"What's a GOAT?" I asked my cool, virtuoso bass player mate Liam. " Greatest of All Time" he replied, which made absolute sense to me. If anyone can lay claim to this rather strange acronym, it's GOT to be Marcus Miller, not just as a bass player but as a composer and producer. There aren't many people who can write and produce for Miles Davis AND Luther Vandross at an age before most undergraduates have finished their finals!
So here's the question. Did Marcus live up to his 'GOAT' reputation at the Royal Festival Hall on the 12th of November 2017? For this reviewer, the answer is a qualified "Yes" . Qualified because previous gigs I have seen of Marcus' have been OFF THE SCALE of "Goat-ness".
Marcus is probably best known for his virtuoso bass performances. He can slap, slide, thumb ( and a dozen another techniques I don't know the name of but the subject of umpteen YouTube tutorials starting with the words "hey guys, today I'm gonna show you how to...."). And there was no shortage of "Bass heads" at the front of the stage as the gear was being set up, checking out the amps, cabs and pedals. But for me technique without spirit is like gymnastics compared to dancing, basically soul less....
The thing about Marcus is that BEYOND the technique (which really does make an impression) is the EXPRESSION not just of musicality but 'Soul' in the broadest sense. There aren't many people who can create a beautiful, haunting piece of music about the "Île de Gorée ", a former slave depot off the coast of Senegal. But Marcus can. And tonight at times, he reached that amazing sweet spot where technique and expression meet in perfect harmony. A new piece "Preacher's Kid", dedicated to his father ( who's 92 and has Alzheimer's) was beautiful and painful in equal measure. Here Marcus swapped his 4 string for the bass clarinet and really 'sang' through his instrument. His beautiful, solo rendition of Michael Jackson's "I'll be there", also oozed technique AND passion. There was also the compelling "B's River" from his album Afrodeezia where he traced his musical and cultural roots back to Africa. Marcus, along with Herbie Hancock is a United Nations "ambassador for peace" through music. So it's definitely not just about the notes....
And maybe this is where tonight was different? On previous occasions I've seen Miller ( in 2013, 2014 & twice in 2015) he's been a man on a mission. In 2013 it was his new album "Renaissance" and a fresh young band including the incredible saxophonist Alex Hahn, raring to go. In 2014 it was the first gig with a group of African musicians who were all brilliant but looked like they couldn't believe their luck sharing the stage with Marcus! The music was incredible (a friend in his 50s exclaimed "I haven't seen anything like that since the 70s!"). It reminded me of the transformative effect of the late, great Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan. In 2015 there was the new album based on that project called "Afrodeezia".
Tonight there didn't seem to be an overarching THEME for the music. It was funky, it was groovy and beautifully sensitive in places. But the selection of pieces was rather random and for much of the time I felt I was watching 'Marcus the mortal bass player' rather than 'Marcus the supernatural magician' almost channelling energy from another time and place. ( Excuse the hippy sh**, but it really was THAT good!). To my highly subjective ears, I felt the balance of "one chord grooves" a bit like "pick up the pieces" (but with a less distinctive 'tune' and much longer solos) and more 'composed' pieces (still with plenty of solos) was a bit wrong . Don't get me wrong, I love a bit of funky 'slapping' (Miller style that is) but after a bit I did find myself thinking "Marcus, why don't you try playing SLOW for a change and see what happens?!"
But at other times Marcus excelled. His dynamic and tonal control of the bass is incredible - from subby thuds to almost ear splitting twangs including hitting the detuned lowest string of his instrument like a drum on the final number "Blast".
So, the overall verdict? (Apart from the question "will I ever be able to eat goat curry again"?) I'll definitely be back to see Marcus in the future, but for someone who would rather hear ONE note played or sung with soul, rather than a hundred (only) with dazzling technique, I hope that Marcus the musician, (rather than the 'mere' virtuoso bass player) finds another cause as strong as Renaissance or Afrodeezia. Cos that's when the magic REALLY happens....
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