Saturday, June 12, 2010

SFJAZZ presents: Marcus Miller: Tutu Revisited "the Music of Miles Davis featuring Christian Scott"

Marcus Miller was barely twenty when he got the call from "Miles" to play in his band. Miller says he thought a friend was playing a joke on him, but he returned the call anyway and about seven years later produced one of Davis's seminal albums, "Tutu." Miller joked at the SFJAZZ concert about the first Davis gig which could have overwhelmed the precocious and talented musician.

The concert last night at the Herbst Theatre featured music from Tutu, but also other music. One piece, Miller nostalgically renamed "F-sharp, G." The title reflects Davis's instructions to the young bassist to play "F-sharp, G..." at that first recording session.

"Why are you just playing 'F-sharp, G?" Davis asked Miller, after the first take when that's all the musician played (as instructed).

"So the next time I played 'F-sharp, G...' and everything else. Miles stopped and said, 'What are you playing?!' And then I was like, Oh, I can play whatever I want as long as it fits the (groove)."

This realization freed Miller and he was able to then relax. After the session, Miles told the group they sounded terrible and then walked out. Miller said he was closest to the door and as Davis left the studio, he winked at the younger artist.

"Well Miles isn't here and I can play Aida anyway I want to now (smile)."

Miller and his super talented ensemble which consisted of the phenomenal Christian Scott on trumpet, Alex Han on saxophones, Federico Gonzalez Pena on keyboards and Ronald Bruner, Jr. on drums, did just that.

Aida is not a Tutu song, which makes since, sense Miller wrote all the songs or almost all the songs on Tutu and such largess would certainly have to be earned, right? Even for a talented genius like Miller...weren't there a few dues owed?

I am going to have to listen to the original soundtrack while last night is still fresh in my brain.

Almost all the musicians are under 30, Han a tender 22, almost the same age Miller, now 50 (birthday Monday, June 14) was at the time he had his first Miles encounter, not to mention his youthful age when he produced and wrote most of Tutu.

Was the recording a Miles/Miller idea or strictly Miles? I missed the pre-show talk.

The men took Miles Davis to a stellar planetary level I am still navigating as I look down at earth and wonder what I miss about gravity--life in the stars along the peacefully mellow milky way is so much more attractive.

Miller and Han took trading to an entirely different level as Han went tit for tat and then left Miller standing on the stage while he soared away like a rocket headed for an exit. Han would lean into the notes or stand on his toes defying gravity which held him by the back of his tee shirt as he attempted to physically follow the notes as they danced, hopped and marched across and off the stage.

The Tutu band raised the level of conversation a few notches last night. I was learning new languages...increasing my vocabulary as I watched the ensemble, especially Han and Miller, Han and Scott, engage one another.

Christian traded with Alex Han from across the stage and up close and times stuck physically between or on the periphery of a Miller/Han exchange where upon he'd look at Bruner on the riser above and smile a knowing--They got me. But not really.

On several occasions, Christian walked across the stage to Alex and the two musicians would create this intimate space where we were witness to a remarkable interplay: the two at times nose to nose or horn to horn. Intense. I liked the travel...the movement both physically and philosophically.

Scott and Miller traveled the most, but the way Miller, Han and Scott used the space between was nice as well. Center kept shifting which made the composition interesting to follow, almost theatrical.

On keyboards Pena was initially an understated presence and then he was all over the place--I wish I could tell you the song, but they were not all announced audibly --again I was in the back back and it was hard to hear Miller when he spoke.

Bruner also lay in the cuts, so to speak until his solo...look out! What a skillful technician...I wish he'd come out into the lobby afterward or maybe he was there and I missed him. I wanted to tell him how much I admired his control, his keen could see him listening and following Miller's nonverbal cues, and his range audible in his solo which was both rhythmic and musical.

It must have been the mystical letter "F" and "G"? Was the "F-sharp, G-thing"...the Underground Railroad ... permission to let go, to free up whatever it is holding one down ... to shake off the shackles.... Is freedom an improvisational dance? We were witnessing, participating in a Jubilee (what Africans called Emancipation)?

To just be free? What a notion.

This music exemplifies freedom, the way only a sharp well-honed group like Miller's on a "Tutu Revisited" trip can realize such a journey. After all, freedom is not for everyone...well it is everyone's right, yet, many would rather remain enslaved following the script, chart, diagram. It's easier to do that rather than to memorize the map and then forget it. What a perfect vehicle for Tutu.

Miller told his young band to take what Miles left and make it their own, claim it, and they did. Davis is pleased I'm sure. Miller said the maestro would certainly not want them to play the same thing he recorded almost 30 years ago. Davis, whom Miller described as smaller physically than he imagined--he thought Davis was about seven feet tall, is the epitome of philosophical innovation. This is not the first SFJAZZ Miles Davis revision. I recall the first I attended: Miles from India. That concert featured Wallace Roney, another Gemini on trumpet. Roney played a Davis horn and if one could channel...I certainly had to blink. Was that Miles on stage or Roney?

Scott created no such illusions, not that ghosts don't have or deserve special seating arrangements.

Miller's band played pieces from that recording, one by George Duke, several by Miller, who produced the album named after the first African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. There is also a song called Full Nelson, for Nelson Mandela. The set was rocking literally--the groove one I am still swinging to as I write this. I am so looking forward to the album recorded last year as a part of the European concert commission, to drop soon.

Miller had three bass guitars and he switched between them to create his unique sound. On one piece his bass sounded like a voice was marvelous. On another song, I think is was the George Duke piece, "Backyard Ritual," Miller was singing, but the microphone didn't carry his voice to the back of the theatre where I sat.

I keep returning to the "F-sharp" pieceAida, because it was so extraordinary! Miller shifted into a nyahbingi rhythm...and then to seal it Miller played opening rifts of a Marley tune.

Miller and Bruner were hot...I could feel the audience straining against their seat belts. This concert could have easily been at Bill Graham across the street or at Slims, BIMBOs or the Great American Music Hall. Once again, I was enjoying myself too much and didn't jot the title down.

The nyahbingi rhythm is a spiritual rhythm fitting for a Davis tribute. We were certainly calling the ancestors and they were all present, from the recently departed Isley Brother, Marvin Isley, 56, who died June 6, in Chicago from complications from diabetes, to the slain East Palo Alto activist David Lewis, co-founder of Free At Last, shot June 10, to Dr. Dorothy Height and Hank Jones to Miles Davis, of course.

I hadn't realized until today that Miller was from Brooklyn, where the 21st Annual Libation for the Ancestors is occurring today on Coney Island. Miller probably knows Brother Akeem and Brother Hapte Selassie and the People of the Sun Middle Passage Collective. We were bigger this year in Oakland at our Libation for the Ancestors at Lake Merritt at 9 AM.

First it was the talking in talking drum, right? No and yes (smile). Then he rocked the ancestors into the was here that Pena was most powerful as well. I think his was the heralding ancestral call.

"In Rasta overstanding, Nyahbingi is the mystical power of the Most High to mete justice throughout the universe. Although the genuine origin of the word that means “she possesses many things” is Ugandan, as a concept and theology, Nyahbingi has come down to the Rastaman to signify “death to the oppressors, both black and white”. Therefore, it is through prayer, music and biblical reasoning that the Rastaman chants bingi, calling on the forces of nature to destroy the powers of wickedness (

“…Storm, cyclone, tidal wave and all tempestuous roaring elements from creation to destroy the wicked nation and set Rastaman free…”

"Find yourself in the music," Miller told his band.

Miller's salute to Davis, his finger pointed into the air: Gemini to Gemini...what better tribute than to improvise on one of our greatest improvisers. I thought it was a great preview for the international libation to the ancestors this morning.

Later in the evening, which was two hours-plus of uninterrupted bliss--Miller pulled out the bari-clarinet, his first instrument and the one he studied or trained, on an Ellington piece which was really lovely--once again Han taking the music along a mellifluous journey.

I'd gone to the University of San Francisco Gellert Family Business Awards earlier where Dr. Raye Richardson and Family, Marcus Books, was honored for 2010 and William and Tim McDonnell Tarantino's/Spinnakers for 2009. I then ran by the African American Art and Culture Complex which is one of the venues for the 13th Annual National Queer Arts Festival. I ran into an old student of mine, Nisa, and her mom, Dhameerah Ahmad. I taught Nisa at Muhammad University of Islam No. 26 when she was 5 or 6. The last time I saw her she was introducing Maya Angelou at a National Poetry Month event in San Francisco.

I picked up my niece, Widya, for the Miller concert at the Herbst Theatre last night. Widya just graduated from Rosa Parks Elementary School in San Francisco and that day from her preschool/after school program. Widya is pictured here with Alex Han and both of us with my friend, Christian Scott, who is headed to New Orleans after the Hollywood Bowl Concert for his music camp.

I just saw Christian's grandmother and uncle, Donald Harrison in a film about the Madi Gras Indians scheduled to screen as a part of the San Francisco Black Film Festival kicking off June 17, 6:30 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas and continuing at a variety of venues through June 20. It is a part of the San Francisco Juneteenth Festival which I believe is celebrating its 30-something anniversary.

Joshua Redman is playing tonight with others at the Herbst and in Healdsburg, at the Jazz Festival, Charlie Haden is playing with Geri Allen and Ravi Coltrane. That should be nice. The last time I saw Ravi with Haden, his mother was alive and on drums was Roy Haynes. I am going to miss it for Salif Keita at BIMBO's 365 Club in San Francisco.

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At 12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for the informative post about your experience at the Marcus Miller concert. I found it (your post) trying to learn more about the Miles Davis tune Aida. I couldn't remember the song's name and just spent two hours on going through Miles tunes until I remembered it was on "The Man with the Horn".

You taught me two new things... that the bass part was a half-step (I've always heard it as a whole-step, F to G, but I can hear the half-step now), and the term nyahbingi which I hadn't heard before. I don't know if that's the rhythm being laid down on "The Man with the Horn" studio recording as I've heard several versions of the song done by Miles, but it would make some sense since Niyabinghi is a Rwandan goddess and Aida is an opera about a captured Ethiopian princess.

Anyway, thanks for the post!




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