Let us now consider the lowly bass player. For most of the rock era, bassists found themselves relegated to a support role for their more acclaimed band mates – that rock deity known as the guitarist. Guitar players often stand as rock music royalty. Their names roll off the lips of blues and rock music fans: Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, B.B. King and Muddy Waters, just to name a few. And Jazz music featured more than its share of great six string players, such as Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian and George Benson.
Name one bass player. That’s a fool’s errand for many, but it’s an assignment that even the casual funk or jazz-fusion fan can accomplish with ease. The bass player occupies the exalted position in funk and fusion bands. Everybody knew that Larry Graham played the bass for Sly & the Family Stone, and that Verdine White held down the rhythm section for Earth, Wind & Fire. If you were humming the melody of a popular funk or fusion song in the 1970s – whether the tune was “Slide” by Slave or the theme song to “Barney Miller” - odds are that you were humming the bass line.
So funk and jazz-fusion bass players never had the inferiority complex that afflicted their four string counterparts in other genres. Fusion and funk fans expect their bass players to be virtuosic showmen who can make their instrument rumble like a jet preparing for takeoff, thump like the heartbeat of a deer escaping a predator or roll like a Cadillac on a smooth stretch of pavement. Listeners receive that and then some on Renaissance, the latest project from the legendary bassist Marcus Miller.
Miller the showman, artist and adventurer can take his listener on a trip in which he thumps, rolls, plucks and then keeps it smooth – all during the course of one song. That is what he accomplishes on his sweeping cover of WAR’s “Slipping into Darkness.” On his version of The Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There,” Miller showcases the tenderness that allows him to give his instrument a vocal quality.
Miller’s originals also contain that aggressiveness and creativity that bassists in most genres are required to keep under wraps. Miller lets it all out on Renaissance. “Redemption” finds Miller simmering at a slow burn on this low key number in which he provides the rhythm for his sidemen to solo. However, Miller also cuts out some space for himself and treats listeners to his trademark rolling thunder runs augmented by those slaps, thumps and plucks, while the appropriately named “Jekyll & Hyde” finds Miller displaying the smooth and rock-influenced aspects of his musical personality.
Marcus Miller songs feature bass loops, dives and rolls rather than lines. He’s a high flying aerial stuntman of the four string world. He’s not the exception among his funk and jazz-fusion bass player. It’s a tent big enough to hold other legends such as Stanley Clarke and a young lioness like Esperanza Spalding.
There are probably still people who believe a bassist is destined to be the guitar player’s straight man. I don’t know what those folk will do with counter evidence such as Renaissance. Fans of four-string funk will bump it loud from the nearest sound system as Peoples’ Exhibit #1 of the power of the bass. Highly Recommended
By Howard Dukes