(Barbican, London Jazz Festival. 22 November 2009, Review by Rob Mallows)
As Marcus Miller explained to the Barbican audience, Miles Davis was never one to go back and repeat himself. In revisiting 1985’s Tutu, Miller’s idea was to approach it with a group of younger musicians and demonstrate its relevance almost a quarter of a century on. Job done, and well, too. Alex Han blew hard on the sax and prowled the lip of the stage, offering brutal power and a light touch when required; trumpeter Christian Scott – what shoes he had to fill! – was tight, providing a good facsimile of Davis’ phrasing which was often just a single note dropped in and left to resonate; and Ronald Bruner Jr on drums didn’t so much play his drums as beat them into submission;his snare drum hit sounded like a nail gun penetrating a piece of two-by-four!
A Stanley Clarke alumnus, Bruner clearly revels in battling beat for beat with the world’s premier bassists. And Miller is definitely one of those. His trademark treble-rich bass tone and slap funk style is shot through Tutu like a stick of rock, and playing the album in its entirety, he showed that it still stands up to scrutiny. With his young compadres on stage, Miller acted as tutor, encouraging them to improvise at will, giving each the space to shine in between some bullet-fast solos. At one point, he, Han and Scott were huddled together in front of Bruner – like a group of schoolboys guilty smoking an illicit fag – swapping phrases and goading each other on. Breathlessly entertaining stuff.
The whole album got an airing – I liked Splatch, a great funky tune, and the set closer Tutu, where Federico Gonzalez Pena ‘s expansive layered keyboards punctuated the insistent bass groove. Augmenting the album tracks were songs from Miller’s own catalogue, Hannibal and Jean Pierre in particular being welcomed by the knowing fans. Miller’s playing was crisp, exquisite at the top of the fretboard and sonorously heavy at the low end – during Tomaas, his three bass cabinets fairly shook the first ten rows. His slap-pop technique, while not to everyone’s tastes, is tremendously exciting live and bought numerous ovations.
The Marcus Miller trademark sound is what made helped make Tutu a stand-out album. It got the Barbican audience in end-of-festival mood lapping it up, with hundreds of heads bobbing in satisfied unison.
In support was Gary Husband ‘s Drive. Drive shows that jazz is Husband’s passion, which the day job behind the drumkit for pop-funksters Level 42 pays for. His drumming is top notch; his piano playing a real contrast; he’s an adept band leader – a nod here and a handwave there to keep things moving along; his compositions use a broad tonal palette.
With bass go-to man Mike Janisch, Julian Siegel on sax and Richard Turner on trumpet, Drive offered up a medium-rare slice of contemporary jazz which was adventurous but, for this reviewer, sometimes over the edge – their Take Five was too tricksy and way out for me. One Prayer offered more variety. But I found that a 30 minute set was too short for a band of this calibre.
Rob Mallows runs the London Jazz Meetup group
Photo of Christian Scott by Mike Stemberg