Christian McBride: Knocking on the Door
CM: We usually do it for the Blue Note. We did it for Jack Kleinsinger one year. We've done it at Yoshi's out in Oakland. We did it in St. LouisJazz at the Bistro. We did it in Detroit for the jazz festivalnot last year, but the year before. I definitely got to get my Ray Brown fix in.
AAJ: When did you first met Ray?
CM: The first time I met Ray Brown, Benny Green and I were together in early 1991. Benny had met him once before in the mid '80s. He and I were playing a duo gig at the Knickerbocker in the Village. Ray was working at the Blue Note. At that time, Benny and I had the same manager, and she knew Ray Brown extremely well. Mary Ann Topper is her name. She told us earlier in the evening, she said, "Ray has got to hear you guys. You guys are incredible. He's going to love you guys. You guys are coming out of the old school mode that I know he's going to love." So, she got him to come over after he finished at the Blue Note. I couldn't believe it. And knowing what I know now about being on the road, usually, once you've played a long gig, the last thing you want to do is go hear more music. You just want to go somewhere where it's quiet, have a drink, and cool out. But he came and heard us. He heard our last three songs, maybe. And he was so kind. We could see he was a little tired, because he'd been working all night. But he gave us some words of encouragement. He was really sweet. He invited us down to the Blue Note for his final night, which was the next night. And I will never forget this as long as I live. He acknowledged us over the microphone. He said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I want to introduce to you these two young men I heard last night, and for only two guys, they were swinging like dogs." I had never heard that phrase before, so I started laughing my head off. Swinging like dogs?!
AAJ: How long had you been in New York at that point?
CM: About a year. A year and change. A year-and-a-half, because I moved in the summer of '89.
AAJ: Tell me about your work with Ray Brown.
CM: Super Bass! Ray put together a group with myself and John Clayton. We were his appointed children. And we did Super Bass (Telarc, 1997) 1 and [Super Bass, Vol.] 2 (Telarc, 2001). Super Bass 1 we recorded in Boston in 1996. Super Bass [Vol. ]2 we recorded in 2000 at the Blue Note.
AAJ: Have you had any thought about doing a project with three basses yourself?
CM: No. I have a hard time believing I could ever do that again after playing with John and Ray. If I did do something like that, it would have to be radically different from what we did with Super Bass. I would have to get together with William Parker and Mark Dresser, which I would love, toodo something different.
But in terms of the style of what we did with Super Bass, I don't think I could do that again. As a matter of fact, we tried playing this was funnyright after Ray Brown died, we did one of those Ray Brown tributes at the Blue Note. I think Benny Green was on itBenny Green and Gregory Hutchinson. John and I tried to play the Super Bass material without Ray. I remember Milt Jackson's wife Sandy and their daughter Chyrise were in the audience, and after we finished the set, I remember Sandy came over and she said, "I've got to talk to you. Don't play that Super Bass stuff." She said, "You guys need Ray. Don't do that anymore." I said, "Yes ma'am."
AAJ: You mentioned playing Ray Brown's bass for the Monty Alexander gig. What other basses do you play?
CM: I have Ray's bass, and then I have my regular bass, which I've been traveling with now for almost twenty years, which is actually in the shop right now getting overhauledjust a hundred thousand mile checkup. The one that I usually use is a German bass, built in 1920estimated 1920. Ray's bass was actually built in the Philippines, I believe. That bass was actually built, I believe, like, in the '80s. So, it's not an old bass, but it's a good bass. I've only had the bass for, I guess, two years now, and I don't get to use it quite that often. I'm going to have to take it to David Gage's shop in the Village to check it out and get the specs on it.
AAJ: You have a very distinctive, personal sound in your playing.
CM: A lot of musicians always say, these are your instruments: your hands, your lips, your breath. That's your instrument. Surely, if you have to change instruments every night, you might sound a shade different from night to night. But look at somebody like Oscar Peterson. He had to play a different piano every night. It's not like he traveled with a piano in the back of the station wagon. He still sounded like Oscar Peterson.
AAJ: How is it that you've developed your soundso fat and full, getting everything out of the instrument? There are other bass players out theresome great masters, toowhere you hear more of an emphasis on the string.
CM: When I first moved into town, it was during an eraa kind of "back to the future" era, where a lot of acoustic bass players were playing with no amplifier. We were trying to learn how to develop our sound with just the instrument, instead of using the amp as a copout. But then, some of us started taking it a little bit too far, started raising the strings way too high, and it became like a testosterone fest. How far can you move the mike away from your bass and still be heard? How high can you get your strings up without your fingers bleeding? It turned into some real dumb, "man" stuff for a little while.
But I think that actually helped me a little bit, because I was able to learn how to set my instrument up to where I was still able to get a good chunk of flesh into the string, but not kill myself and still be heard. And the greatest thing was being around Ray Brown. You know, who had a bigger sound than Ray Brown? I got a chance to hear him up close so many times and could hear that. Even though he used an amp, very little of the sound was coming from the amp. The amp was just a little tiny shadow to outline the natural sound. And I think that's what amplifiers should be for. Particularly if you're playing small group improvisational music where it should be organic sounding, natural sounding.