For only his eighth studio album since his 1983 Suddenly debut, multi-instrumentalist native New Yorker Marcus Miller, 63, (the man who wrote “Tutu” for Miles Davis) is back with the absolutely stunning and aptly-named Renaissance (Concord). Jazz album of the year? Damn close.
With eight of 13 originals, Miller pops his funky bass on opener “Detroit,” covers War’s “Slippin’ Into Darkness” and Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope” (dig that Dr. John vocal!), goes Brazilian on “Setembro” (complete with an Afro-Cuban section with his bassline right out of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca”) and goes African on “Goree (Go-Ray).” This last song ain’t no faux-worldbeat clunker! The song was inspired when Miller (on bass clarinet here) and his band paid a visit to the African island where human cargo—gazing on endless ocean—were prepared for export. What could have been an ode to pain and resentment is strangely uplifting.
With a starting nine of two trumpets, alto sax, drummer, two guitarists and two keyboardists backing him up, Miller pitches a perfect game here. “Jekyll & Hyde,” for instance, has two personalities: within this one song, the band plays it like the hard bop of Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers before getting all Hendrix haywire. And the closing cover of The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” is, in a word, gorgeous.
Another great jazz album that references slavery (on the track “African Ship”) is West African guitarist Lionel Loueke’s third album, Heritage (Blue Note), co-produced by the indescribably talented pianist Robert Glasper (whose own Black Radio album is also one of the year’s best). Heritage is a free-for-all of joyous noise. It’s more electric than his previous two, all 10 original, with a core of just guitar/bass/drums plus Glasper’s keyboards on six (three of which he had a hand in composing). This is adventurous, stirring, eclectic and startling music, and you wouldn’t expect anything less from this brilliant musician who has, at 39, been featured in the bands of New Orleans trumpet man Terence Blanchard and the mighty Herbie Hancock.
Loueke’s from Benin where the music is ancient, having evolved from beautiful folk strains that the guitarist mixes with the influences of his other self, that of Europe and the U.S. He speaks English and French and that duality informs not only his worldview but his musical oeuvre. His 2008 Karibu debut sautéed African and Brazilian. The Mwaliko follow-up was a series of intimate duets. On Heritage, he ties it all together in a pumping, throbbing vital piece of instrumentalism that demands concentration. It’s the type of music where you stop what you’re doing and sit there dumbly staring at the speakers and marveling at its intricacies and secrets that are there to be discovered if you take the time to unlock its key.
Trumpeter Christian Scott, 29, thinks he’s Miles on the sprawling two-disc 23-track Christian aTunde Adjuah and that’s not a bad thing. Is it self-indulgent? Could this thing have been shorter and more compact? Do the solos ramble on a bit too long? Probably, but you know what? One could get lost in the mysterioso posturing of this enigmatic musician. Ambient in part, in-your-face in part, its soundtrack style and dreamy textures provide good background until patience (at least mine) wears thin.
Still, the best parts conjure up New Orleans with West Africa (Benin again). Scott’s on the cover in Mardi Gras Indian garb. His opening track, “Fatima Aisha Rokero 400,” is one of the strongest. His trumpet takes flight here on a song that’s “about the ethnic cleansing, kidnapping and, more specifically, the rape of 400 indigenous African Sudanese women by Janjaweed soldiers in the town of Rokero,” according to the liner notes. It’s followed by “New New Orleans (King Adjuah Stomp),” about “post-Katrina resilience.”
On and on it goes with songs about his twin brother, his mother, his fiancé, his grandfather (a real New Orleans Big Chief), AIDS, murder, and those critics who complain he’s stepping outside “the tradition.” To those critics, he writes in the liner notes that his music is “a stretching of jazz, not a replacement. That is what I hope younger people will be able to take away from it as well as the idea that innovation should never be regarded as a problem in artistic practice, that one should always be aware of what has come before, and, finally, that criticisms shouldn’t evoke paralysis, but should inspire action.”