Jazz album Afrodeezia traces slavery's journey to hope
Afrodeezia is the latest album from the prolific Marcus Miller, whose claims to fame - for many jazz fans - are his decisive contributions as producer and multi-instrumentalist to three Miles Davis albums: Tutu (1986), Music From Siesta (1987) and Amandla (1989).
The bassist was 25 years old when he took on the role of creating a 1980s electronic equivalent to the quasi-orchestral settings for Davis' trumpet that pianist-composer Gil Evans had supplied a quarter-century earlier. But he already had a formidable reputation as a session man, renowned for his trademark "steel thumb" slap bass sound, and had made two albums as a leader.
Miller's website lists more than 500 albums he has played on, produced, or both, and he is still much in demand to work with other artists. His recordings as a leader, however, have been patchy. His playing is always nearly flawless, but often the music seems uninspired, the production and execution clinical. Afrodeezia is his best album for some time, thanks in part to some rough edges.
Miller has recently taken more of a musicologist's interest in the roots of what he plays, and the way in which African music made its way along the slave routes to the Caribbean, the United States and South America. It evolved over time in the southern US into blues and jazz, which in turn made their way back across the Atlantic to mutate into "world music".
Miller says he is concerned that after several decades of black America struggling to get over the toxic legacy of slavery, the great cultural achievement of the slaves in the transmutation of suffering into often joyous music has been sidelined, and in danger of being lost. He reconnected with it himself by assuming a Unesco role as an "Artist for Peace" in 2013 and his involvement in the organisation's Slave Route Project.
Gorée, a track in his 2012 album, Renaissance, was inspired by a visit to Senegal's Île de Gorée. "It was after visiting the House of Slaves on Gorée Island that I composed Gorée," says Miller.
"I wanted people to understand that this tune spoke not only of the slave tragedy but, through the music especially, that these people who suddenly found themselves at the bottom of a ship's hold had discovered a way to survive, and were able in time to transform their distress into joy.
"Shortly after my trip to Gorée, Unesco named me an Artist for Peace, and made me the spokesperson for the Slave Route Project. That was when I started thinking about Afrodeezia."
As well as recording the basic tracks for the album with his touring band, Miller began recording with local artists while on the road, in locations which included Morocco, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans and Los Angeles. Guests include musicians from Africa, South America and the Caribbean, as well as more easily recognisable figures in rapper Chuck D, vocalist Lalah Hathaway, guitarists Keb' Mo' and Wah Wah Watson, and fellow bassist/producer Mocean Worker.
There are two tracks that don't quite work for me: a cover of Papa Was a Rolling Stone, in which his bass guitar replaces The Temptations' vocals, and I Can't Breathe, produced by Worker with Chuck D rapping. In the case of the first, I don't think the song works without the lyrics, and the second because I have given up trying to listen to rap.
"The power of music has no limits. Through spirituals, jazz and soul, we were able to preserve our history, because all the rest had been erased," Miller says.
"What I wanted most was to go back to the source of the rhythms that make our musical heritage so rich, to follow them like footprints from their beginnings in Africa all the way to the United States. That journey took us from Mali to Paris, from New Orleans to Sao Paulo and across the Caribbean … This is my way of paying tribute to the long journey of my African ancestors who became African-Americans."
All things considered, it's a pretty good tribute.
Three notable jazz albums to which Marcus Miller was a key contributor.
- Winelight (1980, Elektra): like or loathe "smooth jazz", this album by Grover Washington Jnr was one of the blueprints for it, and Miller's bass playing is prominent.
- Amandla (1989, Warner Bros): Tutu is Miller's best-known collaboration with Miles Davis, but Amandla is in many respects a stronger album. Miller's Mr Pastorius, from 1993 album The Sun Don't Lie, acknowledges a debt.
- Silver Rain (2005, Koch): Miller as leader pays tribute to influences from Beethoven to Prince, and dedicates one of his compositions to Bruce Lee.