Dimitriou's Jazz Alley, 441-9729, $19.50-$26.50 8 p.m. Tues. and Wed.; 8:30 and 10 p.m. Thurs.; 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Fri. and Sat.; 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Sun. Feb. 12-17
BASS PLAYER headliners, especially those of the funk variety, are often partial to the fret-flying, thumb-ragin' solo routine. Lord knows Marcus Miller can perform any bass gymnastics you might require. But over a two-decade studio career in which he's produced and played on more than 400 recordings—from Don Cherry to Bryan Ferry—Miller remembers one of his formative musical lessons involved playing next to nothing.
Reluctantly joining Roberta Flack's band in the late '70s, he says, "I didn't feel like playing no ballads, man, all night long. But there I am with this band playing 'Killing Me Softly' and 'First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,' and I'm playing one note every two bars, man. To sit there and see what those notes really do, how important they are, how meaningful they are. . . . It was the best thing that could have happened to me." Miller later teamed up with Flack's backup singer Luther Vandross, who likewise made softly killing slow tunes a staple. "In between each note seemed like a mile," says Miller; "you had to find where that next note goes without the benefit of playing through it. It's kind of like catching a fly in the air; you had to find that note. You know, a lot of jazz guys put down R&B," he observes, "and I say, 'Man, you can put it down after you've played a gig with Luther.'"
The story captures the essence of Miller, in that he's the opposite of a musical snob: He's all about finding—and imparting—beauty and craft to all music. His vision touches the edges of jazz and the baldest commercial pop, working the whole continuum of black sounds. He's most known among critics as the musical director for Miles Davis in the '80s, with such key and controversial recordings as Tutu and Amandla. But he also wrote and produced "Da Butt," the go-go-style hit from Spike Lee's School Daze soundtrack ("When you get that notion/ Put your backfield in motion"—you remember), produced solid smooth jazz with Grover Washington Jr. and David Sanborn, did meticulous session work with Donald Fagen and countless others, slaved with the Saturday Night Live band. Lately he's been creating movie scores for films like House Party and Two Can Play That Game.
While some bassists narrow themselves in a showboating front-and-center effort, Miller's own solo projects have beautifully showcased the range of his intelligence. His latest M2, is a jazz-funk wonder that updates the best in early fusion and pushes it forward, with some outright joyful improvisations from originators like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and newbies like James Carter. "I'm still reacting from hearing the Headhunters in 1973," says Miller, who was 14 at the time. "That blew my mind, and my mind is still blown by that concept, how natural that marriage [of jazz and funk] sounded. It appealed to us young musicians in New York on every level; you could play it at parties, you could play it in the basement when everybody was just chillin', you could examine the harmonies and rhythms. It's everything you could want. Whereas if you're listening to some old Clifford Brown or Erroll Garner, you have to get past the rhythm 'cause you really can't relate to that anymore; you can't dance to it." (Miller obviously hasn't been to the Century Ballroom lately.)
Miller, too, has found his way to music that's got plenty to gnaw on but is also a plain gas. On M2, he does a beautiful soul-groove reinvention of Coltrane's "Lonnie's Lament," with a guest solo from Branford Marsalis, and also turns out the shameless power jam on "Burning Down the House," with alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett carrying the torch. It's all colored with Miller's distinctive fourths-based harmony, woody bass clarinet, cello, horns, and, of course, plenty of thumb thwacks.
The core of the band will be with him on tour, says Miller. That includes his longtime drummer, the unfussy Poogie Bell; D.C. pianist Leroy Taylor, "who comes from that gospel school," according to Miller ("I think he still plays in church when we're not on the road"); and trumpeter "Patches" Stewart, whose first record date, when he was a teenager, was the original "Lady Marmalade." "We'll play stuff from M2," says Miller. "Then I like to throw in things that I did for other people that we do now our own way: songs I wrote for Miles over the years, sometimes we'll throw a David Sanborn song in there. We've got a lot to choose from."