Two Grammy Awards and 28 years later, Miller remains a bass master who would seem to have little to prove in the recording studio.
Yet the prep work for his latest CD found him listening to his past seven outings and deciding the electric drums and instrumentation lacked the live feel he wanted.
“I was a studio rat, and I would overdub recordings,” said the affable Miller by phone from Marciac, France, where he recently appeared with his band. “My sound was like a big rhythm-and-blues production but with jazz musicians. The thing I do best is perform.”
On the new album, “Renaissance” (Concord Jazz), released this month, Miller didn’t go live but he reduced the overdubs and focused on the band’s chemistry. The record’s signature blend of jazz and funk was No. 1 last week on Billboard magazine’s contemporary jazz chart.
“This CD is more stripped down, and there’s more emphasis on playing,” Chris Jisi, senior contributing editor of Bass Player magazine, said by phone about Miller. “What he’s done is take his bass playing to a new level, and I like the way he’s featuring the band.”
“Renaissance” revisits radio hits from Miller’s teen years with his remakes of War’s “Slippin’ Into Darkness” and the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.” One of the highlights is his haunting bass clarinet solo on “Goree,” named after the island off the coast of Senegal that was used in the African slave trade.
He also recasts singer Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope” with a jazzy feel and Dr. John on vocals. Over the lush melody of “Setembro” (Brazilian Wedding Song), Miller tapped emerging jazz vocalist Gretchen Parlato and salsa star Ruben Blades to handle the vocals.
“I’ve been attracted to real renaissance men like Ruben,” Miller said about Blades, who holds a Harvard Law School degree and served as Panama’s minister of tourism. “His singing for the album took an hour, but it took three hours to record because I was just listening and talking to him.”
Miller teamed up with fellow bassists Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten to form the power trio S.M.V. in 2008. That year, he also recorded “A Night in Monte-Carlo,” a project commissioned by the principality’s symphony orchestra featuring his songs and arrangements.
“I found myself interested in being in unusual situations,” Miller said. “That was the beginning of ‘Renaissance.’”
Miller said saxophonist Wayne Shorter gave him some valuable advice about making music when they toured last summer with Herbie Hancock.
“I asked Wayne what’s the most important tool you use when you compose,” Miller said. “Wayne said to use your imagination to find that little spark, that little ember of an idea, and you make it glow into what you want it to be.”
(Miller’s world tour includes performances in Hollywood (Aug. 29); Dallas (Sept. 6); Chicago (Sept. 13); Washington (Sept. 19); Los Angeles (Oct. 4 to 7); and Paris (Oct. 27). For more concert dates, see http://www.marcusmiller.com/tour.html.))
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.