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Marcus Miller – Laid Black

June 27, 2018

The indefatigable bassist/composer Marcus Miller Miller is akin to the jazz-funk version of The Energizer Bunny—he keeps going, and going, and going.

On his latest release, Laid Black, on which his wife Brenda is credited as Co-Producer and Project Coordinator, he returns to his self-described style of playing “funk on the top and jazz on the bottom” sinewy grooves. He wrote or co-wrote, as he artfully and customarily does, eight of the nine tunes.

There’s no shortage of the Miller classic funkiness that permeates the disc. Highlights include the CD opener “Trip Trap,” a toe-tapping, danceable number; the sly, slinky groove of “Untamed” (featuring Peculiar 3). “Untamed” has an alternately brooding and joyous feel. Kirk Whalum plays a beautiful flute solo, and Michael “Patches” Stewart’s muted trumpet solo harkens back to the haunting, signature Miles Davis sound of the ‘60s.

One of the most rousing and entertaining tunes is the gritty and soul-scorching funk of “7-Ts,” undoubtedly an homage to the ‘70s (with Miller’s clever spelling of the title. The unique spelling is something that he implemented on “Cee Tee Eye”—a tribute to Creed Taylor’s classic CTI Label— from his 2012 Renaissance CD). New Orleans’ own Trombone Shorty provides a punchy, party-like vibe on his sackbut horn. Meanwhile, Miller’s own background vocal chants of “Right On, ya’ll; “Get Down, ya’ll;” “Super-bad, ya’ll,” and “Wait a Minute,” recall the unique era of James Brown’s foot-stomping soul.

Miller’s son Julian joins his dad on the hip-hop flavored “Keep ‘Em Running,” where the younger Miller raps over, under, and between dad’s thunderous bass plucks and slaps. The result is a collaboration where funky fun was sure to be had.

While there’s plenty of bass frolic and Miller mastery on Laid Black, no Miller CD would be complete without his heartfelt ballads. On “Someone to Love,” he sings in his soft-spoken, gentle voice. His background serene vocals are underscored by his dolorous fretless bass guitar. Pianist Cliff Barnes’ piano is sensitively played, and the tune has a forlorn yearning to it that is both emotive and plaintive at once.

The two remaining ballads are extremely special as they are tributes to two beloved members of the bassist’s family who recently passed away. “Sublimity (Bunny’s Dream)” is for Miller’s late mother in-law, Mary “Bunny” Hughes. Here, the irrepressible Jonathan Butler provides halcyon background vocals and acoustic guitar. Miller plays electric bass guitar and bass clarinet, both of which give the tune a somberness. Butler’s acoustic guitar, though, underlines a sense of sweetness and grace that is truly heartfelt.

The closing tune, “Preacher’s Kid (for William H.)” is an homage to Miller’s late father, who was a preacher’s kid and an accomplished church organist. Fans will remember that this beautiful tune was featured on Miller’s Grammy-award winning 2015 CD Afrodeezia.

Laid Black is a wonderful CD that has something for everyone on it, and it’s done in typical classy and classic Miller fashion—funky, tasteful, and tender. To echo his chant from “7-Ts”: this is “Super Bad, ya’ll!” – Liz Goodwin