Going places with his bass

Staff WriterJune 5, 2009 

  • Who: SMV, with Jasme Kelly

    When: 7:30 p.m. Monday

    Where: The Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St.

    Tickets: $38-$45 ($40 for Star members)

    Details: 560-3030; www.carolinatheatre.org

It's unfortunate that Marcus Miller won't be in Durham one more day after his concert Monday night with Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten, as bass-playing supergroup SMV, at the Carolina Theatre. He could have stuck around and watched an old collaborator perform.

The next day, Steely Dan will play the Durham Performing Arts Center. Miller has some history with Dan frontman Donald Fagen, whose debut 1982 album, "The Nightfly," featured bass work from Miller. It was Miller's rep as a workhorse session musician, hitting studio after studio, working on albums hours apart from each other, that made Fagen request his services.

"He called me without even hearing me," says Miller, on the phone from Martinique. "He just called and said, 'C'mon, come play bass on this thing for me.'"

With only a week to go until the New York-born, Los Angeles-based Miller celebrates his 50th birthday, it's fair to say Miller has lived one enviable life -- and he's still living it. Nicknamed "The Thumbslinger" by peers, Miller has been everywhere and has played with everyone -- he's like Zelig with a bass guitar. He worked almost exclusively with Miles Davis and David Sanborn. He was there as a member of the "Saturday Night Live" house band in the early '80s, back when a kid named Eddie Murphy was just starting. And he was there right at the beginning for Luther Vandross' meteoric rise to stardom, with Miller as chief collaborator on nearly all his albums. "I saw him become a huge star right in front of my eyes," Miller says of his late, longtime friend. "It was a wonderful thing to see."

Miller also has had quite a career as a movie composer, scoring films starring Chris Rock (he also scored his sitcom "Everybody Hates Chris"), Jamie Foxx, Keenan Ivory Wayans and others. This side career began with a phone call from director Reginald Hudlin, who informed Miller that he was turning his senior film thesis into a major movie (later known as "House Party") and needed someone to score the film. "I told him I'd never done a score before, but that didn't seem to bother him," he says. "He just sent me the film and told me to go to work."

While Miller says he "trialed and errored" through scoring that film, he did a good enough job to become Hudlin's go-to music guy, scoring all his films from then on. He most notably provided an opening bass-and-synthesizer riff for Hudlin's 1992 film "Boomerang" that was unavailable on CD, something that raised the ire of fans for years. "Folks were hitting me weekly about that piece of music," he says. He later extended that riff into a full-fledged song (aptly titled "Boomerang") on his Grammy-winning 2001 album, "M {+2}," with Raphael Saadiq on vocals.

Miller is on the road now, with bass-guitar titans Clarke and Wooten, playing some of their solo numbers as well as tracks from "Thunder," the 2008 album they did as SMV. And to think, if Miller didn't get together with Clarke and Wooten for a live jam session, they wouldn't be on tour.

"About three or four years ago, Bass Player Magazine had a convention, Bass Day, in New York," he says. "And they wanted to present Stanley Clarke with a lifetime achievement award. And they asked Victor and myself to be the presenters. So, we went up there and made our speeches and gave Stanley a big plaque and made him feel nice and old. And, then, we jammed together, just for kicks. And it was so cool, man. We had such a good time. The audience had such a good time. Everybody had such a good time that we looked at each other and said, 'You know, this might not be a bad idea to do something with.'"

Miller hopes that the sight of three men playing bass, shaking the auditorium with their slap-happy rumblings, won't deter people from attending. They might even be surprised by what they'll witness. "When you walk away from an SMV concert," he says, "you should be saying, 'Wow, I didn't know a bass could do that.' That's essentially what you're gonna do. And your girlfriend is gonna say, 'I didn't think I would like that and I absolutely loved it.'"

Wait a minute -- is there usually a heavy number of humbled, satisfied girlfriends walking away from their shows? Says Miller, "Well, you know, they're getting dragged by their bass-player boyfriends."

craig.lindsey@newsobserver.com, 919-829-4760 or blogs.newsobserver.com/unclecrizzle

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