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Christian McBride Band at Chicago Symphony Center

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Christian McBride Band
Symphony Center, Chicago
May 12, 2006
It couldn't be done. There was no way that bassist/bandleader Christian McBride could be as tautly, thrillingly funky in the august setting of Chicago's Symphony Hall as he was last year in New York's tiny, olfactorily dubious Tonic nightclub. I wasn't at McBride's two-night, January 2005 stand at Tonic, but the sonic evidence of those evenings is available on the new three-CD Ropeadope Live at Tonic album, and it's persuasive evidence indeed—very few live recordings manage to convey so much of the immediacy and excitement of live performance as this one does.
But Tonic is tiny. Symphony Center is not only much larger, but considerably more staid. Certainly, there's no dancing; patrons are expected to stay in their seats. That said, on this Friday evening, McBride and his band of drummer Terreon Gully, keyboardist Geoffrey Keezer and saxman/flutist Ron Blake rendered any preconceived notion of venue irrelevant. If you couldn't smell the sweat, you could feel the seats vibrate as the group played their particular style of impeccably played, churningly funky jam-band jazz—a style of music I'm hereby dubbing "jazz'm.
The band started the set with an effortlessly swinging take on McBride's composition "EGAD, an older tune from the leader's 1996 Number Two Express CD. The song began with an unaccompanied acoustic bass intro from McBride that made me mouth the same words I utter every time I hear him play: "man, that guy's got great intonation. He's got a good deal more than that, though, and his fast, rockist runs led into the tune itself, which featured some characteristically doubled piano/electric keys from Keezer (his Moog simulating a Hammond sound here and a hundred or so other sounds elsewhere in the set) and a blues-soaked tenor solo from Blake over airtight bass and drums.

"Lejos de Usted started with Keezer playing rich, flowering piano lines against McBride's winnowing, fractal bass lines; when Blake added his flute to the mix, it was sheer jamband ecstasy—or the second coming of the 1960s Charles Lloyd Quartet, which amounts to the same thing. Gully's the perfect drummer for this group—he doesn't play with a tremendous amount of dynamics, but his volume and power produce a perpetually exciting and grooving rhythmic bed that, coupled with McBride's own autonomous bass work, is irresistable, and on "Lejos de Usted, hot enough to elicit some spontaneous yelps from the head-bobbing crowd. McBride alternated bop phrases with limber walking bass on the up-tempo, hard-jazz "Clerow's Flipped to stunning effect, and Keezer's "organ comp on the same song—alongside Blake's tenor solo—was warmly sly and ultimately as invigorating as the indefatiguable Gully's own kit work.

McBride pulled out his electric fretless bass for a cover of Jaco Pastorius' "Havona —and if "Lejos de Usted evoked the Charles Lloyd Quartet, "Havona brought the gleeful ghosts of Weather Report onto the stage, as Blake played the Wayne Shorter role on soprano sax over Keezer's wonderfully Joe Zawinul-esque electric keyboards. McBride's rumbling, oozing bass lines over Gully's nervous, dancing cymbals and Keezer's keys led to the band repeating the tune's final two-note ascending vamp as Gully soloed violently across the static phrase—heavenly. "Was Jaco ever that good? a man near me whispered to his companion. Well, maybe—no better, though.

Live at Tonic is packed with musical guests like guitarist Charlie Hunter, pianist Jason Moran and turntablist DJ Logic, and this show continued the jazz'm tradition of show-as-guest-packed-party as McBride introduced the aforementioned Logic, whose whooshing turntable intro blended with Gully's malleted cymbals, McBride's electric bass runs and Keezer's synth sounds to create an improvised sci-fi jam not unlike a Grateful Dead "space interlude circa 1989. Violinist Regina Carter then joined the collective for some crowd-pleasing fiddle-shredding that morphed into an a cappella hoedown before the group settled into a thick, merciless groove—a perfect moment for trombonist Fred Wesley to wander onstage to join in with a pure-funk solo as Blake danced gleefully alongside him. Eventually McBride (by now back on acoustic) brought the number to a close with an arco solo that playfully quoted themes from television series like "Law & Order and "The Jeffersons (or was it "Sanford and Son? Fun was interfering with my note-taking).

Things got a tad more structured with a run through Ray Brown's "FSR (with a tough, jagged Carter solo that quoted "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair and some crowd-yelp-inspiring traded eights between McBride and Logic) and the excruciating electric pulse of Blake's "Sonic Tonic (the composer wailing on tenor over a tight-locked McBride and a comparatively stripped-down Gully). McBride's unerring intonation and carnivorous rhythmic attack on "Sonic Tonic accomplished something I've never heard another bassist do, something that's much harder than you'd think: he made his fretless electric bass sound like a standard fretted bass guitar—a mean one.

Despite the throng of players onstage, the music was never sonically cluttered—there was plenty of laying out and plenty of room between the notes. The set ended with McBride running the group through a handful of James Brown riffs (former JB player Wesley having no trouble with these, as he probably had an uncredited hand in writing at least some of them).

The show was over. The lights were up. Half the crowd left. But astonishingly, half the audience stayed, and simply refused to leave. Eventually the lights went back out and the band came out to do another number. This couldn't be Symphony Hall, could it? In any case, it was that rarest of live-music occurences: a spontaneous, unplanned encore.

I couldn't tell you what tune the band played, however—I was awfully busy dancing in the aisles to the best jazz'm band on earth.

Photo Credit
Mark Sheldon

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