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Christian McBride: Here Comes McBride


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"We're having a funky good time," bassist Christian McBride proudly announces with a characteristic broad smile—his voice joyous and resonant, as deep and dark as the sound of his instrument. Standing in his honored place, rear and center on the bandstand of the Village Vanguard, McBride has good reason for his unabashed expression of delight. He's celebrating the release of his latest CD, the excellent Kind of Brown (Mack Avenue), with a weeklong engagement leading his new hard swinging acoustic quintet, Inside Straight, at the fabled jazz mecca, affording him not just the opportunity to indulge himself in his favorite pastime—playing his own beloved upright bass—but also a most welcome respite from his hectic touring schedule as one of the world's busiest musicians.

McBride is much more than the first-call bassist on both the jazz and pop music scenes. His impressive resumé ranges from early stints with Bobby Watson, Roy Hargrove and Joshua Redman on to appearances with nearly every jazz giant of his era—Freddie Hubbard, Ray Brown, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner, among the many. He's also worked with popular artists such as Queen Latifah, Regina Belle, Michael Bublé, Linda Ronstadt and Joss Stone and played hiphop with the Roots, featuring his Philly contemporary ?uestlove. But it is jazz that remains at the center of his expanding universe, not just as a player, but also as a dedicated educator and high profile administrator, work that is commendable considering the demands these 'extramusical' duties make on his tightly stretched timetable.

Since his first days in 2000 as Artistic Director of Jazz Aspen, the not-for-profit organization whose mission is to present and preserve jazz, McBride has continually devoted time to educating young musicians and the general public about the music. "The reason why I do it," he explains, "is because when I was in high school, growing up in Philly, there were so many cats who took time out of their busy schedules to come and do workshops. Guys like Kenny Barron and the Heath Brothers, Wynton, Branford [Marsalis], they were always coming to Philly. Bobby Watson. I think that had a direct result on my wanting to be a jazz musician and that's why I always promised that if I was ever in that same position to do some workshops or teach that I would do it."

It was at Jazz Aspen that McBride began his working relationship with the saxophonist and scholar Loren Schoenberg, his co-director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. He explains, "In 2001, Jim Horowitz, the CEO of Jazz Aspen, thought maybe we should bring in an educational director; have an artistic director and an educational director. He asked, 'What do you think about Loren?' And I said, 'Sure, Loren would be great. He's really good at managing that kind of stuff.' So Loren came on board at Jazz Aspen and after working together every summer for a couple of years, he said to me, 'I just started working with the Jazz Museum in Harlem. Would you be interested in working with me up there?' And I said, 'Yeah, sure!'" And that's kind of how that happened."

"The main thing about Christian's talents, his many talents, is that they all flow from his personality," Schoenberg says. "The bass playing that we love, no matter what context that it's in, really just flows from his wonderful personality. He's one of the best people people that I've ever met. He knows how to deal with everybody and his role at the museum is really kind of tailored, hopefully like a fine suit, around these abilities. He's on the road most of the time, so he's kind of morphed into our traveling ambassador, but when he's in town he's there, conducting interviews, teaching classes." In December, during his time 'off' from the road he'll be featured in a Christian McBride Month at the museum. "He's so modest that usually he wants to talk about someone else or interview someone else, but this particular time we're devoting four weeks to him," explains Schoenberg. The bassist will be conducting the museum's regular Tuesday night Jazz For Curious Listeners sessions, including evenings devoted to the bass, film clips featuring him with different artists, the music of his various bands and a night of playing his favorite recordings. "That'll be fun," he says.

McBride has also enjoyed his soon-to-be-completed tenure as Creative Chair for Jazz with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. "It's been a fantastic four-year run. It's really been a dream gig," the bassist beams. "I get into a think tank and dream about projects I'd like to put together and I would say that the majority of the stuff I was able to dream actually happened, like working with James Brown. We did the Mingus Epitaph. We did a big tribute to Horace Silver, which I think was one of his last public appearances. We did a big tribute to Ray Brown. We had a Miles Davis-Gil Evans tribute night, where we had Terence [Blanchard] and Nicholas [Payton] play and Miles Evans [Gil's son], too. Vince Mendoza conducted the members of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. So it's been a fantastic run doing all of that kind of stuff out there. I even wound up being Queen Latifah's musical director for the summer. When she put out her second jazz album, we had her play at the Hollywood Bowl and since she was, as she put it, 'just a baby at this jazz stuff,' she had me be her music director for the whole summer."

In the beginning of the year to come McBride will be concentrating on touring with Inside Straight. The group, whose name was chosen from audience contest submissions at a performance by the band at the 2008 Monterey Jazz Festival, succeeds the leader's eclectic ensemble, the Christian McBride Band (CMB), which he describes stylistically as "an 'all in' band—you know kind of a little bit of everything." Of the new unit he says, "I just felt that after nine years with CMB I wanted to do something that was a little more clearly straight-ahead, more focused in dealing with one hundred percent acoustic music and coming out of the tradition." The band's debut recording, Kind of Brown, features saxophonist Steve Wilson, pianist Eric Reed, drummer Carl Allen and the phenomenal young vibraphonist Warren Wolf.

"The whole band sort of centers around him," McBride says proudly of the youthful mallet man, who he first met when Wolf was a 20-year-old student at Jazz Aspen. "He played like that back then," the bassist exclaims. "He knew all of my music. He had all of my CDs up unto that point and he knew almost every song off of those CDs so I thought, 'Man, this guy is serious!' I told him then that one of these days we would play together. That it might take a little while, but I'm going to make sure that you and I get to play together on a regular basis. So some years later, when we played the Vanguard, I called Warren and he's been the mainstay of the band ever since."

"Playing with Christian has always been one of my biggest dreams," Wolf says. "From the first time that I ever heard him, which was on an Antonio Hart record called [ironically] For The First Time and then from his first record called Gettin' To It. I've always admired what he does on the bass because he is a true monster. His timing, his rhythm and the way he walks. The basslines he walks, as far as choice of notes. He's always there. Plus it's very technical. He gets around the upright bass kind of similar to the way that most electric bass players play. And he is a wonderful electric bassist, too. You know he's very exciting. He puts on a good show—always making the crowd have a good time."

Wolf is certainly right about McBride always putting on a good show. For the week at the Vanguard, with pianist Peter Martin replacing Eric Reed, he had audiences whooping and hollering wildly at his continuous feats of technical wizardry, with a steady stream of his colleagues coming through each night to admire the intense swinging music. The bassist's humorous side was particularly well displayed on the last night of the Vanguard gig. He joked about being conflicted because Sunday night at the Vanguard is always a lot of fun because it's the night that traditionally the most musicians come out, but that since they don't pay to get in, it cuts into the band's bread, getting a big laugh from the packed house that included a slew of players.

McBride's next recording for Mack Avenue will document a major project by the bassist. "I wrote this piece call 'The Movement Revisited,' which is for gospel choir, big band and four narrators," he says. "It's basically music that I put to the words of Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, Jr. We played it at Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA last year and we're going to record it live at the Second Ebenezer Baptist Church in Detroit in February. When I first wrote it, which was ten years ago, we did full gospel choir and just a quartet. When I started working with the LA Philharmonic, I was able to rewrite it for a big band and gospel choir. And we had four actors come in and recite the words—Wendell Pierce did Martin Luther King, Loretta Devine read Rosa Parks, Carl Lumley read Malcolm X and James Avery read Ali." A work of such cultural significance is exactly what one could expect from a man whose dedication to the music extends beyond his own remarkable playing.

Recommended Listening:

Joe Henderson—Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn (Verve, 1991)

Christian McBride—Gettin' To It (Verve, 1994)

Christian McBride—Number Two Express (Verve, 1995)

Christian McBride/Nicholas Payton/Mark Whitfield—Fingerpainting: The Music of Herbie Hancock (Verve, 1997)

Ray Brown/John Clayton/Christian McBride—Super Bass 2 (Telarc, 2000)

Christian McBride & Inside Straight—Kind of Brown (Mack Avenue, 2008)

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