I don't have an issue with putting music in categories, provided those categories or labels actually add to the understanding of the music. With that in mind, perhaps my least favorite category is the so-called "smooth jazz" or "contemporary jazz" category. Mind you, I'm not a "straight ahead" jazz purist who thinks all the electrified Miles Davis stuff is a bunch of garbage. I got into jazz in the 1970s by listening to people such as Herbie Hancock, Grover Washington, Jr. and Roy Ayers. Back then, it was called jazz, rock, funk fusion. That was a mouthful, but that label accurately reflected what influenced the artists making the music, much like "Afro-Cuban jazz" tells listener what influenced Dizzy Gillespie in the late 1940s.
My problem with the smooth/contemporary jazz category is that it tells the listener nothing because it's a marketing creation employed to sell a lifestyle as much as music. I'd find it hard for jazz to be any smoother than John Coltrane and Duke Ellington's playing "In A Sentimental Mood." Yet, you'd probably never hear that song on a smooth jazz station. And will some please explain to me why an album filled with instrumental covers of Luther Vandross or Motown songs is considered contemporary jazz, but Wynton Marsalis's "From the Plantation to the Penitentiary," which consists of original recordings, is not? I wonder if legendary bassist Marcus Miller thinks about these things when he makes genre bending records such as his latest recording Marcus.
Miller boarded the fusion train in the 1970s, a few years after it left the station through his work with David Sanborn. In the 1980s, Miller worked with Davis. Davis didn't create jazz, rock, funk fusion, but the fact that the legendary jazz innovator embraced the genre gave it credibility. Miller has also collaborated with artists such as Mariah Carey, Jay-Z, Michael Franks, ZZ-Hill and Billy Idol.
Working with artists representing a wide variety of genres is a major theme on this latest work. One highlight is Corinne Bailey Rae, wrapping her sultry vocals around rendition of Denise Williams' 1976 classic "Free." Miller plays it pretty straight on this rendition that holds pretty close musically to Williams original. The main difference is Miller's bass playing, in which he employs his signature thumping and plucking funky style. The version also includes some definite jazz influenced improvising by Miller, as well as a saxophone solo.
Marcus also includes covers of several other songs, such as Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," Tower of Power 's "What Is Hip," the jazz standard "When I Fall In Love," and two versions of Robin Thicke's 2007 hit "Lost Without You." The remake of "When I Fall In Love" is a clear indication that - despite his work with hip hop, soul and rock stars - Miller still views himself as a jazz artist.
Throughout the history of the art form, jazz has always commented musically on the popular music of the day. One way that jazz remained relevant and viable in the first half of the 20th Century was for artist to translate songs that were often written for film and the stage into jazz. Two things happened when jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker remade Broadway musical fare like "Embraceable You." He expanded the song's melodic and harmonic possibilities when he played the song in his signature be-bop style, and he increased jazz's fan base by exposing the lover's of Broadway musicals and the Great American Song to jazz. In a way, jazz musicians of Parker's day had it easier than Miller because composers and lyricists such as George Gershwin had a deep appreciation of jazz, and their nuanced and complex melodies were tailor-made for the music.
Many so-called "straight ahead jazz" artists clearly don't have the comfort or interest in commenting musically on the contemporary music genres, such as R&B and rock, that have supplanted jazz in terms of popularity. A major reason for their reluctance has to do with the fact that many jazz artists don't believe R&B and rock music compares on a qualitative level to the music from the Great American Songbook. Even those who might want to try don't feel they have the understanding of contemporary music. That leaves the task of translating the contemporary musical canon in the hands of so-called "smooth jazz" artists, and those results are often uninspiring.
Whatever the reason, "straight-ahead" jazz's estrangement from the popular music of the day has only served to marginalize the music. The irony is that the rewards for successfully fusing improvising jazz with contemporary music can be great - as Herbie Hancock's best album Grammy for River: The Joni Letters proves.
That success might mean Marcus is being released at the right time. Perhaps music fans are looking for jazz musicians who will take more risks and be more experimental with contemporary R&B, pop and rock. Marcus Miller has always been that type of artists. Fans of jazz and R&B who want to hear a song like "Lost Without You," get stretched and folded in many different directions won't be disappointed when they play Marcus.