Interview: Marcus Miller
JL: Marcus, first of all, thank you for taking the time to speak with me this afternoon about your latest recording, Marcus. How do you decide when it’s time to enter the studio to record a new project?
MM: Well, for me, because I’ve got so many things going on, the way I decide to start a new one is when I’m finished with the last one. It takes me so long to finish a project because I’m doing movies, I’m all over the world, on the road, so I really have to start early, and it takes me about a year to put it all together.
JL: Since you’re involved in all these other projects, when do you find the time to compose for your solo album?
MM: I just do it whenever an idea comes to me. I’ll take a break from what I’m doing to get into it (composing), and then the album starts to take shape. I’ll have two or three ideas that will give me a direction, then I’ll start to put a concentrated effort into it, blocking out time to really start it.
JL: How did you decide which artists to invite to work with on the new release?
MM: The way I do it is that I start a song, then I go to my cell phone and say “who can I imagine” on that song. (laughs) I try to let the song suggest to me who I should make a phone call to.
JL: The new album has been out in Europe, under a different name, for about six months now; the release here has additional tracks not found on the import. How does that come about? Are you involved in those decisions?
MM: I have some folks helping me out, but the main issue, is that for whatever reason, we have some pretty good name recognition in Europe and Japan and other places around the world. Here in the States, we just wanted to make sure everybody knew who I was in terms of the album; everyone in the States thinks of me as a different guy – some people in the U.S. think of me as the guy from Miles, some people know me as a movie composer only, some people know me as the guy who produced Luther Vandross, and a lot of those people don’t know that it’s the same guy. So, we really thought that in the U.S. we really needed to explain to the fans that I’m all of these guys in one. I tried to do an album that encompasses all of the things that I do and name it Marcus so that there’s no question that it’s all me.
JL: Marcus, does radio overseas have to do with greater recognition?
MM: They don’t depend upon radio that much to be exposed to an artist or the art; they have other ways in which the fans are exposed to music through state-sponsored concerts and festivals. There are also magazines that are really dedicated to artists who really push the envelope. Here in the States, it’s really radio driven, so a lot of what’s popular here is smooth jazz, and I really don’t fit into that format, so my reputation here is based upon how people have gotten their information.
JL: When I take a look at a number of your recent releases, label-wise, you’ve been a bit of a nomad. Is that a sign of the current state of the industry?
MM: I’ve been making albums with three deals: one in Europe for distribution, one in Asia, and then one for distribution in North and South America, which has worked pretty well for us. We usually just make a one album deal. Because the music business is changing so much, it really didn’t feel right committing to one company not knowing what the world’s going to be like in a year or year in a half. Things are starting to settle in, I feel real comfortable with Concord, we were with Telarc in the past and had some real success with them, now they’re part of the Concord umbrella, which makes it a lot easier because at least there’s some familiarity with some of the people.
JL: Marcus, so many great artists who are masters of their instruments really aren’t that prolific as composers. You seem to be able to make both look easy; plus your sound is very identifiable and uniquely your own, and seems to have been very early on in your career. Could you comment on that?
b>MM: When I was really young, 15 to 17, I wanted my own sound more than anything; I grew up in an environment in NYC that that was the only thing people respected, that you had your own identifiable sound. There were a lot of kids that could play and sound like someone else, like George Benson or John Coltrane, but they never got the respect the same respect as the guy who sounded just like himself – if you were walking down the street at night and you heard music coming from a club and you could hear Tom Browne two blocks away, you knew it was Tom Browne on the trumpet, because no one else sounded like him, and that’s what I strove for. I was having difficulties when I was young, because I figured that if I played the right notes or if I used the right amp or something like that, it would give me my sound and eventually I had to give up searching for it because it doesn’t really work that way, I talked to Lenny White, who’s a real mentor of mine, and said “how do I get my own sound” and he said for me to stop worrying about it and just play, and play in every situation that you can find, and one day you’ll hear it, it will just be there; and that’s how I developed my sound. I ended up in the studios in NYC a lot, working with all kinds of people, and one day I heard a playback of a take that we just did and I said “ooh, I recognize that it’s me.” Once I saw a little glimmer of that, I held onto it tight, man, and did everything I could to develop it.
JL: Being as prolific a composer as you are, is that a natural ability or have you really had to work at it?
MM: I started composing early, probably 14 or 15 years old. I liked composing and always felt that it was something you had to do to be a complete musician. The musicians that I really respected, like Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, and Stevie Wonder, composing was a major part of their talent, so I really tried to work on it and I got a lot of practice because in the 80s I got a lot of calls to work and compose on all kinds of things, such as R&B for Aretha Franklin and writing for fusion violinist Michael Urbaniak, and saxophonist David Sanborn. So I got all kinds of practice.
JL: Marcus, being involved in so many facets of the music and recording industry, could you comment on where jazz is today with respect to the consolidation we’ve seen in the music industry?
MM: Man, it’s a real difficult time, I remember in the late 70s right around ’79-’80, there was a similar situation where all of a sudden CBS Records, who had a bunch of the top jazz artists, just dumped them and decided jazz just wasn’t profitable. I remember the big jazz radio station in NYC, WRBR, turned into a country station overnight! A lot of the musicians were sitting there wondering what they were going to do. I think that this situation is the same, only worse, because a lot of the music is made by machines and there’s not that many live opportunities. So we really have a challenge, but I think it’s going to get better because I hear people say they really want to hear the real thing, live musicians, and real music.
JL: Is the Internet helping out the jazz musician, in the way that the jam bands use the Web to promote and distribute their recordings directly to the fans?
MM: Yes, and I think that jazz musicians are going to have to follow that model. The thing that the jam bands have that the jazz artist doesn’t is these huge fan bases they’ve developed. We have to use the Internet but we also have to find a way to develop some kind of community performances so that we can grow the audience in some sort of grassroots kind of way.
JL: Marcus, of all the artists and sessions you’ve worked with and taken part in, do you have any which stand out for you?
MM: Roberta Flack, Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin. I really liked working on Donald Fagen’s album The Nightfly. That was a cool album. I liked working on Brian Ferry’s Boys and Girls, all the stuff I did with David Sanborn, working with Miles, and I really enjoyed working with the Crusaders. Recently working with Herbie Hancock has been really beautiful.
JL: What do we have to look forward from you over the coming year?
MM: I’m working with Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten on a three bass album. We’ve been in the studio trying to get it done so that maybe we could do something together this summer. January ’09 will be the Playboy Jazz Cruise, which is a new sponsor for this year. We’re advertising now so by the time we take off, it will be a nice full boat.
JL: Marcus, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today.