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Cecil McBee: Masterful, And Always Equipped

R.J. DeLuke By

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I am just beginning my career. That's the way I feel in terms of what I'm doing. —Cecil McBee
Cecil McBee is one of the finest bass players on the scene, a status he's held among musicians for many years, even if the public is slower to pick up on the achievements of this 79-year-old musician extraordinaire.

A natural, he was quick to connect with musicians in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. But helping him along the road to becoming a top-flight musician was a series of encounters where people would come asking for him. They were people he didn't know, but who would boost him to the next step, the next chapter.

In each of these episodes, there was a degree of good fortune. But it was more than that. Each time someone came looking for the young Okie who could play the bass, McBee was equipped. He wasn't an advanced player when regional blues favorite Jimmy "Cry Cry" Hawkins came calling on the high school lad. But he was equipped enough to make the gig. He didn't have much experience when the strong tenor saxman Red Prysock asked for him. But he was equipped enough. He wasn't fully formed as a player when his high school music teacher told him, "Boy, get your ass to school," meaning off to college. But he was equipped.

The circumstances McBee encountered kept him on the road to a place not many people reach. He is a bassist of distinct flair, respected by others, and a fertile composer of jazz music with feeling and sophistication. He's played over the years with Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter, Charles Lloyd, Lester Bowie, Arthur Blythe, Jack DeJohnette, Joe Lovano, Ravi Coltrane and many more. These days, he is part of the superb, hard-driving septet, the Cookers, that has been making waves in the jazz world for few years now, gaining many fans along the way.

Even with all that, the good-natured and sharply perceptive McBee doesn't peer back with a retrospective view, though no one could possibly blame him if he did. Instead, McBee is alert for the next challenge. The road lies ahead. He's ready to explore more music with with the attitude of the kid in his 20s who departed for Detroit to make his bones in the jazz world, and eager to leave his mark in that world by drawing attention to his compositions and adding more to that compendium.

"It's been a great life for me," says McBee relaxing on an autumn afternoon. "Quite frankly, and I say this convincingly: I am just beginning. I am just beginning my career. That's the way I feel in terms of what I'm doing on the stage, the way I'm writing and teaching and existing in this world of music, at this level and at this point in my life. I am just beginning."

One of the things that has given McBee a jolt in recent years is the Cookers, a collection of excellent musicians, many of whom he has known and played with going back decades. It features the "younger" set of trumpeter David Weiss and saxophonist Donald Harrison, and the older veterans who have been friends, musically and otherwise, for longer: saxophonist Billy Harper, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, pianist George Cables and drummer Billy Hart. Their CD Time and Time Again (Motema Records) is one of the year's best.

"It's going great. Realistically, the popularity of the group, as I was discussing with my wife this morning at breakfast, is moving on up," he says."Wherever we are performing, people are coming out by the numbers and have proven to be very excited about what we're doing. As a person that's been around for awhile, it's truly rewarding for me to be around something like that."

The recording, "brings a lot of joy to me personally," he says, "because a lot of my music hasn't been heard over time as well as it should be." He has two compositions on the record, "Slippin' and Slidin'" and "Dance of the Invisible Nymph." McBee began writing music with frequency in the 1970s and it's something he takes pride in. "At that particular time, my music was considered a little too far out or unattainable conceptually, for what was going on at the time. That has been eventually erased and cast out. It seems that my creativity is now being heard and appreciated loud and clear."


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