993, PRA


Basses 1977 Fender Jazz Bass, Sire V7 4-string and fretless V7 5-string, fretless Mayones Patriot MR 5-string, 100-year-old French acoustic bass from Stein on Vine, Nord Stage 3 keyboard bass Strings Dunlop Marcus Miller Super Bright (.045–.105, .125) Rig Markbass Little Marcus 1000 head, two Markbass Marcus Miller 104 cabinets Effects Custom M2 Rodenburg Overdrive/Distortion, MXR M288 Bass Octave Deluxe, MXR M77 Custom Modified Badass Overdrive, Fulltone OCD Overdrive

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