In the long list of Miles Davis collaborators, the name Marcus Miller is rarely mentioned by the old guard of jazz scholars. When Miller's name does come up, it is usually tossed around in a dismissive manner, along the lines of "That was Miles at the end, making pop music in order to grab some cash." This needs to change.
Miller -- a bassist first but a multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer of merit -- may not be Gil Evans, Wayne Shorter, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock or John Coltrane, but he did for Davis what those earlier geniuses didn't need to do: He gave the man a foothold in contemporary music at a time when most had written Davis off as a has-been.
Miller launched a tour in the spring to commemorate the release of his Grammy-winning 1986 collaboration with Davis, the then-controversial "Tutu" album. The "Tutu Revisited" tour comes to the Bear's Den, Seneca Niagara Casino Sunday, and with it comes a flood of memories, reminders of a time when Davis was looking to connect with contemporary urban audiences, gleaning the impending explosion of hip-hop, and becoming increasingly reliant upon the talents of outside composers and producers. Miller was Davis' man, just as he had been in 1980, when the ailing trumpeter was attempting to emerge from a cloud of ill health and drug problems with a hot, young and happening new band.
Miller, with guitarist Mike Stern and saxophonist Bill Evans, among others, provided the funk, rock and R&B underpinnings that gave Davis a shot in the arm, but they were great jazz players, too -- even a cursory listen to the live document of that 1980 "comeback" tour, "We Want Miles," proves as much. There is considerable fire in performances like "Fast Track," "Jean Pierre" and "Back Seat Betty," and if Davis lacked the full control of his chops that he'd had five years previous, hearing the man struggle so valiantly gave the music a visceral power. Miller rooted all of this in a deep and soulful funk-based style, but make no mistake -- the man could play walking bass lines with the best of them, and the way he'd slip into a supporting role when Stern did his awe-inspiring thing spoke of a classy understatement.
The critics didn't think so. Response at the time bordered on the downright cruel, and Stern bore the brunt of the abuse, most of it coming from critics who apparently cease to hear harmonic and melodic content in music the moment a guitarist starts playing with distortion. (Automatically, this became "rock" to them, even if Stern was playing uber-hip bebop lines most of the time.)
When it came time to make "Tutu," Davis didn't bring that full ensemble into the studio. Instead, he called upon Miller alone. All but two of the compositions that form the record are Miller's, and the sound of "Tutu" -- nearly as significant a factor in its artistic success as was the music itself -- is clearly of Miller's design. In essence, Miller created repetitive rhythmic motifs with a minimalist sense of harmonic structure. He laid haunting, ethereal chords atop funk and early hip-hop style rhythms, and atop all of this, Miles blew his muted trumpet. The effect was, and remains, striking.
Here's Miller, writing on his Web site regarding the essence of "Tutu":
"We used synthesizers, samplers, drum machines and blended them with real musicians. Although many of the instruments were electronic, it was important to me to make the music feel good, to make it swing. And it was also important, although I played most of the instruments on the album, that the sound of Miles' horn was the centerpiece. I tried to find melodies that were worthy of his glorious sound. The result, in my opinion, is a pretty good representation of what the '80s had to offer. To me, it captures Miles, negotiating his way through a world that had become half-man, half-machine and finding a way to bend that world to his will."
"Tutu" would often be imitated, and badly, in the ensuing decades, but its spirit remained unsullied. The record sought to force a human touch into an increasingly mechanized and often soulless contemporary music scene. It is both of its time -- there's no escaping the " '80s-ness" of the record's production -- and somehow above and beyond it. There is a purity of intention and execution at play throughout "Tutu," and that's exactly what has ensured its endurance.
I'm of the belief that "Tutu" is a wonderful record, but that the true gem in the Miller/Davis vault is the little-known album that followed "Tutu" by a year. "Music from Siesta" is a Miller-composed soundtrack to a strange film that flopped, but it is a masterpiece of evocative mood, savvy production and the manipulation of tension and release.
On Sunday, Miller and his band of young jazz virtuosos -- trumpeter Christian Scott, saxophonist Alex Han, keyboardist Federico Gonzalez Pena and drummer Louis Cato -- will concentrate on the "Tutu" material, but don't expect a note-for-note "tribute" show. The idea is to explore the music in the here-and-now. Which is exactly where it should be found.
Marcus Miller performs at 7 p.m. Sunday in the Bear's Den, Seneca Niagara Casino. Tickets are $50-$60. For info: www.senecaniagaracasino.com.