Marcus Miller and his band performed the majority of his new album Afrodeezia at Gateshead’s wonderful Sage on Wednesday night. And whilst a barmy night on the Tyne in October is a continent away from the heat of the African plains there was enough energy on stage and warmth from the audience to ensure the spirit of Africa remained present.
Much like the album, the set the band performed was designed to reflect Miller’s experiences as ambassador for peace for UNESCO. Miller travelled the route of the slave trade from Africa through the Caribbean, Brazil and on to the American Delta and aimed with this collection of songs to take the audience the same musical and spiritual journey. The tracks on the album were co-written with musicians from these regions and aimed to reflect the anguish of the slave experience but also celebrate the cultures that endured the ordeal. Heavy stuff but wonderfully encapsulated through the musicianship and the expression in the delivery on show.
The first song they played was Hylife, also the first track on the album and possible the most commercial. It showcases Miller’s trade mark double thumb slap bass style and it bounced cheerfully and rhythmically against rich jazz piano chords and percussive African drumming. Whilst the bass riff sat solid and steady with the drums it allowed the brass to dance and float in the upper registers of the mix; it was an absolute joy to hear the improvisation of saxophonist Alex Han and Marquis Hill on trumpet.
B’s River was the second track which also mirrors the album and features Miller playing a Gimbri, perhaps a spiritual ancestor to the bass guitar- a boxy African stringed instrument that opened the track and is then replaced by Miller’s customary Fender Jazz. However, this time Miller took on lead melody duties with the bass guitar and which the left hand of pianist Brett Williams maintained the solid structure for Miller to play around. This song had some beautiful rhythms but felt more like a jazz track than anything evoking traditional African of South American influence.
I spent the night trying to tap out time signatures and Calypso rhythms on my thigh and counting in vain to see how many fingers Miller actually had on his hands. I’m not used to seeing jazz live so seeing the way the musicians maintained concentration and discipline as well as being absolutely on fire when their parts arrived was equally inspiring and impressive. My favourite track of the night was the cover of Papa was a Rolling Stone. Miller himself joked that such a cool bass line requires discipline to play:
‘I was told as a twelve year old learning the bass part “Don’t play in the spaces”. Well, now I’ve got my own band I can do what I want!’
Most of what’s heard tonight is instrumental. The nature of Miller’s jazz means that his music is accessible across languages and cultures. It also means however that the tracks void of vocals tend to lose some of the African quality most associated with this type of music: the poly-choral chanting or floating gospel melodies that carried some of the most powerful lyrics of blues. But whilst the music heard lacks lyrical expression the audience is treated to some quite incredible solo work from Miller, Williams, Han, Hill and guitarist Adam Agati. They challenged each other on stage and responded and reacted with glee. There was expression in every note. It was incredible to hear and lovely to see
The show was fantastic. The musical talent on stage was some of the best I’ve heard. I hoped and expected as much from the world’s most hugely successful living jazz musician and composer.
Oh, he’s pretty good on bass too.
Photographs by Nick Bailey