REVIEW: Marcus Miller (Laid Black) at Ronnie Scott's

Marcus Miller at Ronnie Scott's
Photo credit and © Carl Hyde

Marcus Miller
(Ronnie Scott's, 11 July 2018. First House. Review by Sebastian Maniura)

On an evening when the nation’s eyes were on the England semi-final, Marcus Miller returned for the second night of his three-night residency at Ronnie Scott's. Thanking everybody for coming down despite the match, Miller even went so far as to read out the score as it evolved during the set. Marcus and his band are currently on tour promoting his well-received new album Laid Black. The album follows on from Afrodeezia from 2015, inspired by his role as a UNESCO spokesperson for the Slave Routes Project. In Laid Black Marcus brings the music "home", incorporating modern styles such as trap, hiphop, R&B and gospel.

The band took the stage to a pre-recorded soundscape of multiple voices which led into Blues (from the album Tales) featuring a blistering solo from Miller. It would be difficult not to be struck by the sheer ease with which he and his band dived straight in to such a heavy groove. The set was a mix of new material, gospel hymns and old classics, never catching the audience off guard but not letting them get too comfortable in one vibe either. It showcased both the individual players’ skills and the elasticity, range and explosive energy of the group as a whole.

There was all the technical brilliance you would expect from a Marcus Miller concert as well as clear camaraderie between the musicians. Saxophonist Alex Han’s ecstatic solos on Untamed and Tutu drew whoops and applause from the crowd as well as dancing and fist bumps from his fellow musicians. Russell Gunn's playful trumpet work came to the fore on Trip Trap when he battled Alex Han’s melody line for the spotlight, even jokingly moving Alex’s mic away from his sax. Alex Bailey (drums) did stellar work navigating the complex trap and hip hop beats. Often playing along to a pre-recorded track, he not only seamlessly synchronized to it but managed to groove with it as well.

Miller’s solo lines were intricate and always brimming with energy. Tracks such as Untamed, Hylife and Trip Trap illustrated his sheer virtuosic mastery of both the fretless and fretted bass, whilst Tutu and I Loves you Porgy portrayed his more sensitive and restrained side.

With bass-led music there is always a danger of it being too chop-heavy. Miller negotiates this balance skilfully with melodies and solos that utilise both finger and slap style with tasteful aplomb and bountiful diversity, effortlessly switching from bass line to solo line.

The band moved seamlessly to accommodate these changes. Brett Williams on keys never allows the music to feel the least bit flat or thin. Indeed there was a depth to the music that made sure the show wasn't just about how well everybody could play.

A poignant moment came when Miller stopped to commemorate the recent death of his father. He shared some touching memories and expressed gratitude for the sacrifices his father had made in order to give him a good upbringing, whilst Williams accompanied quietly on the organ. This led into a rendition of Preachers Kid, featuring Miller on the bass clarinet with Gunn, Han and Williams providing a solemn accompaniment. This was followed by a thoughtful take on How Great Thou Art with bass clarinet and organ. These moments shone just as brightly as the more fast-paced, flashy numbers and revealed the subtlety and profundity of Miller’s music.

Earlier, keys player Tom O’Grady’s Resolution 88 had kicked off the evening. The band, inspired by Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters and Kaidi Tatham, was a good choice to warm up the room. The combination of the bass heavy grooves laid down by Tiago Coimbra (bass), Ric Elsworth (drums) and Oli Blake (percussion) and the soloistic zeal of Alex Hitchcock (saxophone) made for some great moments. The band were at their best when they were settled into some truly funky grooves.

The blackboard for the first night

Set List:

The Blues - Marcus Miller
Untamed - Charles Haynes / Mitch Henry / Marcus Miller / Brett Williams
I Loves You Porgy - George Gershwin / Ira Gershwin
Trip Trap - Marcus Miller
Hylife - Marcus Miller / Mamadou Cherif Soumano / Alune Wade
Preachers Kid - Marcus Miller
How Great Thou Art - Traditional Hymn
Tutu - Marcus Miller

Line ups:

Marcus Miller

Marcus Miller: Bass / Bass Clarinet
Alex Bailey: Drums
Brett Williams: Keyboards
Russell Gunn: Trumpet
Alex Han: Saxophone

Resolution 88:

Tom O'Grady: Keys
Ric Elsworth: Drums
Alex Hitchcock: Saxophone
Tiago Coimbra: Bass
Oli Blake: Percussion

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