Given jazz's spontaneous nature, it's often best experienced live. Jazz meccas like New York offer an additional opportunity to experience one-off events where guests sit in with a club's featured artist. For those of us living in cities where this is not such a common occurrence, albums like Live at Tonic are especially important.
Christian McBride's bread and butter is primarily mainstream jazz, as featured on nearly 300 recordings. But since A Family Affair (Verve, 1996), the bassist's own records have become more eclectic, reflecting equal interest in funk and fusion. He may swing like nobody's business, but he's just as likely to mine territory first explored by artists like Weather Report or reinvent the music of Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder.
For his first live recording, McBride's quartet settled into New York's Tonic for two nightsthe first set a collection of old and new material from McBride's repertoire, the second featuring guests invited for what amounted to seventy-minute jam sessions. Disc one of Live at Tonic is a compilation of the best performances from the two nights' first sets; discs two and three present the second sets in their entirety.
One could criticize McBride's decision to release the complete second sets. The thirty-minute funk jam "See Jam, Hear Jam, Feel Jam" on disc two, despite fine contributions by guitarist Charlie Hunter, pianist Jason Moran and violinist Jenny Scheinman, takes a long time to get going. That may be captivating live, but on record it just feels long. But more often than not McBride manages to convey the excitement and unpredictability that must have made it thrilling to be in the audience.
It's not as if there's absolutely no form. The up-tempo James Brown funk of "Out Jam/Give It Up or Turnit Loose," the Latin vibe of "Lower East Side/Rock Jam" (featuring Scheinman's lyrical solo), and a quick look at Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" that morphs into an homage to Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi period all feature some framework. Still, disc three is considerably less structured, though the facility and ears of keyboardist Geoffrey Keezer and drummer Terreon Gully maintain interest and forward motion.
Disc one's extended versions of the fiery fusion burner "Technicolor Nightmare," the lighter ambience of "Lejos de Usted," and Joe Zawinul's funky Weather Report classic "Boogie Woogie Waltz," from McBride's last studio disc, Vertical Vision (Warner Bros., 2003), sit alongside new material from McBride and his band mates. Throughout, McBride's formidable techniquewhether it be arco or pizzicato, acoustic or electric bassnever gets in the way of musicality and groove, and the same can be said for Gully, Keezer and woodwind multi-instrumentalist Ron Blake. Chops abound, but they're never superfluous.
The fusion/jamband vibe of Live at Tonic is sure to alienate those content with McBride the mainstreamer, and it might have made a more succinct single or double disc set. But by releasing nearly everything, warts and all, McBride provides the next best thing to being there, conveying the excitement and sound of surprise that can make live jazz so energizing.
Personnel: Christian McBride: acoustic and electric bass; Geoffrey Keezer: keyboards; Terreon Gully: drums; Ron Blake: tenor, baritone and soprano saxophones, flute. Guests: Charlie Hunter: guitar on CD2; Jason Moran: piano on CD2; Jenny Scheinman: violin on CD2; DJ Logic: turntables on CD3; Scratch: beatbox on CD3; Eric Krasno: guitars on CD3; Rashawn Ross: trumpet on CD3.