This is the Marcus Miller everybody always knew existed yet never really heard on record. This is the man who can play bass, saxophone, and bass clarinet, and also compose, produce, arrange, etc., and usually does so in a slick studio setting. The Ozell Tapes is reported to be an "official bootleg"; it's official to be sure but it's no bootleg. These are tapes from the band's 2002 tour straight from the soundboard without any remixing. The tapes are not from a single show, however, but the best performances from the entire tour. It's a small complaint, really, that it doesn't have the complete languid feel of a single show, because this is easily the best record Miller has ever released. His combined talents come into focus in spontaneous settings, where he walks the tightrope between composed or covered material, and between arranged and improvised material. And the material: There are two sets, on a pair of CDs. The music vacillates between the sacred and profane, but it's all from the heart of the groove. First there's the jam "Power," an early showcase of the band's strengths, and it's immediately followed by an elegant and emotionally played funked-up version of Miles Davis' "So What," with a two-piece horn section and Miller on electric bass turning the groove over and back accompanied by an atmospheric airy (à la "In a Silent Way") piano. From here the band moves to John Coltrane's "Lonnie's Lament," and turns it upside down into groove jazz meets gutter funk. The Coltrane vibe is replaced by something quite beautiful and lovely, and there is no irreverence in the interpretation.
The ensemble is tight to the point of instinctual reaction, and on the covers it becomes obvious very quickly how well attuned the bandmembers are to Miller's seemingly endless musical palette. There are readings of "I Loves You Porgy" and Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House," Joe Sample and Will Jennings' "When Your Life Was Low," Thom Bell's "You Make the World Go Round," and "Killing Me Softly" -- all with stunning vocal appearances by the divine Lalah Hathaway. But the covers only show one side; on the band's originals such as "Scoop," "Panther," and "3 Deuces," the easy looseness is evident even though these cats play their asses off. Nowhere is this more evident than on the set's final track, a medley of the Miller/Miles Davis-penned tunes "Hannibal," "Tutu," and "Amandla." Miller pushes his bandmembers to play the same unexpected twists and turns Miles was famous for, tossing changeups into the mix at odd moments, moving a time signature, changing a groove, shifting an interval -- and they respond without a seam. They make it gritty and beautiful, improvising with grace, aplomb, and grit. The Ozell Tapes proves that Marcus Miller is not a "smooth jazz" musician or a "fusion" musician or a "pop" musician; this proves he is a jazz musician who plays thoroughly modern, emotionally and intellectually satisfying electric jazz. If rhythm, subtle harmony, melody, a touch of funkiness, and a bucket of soul are your thing, then this is for you no matter what kind of music you listen to.