Philadelphia native Christian McBride stands among contemporary music's heaviest musicians. That's no reflection of McBride's physical stature, or even of his cavernous speaking voice. It is descriptive of his powerful, profoundly resonant voice on acoustic and electric bass. It almost certainly applies to his formidable body of work, which includes seven albums as a leader and session work with legends inside (Jimmy Smith, McCoy Tyner) and outside (Kathleen Battle, Sting) the world of jazz, all of which seems to have singularly prepared McBride to assume the mantle of "the jazz bassist so graciously worn by Ron Carter for the past five decades.
"Heavy sure as hell describes McBride's latest release, three discs recorded Live at Tonic that document McBride's two-night, 2005 engagement at one of NYC's most famously experimental musical venues.
The first set each night presented McBride's working quartet with Terreon Gully (drums), Ron Blake (tenor and soprano saxophone, flute) and Geoffrey Keezer (piano and keyboards) working out their regular repertoire; the best takes from the two first sets comprise this first CD. These featured tracks from McBride's most recent studio release, Vertical Vision, such as the roaring jazz-rock "Technicolor Nightmare and Joe Zawinul's enduring "Boogie Woogie Waltz, plus the quietly soulful ballad "Sitting on a Cloud, from Gettin' To It, McBride's 1994 debut as a leader.
This first CD also captures four previously unrecorded tunes, including the bassist's tribute to late comedian Flip Wilson ("Clerow's Flipped, as saucy and bold as Wilson's female alter-ego, Geraldine) and Blake's on-time title "Sonic Tonic, an exercise for working out the band's considerable soul-jazz chops.
For the second set each night, McBride opened up his company to guest musicians for collective improvisations. Disc two comes from the first night with Charlie Hunter (guitar), Jason Moran (piano) and Jenny Schienman (violin) and pays tribute to two primary influences on bassist McBride: James Brown ("Give it Up or Turnit Loose, including the requisite drum breakdown/beatdown) and Miles Davis (an interpretation of Davis' jazz-rock fusion landmark Bitches Brew, with Blake blowing overtones of Wayne Shorter on his soprano sax).
The second night's second set is captured on disc three, a tumultuous party hosted by the McBride quartet for DJ Logic (turntables), Scratch (formerly of The Roots, on beatbox), Eric Krasno (of Soulive, on guitar) and Rashawn Ross (trumpet). It begins with McBride, Gully and Krasno operating as an impossibly deft, three-headed single-engine rhythm machine, which jackhammers open a heavy groove that McBride's electric bass keeps pumping for more than thirty minutes! After McBride introduces Ross as "one of the funkiest trumpet players on the scene today, pouring molten musical lava from his hot trumpet, Ross shows him right; Ross blows the stuffings out of the fourth and final number on this third disc, too. McBride, his bandmates and his guests, all join together to embody the simple, profound joy, the love (no less than this romantic word will do) of spontaneous, interactive creationthe joy of jamming.
"The second CD was very experimental yet very much a jazz performance whereas the third CD was pretty much an all-out party, McBride suggests.
From McBride's jazz roots, Live at Tonic blossoms into funk, hip-hop, jungle and other music, too. Thick, deep and heavy, it is one package that should be sold by weight and by volume. Upon the release of this album, McBride discussed Philly soul, Allen Iverson, Fred Sanford and the joy of jam.
AAJ: What makes an eight-year-old boy growing up in Philly pick up an electric bass? Why didn't you just quit after a few years of lessons, like so many kids do?
Christian McBride: Actually, I was nine when I picked up the electric bass. I feel very lucky in that as soon as I picked up the electric bass, I pretty much knew that that was what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life. It felt very natural. It just felt very comfortable. You know, my father plays bass and so my initial inspiration came from watching him play. And once I got the instrument and started playing around on it, kind of getting accustomed to the feel of it, it just felt more and more natural. So I knew that that's what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life. Then once I got to junior high school and had to play in the orchestra, that's when I started playing the acoustic bass. And that felt just as natural. So I feel lucky that I "found my thing early in life.
AAJ: The first song you ever learned was "Papa Was a Rolling Stone ? Were you more of a Motown Soul guy or a Stax soul guy in your formative days?
CM: I probably would say that our household leaned a little bit more toward Motown, probably by a two-to-one ratio.