Just when Funk Mugs thought it was safe to glide again in a funk free air zone, bassist Byron Miller, a.k.a. “Psychobass,” has returned to re-funkify the skyways with some musical ESP – Extra Sensory PlushFunk – purposed for recalibrating hearts and spirits to the vibrations of Peace and Love…Indivisible…under Oneness 4 All. His fifth and latest offering is fittingly titled The Gift – a 9-track song flight of spirit replenishing grooves that is refreshingly instrumental (no special guest vocalists), placing the spotlight squarely on Byron and musician friends that include Kirk Whalum, Paul Jackson, Jr., Walter Beasley, Gordon Campbell, Phil Davis, Munyungo Jackson and more.
“The Gift means two things,” Byron shares regarding the album title and concept, “and both are very spiritual. When I started playing bass, I never had a lesson. When I was a freshman in high school, I broke my foot as quarterback of the Highland Park Polar Bears in Detroit during a practice. As the youngest of four children, I was failing in school where my brother and sisters had all excelled. Trying to figure out what to do with me, Mom stopped off on her way home from work one night and bought me a Harmony electric bass – no amp. All she knew is that I loved music. She put the bass in my hands and I sat on my bed listening to old Motown records with James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt on bass, then some Chuck Rainey, Larry Graham, Santana, Led Zeppelin, Donald Byrd & The Blackbyrds…then two George Duke records: Feel and Faces in Reflection. I loved the freeness of the tracks. By listening to all of that music and more, I developed my own exercises based on playing off of octaves and the notes in-between, and taught myself how to play. After my sister Karla helped me cop a Fender Bass and my English teacher Mr. Johnson buying me a Custom amp, I started gigging. That was the beginnings of Byron Miller, a.k.a. ‘Psychobass.’ Today, I don’t ever remember not being able to play. I can’t look at that as anything but a gift”
“The second reason I titled this album The Gift,” Byron continues, “is I had to postpone recording on the very first day to care for my brother Kaie who had a stroke. God told me, ‘Sit tight and start up again when you’re ready.’ A couple months later, I did just that with a George Duke song called ‘Say Hello.’ I’m always listening to Duke music…for reference. So, the second part of The Gift was I just waited for songs and melodies to come to me. Some came quick. Others were slower. But they all came. And because of the musicians I chose to play on them, I tapped their gifts also. So, it was a ‘gift train.’ It got spiritual. It got funky. It got pretty. I let God give me the blueprint as far as what would work on radio then followed my heart. If I went in my home studio (The Den) and wasn’t feeling it, it was nothing for me to walk out, play with my kids, walk my dog or kiss my wife. I just tapped into God’s direction for me on Psychobass 2: The Gift.”
The first radio focus single off The Gift is “Funky Boy,” an autobiographical theme song. While the radio is largely instrumental, on the album version, Psychobass narrates how he was discovered by recently departed drum master Leon “Ndugu” Chancler who brought him to Los Angeles upon which time the 19 year-old was dubbed “Funky Boy” for his unique approach to rockin’ the electric bass…a sound that once Ndugu introduced him to George Duke resulted in the Funk-Jazz classic “Reach For It” and Byron’s now legendary bass solo within.
“Funky Boy” began life via Byron’s one new collaborator/musician on The Gift: keyboardist/bassist Gerroud Thomas. “He’s a church cat from down in Alabama,” ‘B’ explains. “He found me on Facebook, told me he knew all my stuff and offered to send me four tracks. I listened to them in my car but thought hey were just o.k., so I sat on them. Then one day I had my iPhone plugged in to the car. When I started the car up, one of his funky tracks started playing. I didn’t cue it up to play – it started playing all by itself. This time I heard the funk and got some ideas of what I could do with it. I said, ‘Alright God, I hear you!’ So, I took the basic track in the studio - just a young dude playing the funk - did some edits, added a melody then called Gordon Campbell in to light it up with some drums. Gerroud had a section with all these chord changes going. I took those out and rebuilt that section to feature Walter Beasley playing a sax solo. Then I put the narration on - the first part improvised right into my iPhone. From there, I vibed on what had come out of my mouth then completed my autobiographical story.”
The all-natural vibrations of Psychobass 2: The Gift permeates all of the tracks, a roundly warmer, gentler approach to The Funk that flows from the sexy mid-tempo “Soldier of the Groove” to the Mediterranean feel of the title track “The Gift” (featuring a fuzz bass solo), the super smooth “The B Spot,” the blue sky and black sand joy of “We’re On The Island,” the dreamy “Just a Feeling” and - funkiest of all - “The Funk Is On” – you provide your own 9-volt battery.
“The Gift is nine songs,” Byron says. “It would have been 12 but I’d been saving three for Ndugu to play on. When he passed, I just left them off. I couldn’t hear anybody else playing on them…”
“The reason I can read music now is Mr. USC college professor, Ndugu. When I first started playing with him in Santana, he said, ‘You play too good not to be able to read. Once you learn, you’ll take over L.A.’ I didn’t give a shit about taking over L.A. I just wanted to make money and do my thing. Ndugu had me come over to his house every Wednesday at 3 o’clock and spent a half hour teaching me how to read. Six months later, we did a session with Duke, George put the music in front of me. Ndugu was like, ‘I don’t know why you putting music in front of him. He don’t know how to read!’ We went through that song (“‘Scuse Me Miss” off From Me To You) in one take. George was like, “Damn.” I was like, “Yeah!”
In the `70s when funky lead electric bass rose up from the earth like an infectious enveloping vapor, there were many memorable bass lines…but only a palm-full of legendary bass solos. One was played by a 19 year-old out of Detroit circa `77. The song was “Reach For It” by George Duke. The bassist was Byron Miller. This solo indelibly identified the sound of Byron’s talking bass, a style that borders between a reverent sermon and woof ticket/street corner smack. Both melodic and percussive, the Byron Miller bass sound is as intoxicating as Pouilly-Fuissé wine from a brown paper sack, unimpeachably funky, instantly recognizable and clearly sourced from someone just a bit touched about the brain. No wonder legend has it that this soul brother is orbiting Earth not just as Byron Miller but also as his alien alias…Psycho Bass.
In the years P.D. (pre-Duke), Byron Miller had been a member of short-lived soul band The Counts, soul-jazz pioneers Roy Ayers Ubiquity and rock legends Santana. Then after lending his unique aura to albums, tours and studio work under Duke’s tutelage, Psycho/Byron aligned his seasoned skills with those of Herbie Hancock, the late, great Joe Sample and The Crusaders, the late, great Marvin Gaye, the late, great Whitney Houston…and 16 “so amazing” years with the late, great Luther Vandross…all the while sharing his gifts and absorbing those of the masters all around him.
In 2015, Byron Miller emerged from a 12-year recording hiatus with his finest, flawless and most fully realized album as a leader, prophetically titled Psycho Bass. That album – the fourth of his career - contains three of the last recorded performances of George Duke, special veteran guests Ndugu Chancler on drums, guitarist David T. Walker and percussionist Sheila E, as well as introduces the universe to the freshly chocolate minted fierceness of the Psycho Bass Band. Slammin’ from beginning to end, Psycho Bass is a no-skip winner.
“I had to reinvent myself,” Psycho Bass/Byron Miller explains. “The name just came to me one starry-starry night - straight outta the universe. See, uh, George’s Funk name was ‘Ooo.’ My Funk name had to be ‘Psycho Bass.’ ‘Ooo’ came from a planet baring the gift of The Funk for all earthly inhabitants to enjoy. Today, Psycho Bass is here from another planet on a mission to save The Funk –snatch it back outta the hands that would co-opt and corrupt it for false influence, and return it to its rightful place in space for inspiration and salvation.”
The lead single of Psycho Bass was “U Must Be Crazy,” a remake of a minor contemporary R&B hit from 2001 by female singer Blu Cantrell. Where Blu sang the song as an attitude blues, Byron flipped it on the positive tip, instrumentally conveying the message as “you must be crazy to think I don’t love you.” In his Amen corner here was the great David T. Walker on guitar who also graced the beautiful ballad “Eyes.” The Funk was also brought in short order on the title track “Psycho Bass,” “Psycho Management,” “Psycho Jazz Dance,” plus the groove “Apples and Oranges” featuring saxophonists Kamasi Washington and Terrace Martin. Byron also dipped into a velvet bag of Quiet Storm smoothies with the liquid mack of “Spoken Funk” and a gorgeous cover of Al Jarreau’s 1988 gemstone “Heart’s Horizon” on which Psycho/Byron plays a special acoustic bass guitar. Psychobass also featured an exquisitely decelerated and meditative take on Stevie Wonder’s 1973 classic “Higher Ground” (featuring Herman Jackson on piano and blind soul singer Ellis Hall on lead vocals). Longtime fans of Byron truly loved the playful “Oh, Really” which reunited the rhythm trinity of George, Byron and drummer Ndugu. “The Funk I play is sophisticated because I learned it at the Duke School of Music,” Byron declares.
“I started recording the first Psychobass CD in 2012. (Legendary record executive) Don Mizell wanted to sign me to Elektra Records when I was 19 – right after Reach For It in `77. I wasn’t ready and George agreed. Years later in 1990, I did my first CD, Git Wit Me for Nova Records, then I did Until, (1997) and I’ll Come By (2003) on my own – all computer records…kinda compromised. Don is the one who told me it was time for me to do a record completely being myself. When I finished Psycho Bass, I sent it to my favorite bass players – Stanley Clarke and “Ready” Freddie Washington - and they loved it. Marcus Miller said, ‘You’re not even bein’ fair, B. You’re tryin’ to change the game.’ That’s right, bobba.”