Bassist, producer, composer, and all-around musician Marcus Miller has been a student and a leader, a creator and an interpreter, a master and a mentor in the art form of music – from his teen years to the present – with many more miles to go before he sleeps…a profound past paving the way to an as yet unfathomable future. Marcus continues this legacy with A Night in Monte-Carlo, a live audio document of an amazing concert he was commissioned to perform on November 29, 2008 in the “rich man’s playground” of Monaco – a performance of music of his choice, much of it from his pen, featuring his arrangements for symphony orchestra. It features Marcus leading both his quartet and the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra, with special guests: trumpeter Roy Hargrove as well as singer, songwriter and guitarist Raul Midon. “I was invited by Jean-René Palacio, the Artistic Director for the principality of Monaco to present some of my music with the orchestra on the French Riviera,” Marcus recalls. No stranger to the area, as he has performed there many times AND played there on his downtime as a race car buff during the Grand Prix, Marcus relished the opportunity of sharing his music in the breathtaking and intimate 600-seat Monte-Carlo Opera House.
“The ceiling and every wall beneath is adorned with the most unbelievable murals,” Marcus marvels. “The setting was gorgeous.” More amazing were the fabulous musicians of the symphony. “The Monte-Carlo Orchestra was very hip. They were enthusiastic about my music and understood right away the sound I was trying to get,” Marcus enthuses. “After the first day of rehearsal, they all lined up to shake my hand! That put me totally at ease and made this the most satisfying experience I’ve ever had with a symphony. My band and the orchestra became good friends over those three days of rehearsal.”
The repertoire for A Night in Monte-Carlo covers nearly a century of music – from two styles of opera to jazz, including a contemporized spiritual and a timeless ballad. The program opened with a BANG with “Blast!” the GRAMMY®-nominated Middle Eastern-tinged instrumental of futuristic world fusion funk that has been begging for a symphonic treatment since it was birthed on his ninth album, Marcus (2008). Not knowing what to expect, the audience was taken by surprise when the huge sounds of the orchestra and quartet filled the Opera House with this musical Molotov cocktail.
Next was a version of Miles Davis’ “So What,” the classic of cool from the master’s groundbreaking 1959 LP Kind of Blue. “The original recording has a beautiful Bill Evans solo piano introduction that most musicians never play when they cover the tune,” Miller states. “I took that intro and gave it a full orchestration that leads into some nice stretched out playing from Alex Han on alto sax and Federico Gonzalez Peña on piano. I loved the contrast between the orchestra and DJ Logic on turntables. The string players were looking at him like, ‘What’s that he’s doing?’ while Logic was glancing over his shoulder, blown away by what they were playing. That’s what this was all about.”
Next is a beautiful rendition of “I Loves You Porgy” from the Gershwin opera Porgy & Bess that features Miller playing the bittersweet melody on fretless bass – a tasty contrast as couched by the strings. Then the orchestra takes a break as Miller introduces one-man band Raul Midon to the stage to sing “State of Mind,” a song that the blind singer/songwriter/guitarist recorded as the title track of the 2005 CD that launched him into the mainstream. Midon often performs the song alone simulating drums on the body of his guitar and the sound of a trumpet with his lips. Here, Marcus accompanies him on bass with Peña adding udu (an African percussion instrument). “What Raul does is amazing and this tune has a great energy,” says Miller.
When the orchestra returns, it is to accompany one of the finest living jazz trumpet players, Roy Hargrove, on a song that Marcus composed for the great Miles Davis titled “Amandla” the soaring title track of the acclaimed 1989 follow-up album to the first Miller/Davis collaboration, Tutu. “Roy is one of the baddest trumpet players out there,” Miller shares. “We’re always passing each other in airports and at festivals. When I hosted the North Sea Jazz Cruise, I made sure to invite him as one of my guests. I had to bring him back for this show. His sound is gorgeous on this tune and he really opens up on his solo.” Marcus additionally features Hargrove playing the warmer flugelhorn on a dreamy rendition of the 1941 chestnut “I’m Glad There Is You” – a song Hargrove recorded on his 2000 CD Moment to Moment: Roy Hargrove With Strings.
The second more traditional of the opera pieces follows with a lovely melodic statement from Giacomo Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro (Oh, my dear papa),” a highlight from his 1918 one-act opera Gianni Schicchi. Again, Marcus plays the melody – usually associated with a lyrical soprano voice – on the fretless bass, providing a haunting feeing of déjà vu for the audience within the Opera House. This leads into the grand finale of the festive Brazilian pop classic “Mas Que Nada.” Marcus arranged and produced a soulful version of the song for singer Al Jarreau’s 1994 CD/DVD project Tenderness. He reprises that here – propelled with aplomb by drummer Poogie Bell – as a vehicle for all to return to the stage, with Roy Hargrove trading trumpet lines with Raul Midon’s “voice trumpet.”
A Night in Monte-Carlo closes with two very special pieces. The first is Marcus’ reverent yet contemporary interpolation of the spiritual “Amazing Grace” which he calls “Your Amazing Grace” that features him on an instrument that has fast become his most singular voice, the bass clarinet. That is followed by an inspired 11th hour addition, “Strange Fruit,” recorded in his Los Angeles recording studio. The chilling portrait of racial hatred that Billie Holiday first performed in 1939 on the stage of Café Society, the title metaphorically conjures the bodies of black men, women and child lynch victims hanging from trees in the American south in the not so distant past. It is an image and meditation that Miller brings to highly emotive recall in his musical history lesson for orchestra, crying its blues through his mournful bass clarinet accompanied by the piano of his frequent friend and collaborator Herbie Hancock.
Reflecting on the Monte Carlo concert, Marcus states, “I loved that the audience was full of so many people who had never experienced anything like this. Some were jazz lovers who’d never been to a symphony or vice versa, or young people seeing their first jazz concert. Personally, I was very inspired by the collaboration with the orchestra…so much so that the sound lingered in my mind long afterward. When I returned to my studio in Los Angeles, I arranged and recorded “Strange Fruit” and added it as a bonus track to the Monte Carlo CD as a reflection of the impression this experience has left on me.”
Since this recording was made in 2008, Marcus has presented A Night In Monte-Carlo with the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic featuring Lalah Hathaway and Raul Midon for the 50th Anniversary of Jazz a Juan in the summer of 2010, and more recently at the Tokyo Jazz Festival with the NHK Symphony Orchestra featuring Roberta Flack and young trumpeter, Christian Scott. He has tailored each program to include his special guests and plans to continue to do so with various artists for upcoming shows.