“Well well, Buffalo. Y’all don’t mess around, do ya?”
This was Marcus Miller addressing the sold out Bear’s Den at the Seneca Niagara Casino on Friday night. The revered jazz bassist, composer, bandleader and producer was simultaneously acknowledging the enthusiastic response of the audience, and giving our town some serious props – Miller told the assembled that audiences in Buffalo bring out the best in his band, and rate as highly among the musicians as do crowds in major markets like Los Angeles and New York City.
Miller was not simply dishing empty platitudes here. He knows of what he speaks, having made Buffalo a regular tour stop for decades, with his own band and as a member of other touring ensembles. His Buffalo gigs are always energetic, deeply musical and celebratory affairs, but Friday’s show at the Bear’s Den upped the ante considerably. Leading a young group of players representing the vanguard in modern jazz, Miller took us by turns to church, to the funky gin joint on the corner, and into the heady atmosphere of his beyond-genre-classification work with Miles Davis. Offering standing ovations after each tune seemed the least we could do.
Miller is touring behind his most recent release, “Renaissance,” and the majority of Friday’s stellar program comprised tunes from that album. This was good news for the audience, as “Renaissance” ably encapsulates the uber-hip blend of funk, soul, R&B, and the harmonic construction and ensemble improvisation of jazz that Miller has been perfecting since he was hand-picked as a core member of Miles Davis’ band in 1980, at age 20.
Miller was much more than a sideman for Davis – he composed and produced the jazz giant’s final great works, the Grammy-winning “Tutu,” the film score “Music from Siesta,” and the oft-overlooked “Amandla.” These were, in essence, Miller albums with Davis performing as featured soloist, and all three have aged incredibly well.
After opening with a torrid take on Weldon Irvine’s seminal jazz-funk chart “Mr. Clean,” which featured a vibrant solo from trumpeter Lee Hogans, Miller led his band – Hogans, saxophonist Alex Han, pianist Brett Williams, guitarist Adam Agati and drummer Jay Williams – directly into the “Renaissance” material.
The in-your-face funk of “Detroit” came first, and this offered a showcase for Miller’s sophisticated slap technique, a virtuosic and percussive attack that is a hallmark of serious funk. Miller is the reigning master of this style, but part of his brilliance as a composer rests on his ability to bring significant dynamic shifts to the music. “Detroit” moved from aggressive funk into a lyrical theme for trumpet and saxophone that revealed Miller’s love for the late jazz arranger Gil Evans, and then broke out into some sublime soloing from Han and Brett Williams. The audience seemed particularly moved by the playing of saxophonist Han, who was a jazz prodigy at the tender age of 13, was winning awards from Down Beat by 15, and is considered today, at the age of 24, one of the leading lights of his generation of jazzers.
“That was ‘Detroit,’ ” Miller said at the song’s conclusion. “For the next album, we’re gonna write one called ‘Buffalo.’ ” Nice!
“Redemption” followed, beginning as a ballad, giving way to a beautiful head theme for sax and trumpet, and then erupting into some inspired soloing. It was here that guitarist Agati, who’d been offering subtle chordal washes and funky comping up to this point, got the nod from Miller, and took off into a dramatically structured solo built around broad intervalic leaps, staggered arpeggios, and rapid-fire legato lines. The solo itself was a masterful composition within a masterful composition, and at its conclusion, the people freaked, myself included.
The haunting and emotion-soaked “Goree” found Miller abandoning the bass for another of the several instruments he plays fluently, the bass clarinet. Backed at first only by pianist Brett Williams, Miller played the tune’s graceful theme, before breaking into variations on that theme. Han and Hogans entered then, Miller returned to bass, and drummer Jay Williams evolved the tune from ballad to funk celebration. This was simply masterfully done.
Miller gave each member of his band ample spotlight time, and he praised them between songs.
“These are some brilliant young musicians,” he said at one point, “but on top of being brilliant players, they know how to listen to each other and to the music.” Indeed.