A Fireside Chat With Christian McBride

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...he said, 'You know what is great about your band, Chris? I can't tell whose band it is.' That is actually the biggest compliment that I could get.
Christian McBride is the most recorded bassist of his generation. That should say something of the value of having a Christian McBride on a record. But mostly, it says something about his versatility. Is he the Macgyver of jazz? Come to your own conclusions after this conversation with Christian McBride, coming to a town near you, unedited and in his own words.

Fred Jung: Let's start from the beginning.

Christian McBride: My father plays bass and my great uncle plays bass, so it was pretty obvious from the get that I was going to be a bassist too.

FJ: Not the easiest traveling companion.

CM: I always had one of my teachers who had a station wagon lug me around.

FJ: How have you developed since your last Verve record and Vertical Vision ?

CM: I think for starters, I have a better band. The guys that I have playing in my band now, with Geoffrey Keezer and Terreon Gully and Ron Blake. Ron has been there for a while, but Geoffrey and Terreon joined just a little over two years ago. They brought such a new air of excitement and daring to the group. I think that is by far what separates this CD from the last two CDs I did for Verve, which were also band CDs.

This was the first band I had where there is absolutely no musical tension from anyone in the group. Everybody loves to try different things. No idea is too crazy for these guys, which is just the kind of musicians I have always wanted.

First of all, the concept for this record was to just capture the band energy. I didn't really have a serious, drawn out, deep musical concept that I wanted to go with. The CD was merely to capture the band's energy. If you listen to "Technicolor Nightmare" or "The Ballad of Little Girl Dancer" or "Boogie Woogie Waltz," I would like to think it gets pretty intense at times and that would not have happened with any of my last two bands.

FJ: Over the last few years, very few bass players have been documented both as a leader and a sideman.

CM: I have never really had a period where I did one thing more than another, particularly in the last couple of years. I have never had a one year stretch where I only did bandleading or I only did sideman. I think the fact that I have been able to juggle both things pretty evenly, particularly being sideman, it helps me keep my bandleading focused in order.

It is always good to step in someone else's space and check out how they run the band and you can take in little bits and pieces. I will check out how Sting runs his ship or how Roy Haynes or Chick Corea run their ship. I will learn a lot from some guys who are a little more direct and some guys are a little more strict and some guys are a little more loose. I am learning a little bit from everybody.

I think the biggest thing I have learned is great bandleaders let guys in their band be themselves. What good is it to hire a really great pianist or great saxophonist if you are going to order him around and tell him what to play all the time? Then you don't really get the energy that made you want to hire that person.

I have been in situations where some guys will hire somebody and they say that they want you to do this and do that and they end up sounding just like the guy that they fired. There is no change. I think Miles proved that. He was the greatest bandleader of all time because he let guys be who they were. He gave just enough instruction that he got what he wanted out of them, but they didn't lose their own identity. And that is the key to being a great bandleader.

I think the biggest compliment that I have ever gotten is that we just got back from Europe just yesterday and Gary Burton was opening for us and this was the first time that Gary had heard the band and he said, "You know what is great about your band, Chris? I can't tell whose band it is." That is actually the biggest compliment that I could get.

FJ: We live in a time when technology allows communication on levels unimagined a decade ago. How have you utilized the advancements in communication to reach out to your audience?

CM: I have certainly been one for direct communication with the listener. Certainly, with the age of the internet, I try my very best to keep my website up and running and current and try to make it very user friendly. I think my website has been one of the more successful ones of most jazz artists. I am really surprised that more jazz artists don't have websites, especially now. It is really not that big a deal to have a website. Everybody has got them. That is the one thing. I try to keep my website pretty happening.

Secondly, when I am in certain cities and when I am on the road, you have record companies that set up and take you out to retail places so that you meet the owner and shake hands. All these years, I met a lot of people and friends so not only do I try to go to the big retail shops, but I try to go to a lot of the mom and pop stores too.

Mom and pop stores are almost non-existent in this day and age. They're not as important as they once were. I think that is because corporate America has taken such a chokehold with all these record companies, they forgot about the mom and pop stores that are in the community. So I try to reach out to those people directly.

FJ: You mentioned the website, where you feature a diary.

CM: It does get a little dicey sometimes because I will meet people who think they know me and I am like, "Hey, wait a minute. Back up." For example, you used to be able to email me at my website, but I had to take that down fast because some of the emails that came through were marriage proposals, girls sending pictures.

One guy sent me an email saying if I thought it was righteous that I wear so many sporting uniforms. What does the essence of sports have to do with Paul Chambers?

FJ: That guy is taking life a bit too seriously.

CM: Every now and then, I got emails like that, so I pulled that down quick. But now, they just go on the message board. Certainly, with the new CD coming out, there have been hits coming left and right on the website. It has really been good most of the time. I really have to be careful how much of myself I expose on the website. I don't want to give everything away.

FJ: Being associated with a major label is a blessing hidden in a great deal of angst.

CM: Well, I think the good part about me doing what I have always wanted to do, how I wanted to do it on all my CDs, is that I am in the position now that what people expect from me is the unexpected.

Nobody knows where I am going next and I like it like that. I could go to the right. I could go and do a real traditional, straight-ahead album. I could do that at any moment. I could put the acoustic bass down all together. That is unlikely, but it is possible, and do an all electric bass album. I could do a solo bass album. I got a lot of influences in which to draw from and I don't think anybody has been able to predict where I am going next.

Of course, the flipside of that, musically, that is great, but commercially, it doesn't really ring a great bell with most people in the office. I think the sad part about my last days at Verve was that they made it very clear that they were going to change their focus. Not only me, but there were a lot of great artists, Nicholas Payton, Russell Malone, Eric Reed, a lot of guys suffered the burden of the corporate choke as I referred to earlier.

You are going to pay a price either way you go. If you try to appease the brass, you could easily get a really big hit that you hate, but you have to perform that the rest of your life or you can make the music you want to make and not have a big company to push your music. Either way you go, you have your pros and cons. I would rather go to my grave happy with the kind of music that I make.

FJ: Now that you are on the Warner Bros. label, I know some A&R guy has pitched a Joshua Redman, Chris McBride, Brad Mehldau reunion.

CM: Of course, but if I was still on Verve, it would be a Mark Whitfield, Nicholas Payton reunion. If I were on Telarc, it would be a Benny Green, Russell Malone reunion. Anyway you go, you will have an all-star setting. They are always going to throw their artists together to do more all-star records.

As far as Joshua's group is concerned, who knows. Mehldau is already well established as a leader now as well as Brian Blade. Brian Blade is doing so much stuff, I would like to bet money if anybody could get him for a recording session in the next two years. We will see what happens.

FJ: By your own admission, you are boundless by category, which allows for a great deal of misconceptions and preconceived biases, particularly on your new record.

CM: Right, which has been going on really badly with this new CD. I think the biggest misconception about this entire CD is every marketing position needs an angle in which to sell the CD and I think with a lot of the stories that have been written, the angle is that Christian McBride is no longer an acoustic, straight-ahead, young lion. He has turned his back on straight-ahead jazz and that is really the most wrong thing anybody can say.

We are very much a jazz group. We still play a lot of straight-ahead. The acoustic bass is still very much the central nervous system of everything that I do in this band. I don't want people to read any of these articles and think that I don't play jazz anymore.

We're still playing jazz, but we don't play it as we did five or six years ago. We have more rhythms. We have more textures. We have more layers going on.

That's probably the main angle that I want to try and squash. I don't want people to think that I have suddenly put the acoustic bass down and don't like swing rhythms anymore. That is probably the biggest one.

FJ: You are playing what you know.


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