Christian McBride: Knocking on the Door

Bob Kenselaar By

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Christian McBride was talking about the Grammy he received in October, 2011 for his big band album, The Good Feeling (Mack Avenue, 2011)—his first Grammy as a leader and third overall. While the bassist certainly appreciated getting the nod from his peers and from the Recording Academy, he said he gets just as much of a reward—if not more of one—when he gets calls from musicians he admires asking him to work with them because they like what he does. For example, Ron Carter contacted him recently asking him to put together an arrangement of "Mr. Bow Tie," written in honor of fellow bassist's father, and play it with an ensemble of 12 bassists for "Ron Carter at 75," a tribute concert at Lincoln Center held in March, 2012. Carter could have asked any number of musicians to write that arrangement, but he specifically wanted McBride to do it, and that meant a lot to the younger bassist. "Ron is a tower. He is a pillar—a pillar of greatness."

Suggesting that the same could be said about McBride himself, he answered with a big laugh, "Nawh. Well, I'm knocking on the door and asking to be let in."

Ask anyone who has been following McBride's career over the last 20-plus years, and you're certain to come away thinking that that McBride has already pulled open that door to greatness—sheared it right off its hinges—quite a long time ago. He's renowned for his astounding technique, brilliantly inventive solos, telepathic sensitivity as an accompanist, impeccable time and swing, and the full, rich, powerful sound he gets from his bass. He is deeply steeped in the great traditions of jazz and, at the same time, shows influences from R&B, fusion, and funk—a protégé of the iconic jazz bassist Ray Brown who also reveres the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.

Since his arrival in New York in 1989 from his hometown of Philadelphia, the bassist has played with a host of jazz masters, starting with a stint in saxophonist Bobby Watson's band just two weeks into McBride's first semester at Juilliard. Before long, he signed up with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, touring with him for over two years. Another especially important early gig for McBride was with Ray Brown's Super Bass, working alongside Brown and John Clayton in the unusual setting of a three-bass trio. Over the years, he's played with saxophonist Sonny Rollins, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, pianists McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, and guitarist Pat Metheny, among many others. And he's worked with a wide spectrum of collaborators outside of jazz, including Isaac Hayes, Natalie Cole, James Brown, Sting, Carly Simon, the Shanghai Quartet, and Kathleen Battle.

McBride recorded his first album as a leader, Getting' to It (Verve), in 1995, when he was 22 years old, and he has long led his own bands. Inside Straight, the quintet he formed in 2008, has met with enormous success and continues to tour widely. In addition to fronting the Christian McBride Big Band, he also leads a trio, working with pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr.. Along with The Good Feeling, he had another CD release in 2011, Conversations with Christian (Mack Avenue), a star-studded collection of duet recordings. And beyond his nearly constant touring, active recording schedule, composing and arranging, he's busy as an educator and advocate for jazz. He's Artistic Advisor for the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, has hosted his own radio show on Sirius XM, coordinated jazz programming with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, been the Creative Director of the educational organization Jazz House Kids for the last ten years—and that's just a sampling of his many activities.

All About Jazz: You finished up a tour of Europe with your trio recently. How did it go?

Christian McBride: It wasn't a long tour—it just felt long. The travel was really intense. Every day was two modes of transportation or more—either two planes and a train, or a plane and a train and a drive. It was really back breaking every day. We played every night. We went to Europe on April 22nd from St. Louis—I had a gig with my big band there—and I took my trio to Europe straight from St. Louis. And we played, I believe, six or seven straight dates. Then, I flew back to New York to play at the International Day of Jazz concert at the U.N. All in all I was home for three days and then flew back to Europe to finish the rest of the tour. And we finished by playing six straight dates. My manager called me last night; he said, hey a last minute offer came in for you to play—before he finished the sentence, I said, "no." "But I haven't told you..." I said, "I don't want to know what it is. I am not going anywhere for a couple of weeks."

AAJ: Your CD, The Good Feeling won the Grammy for the big band category. How did that feel? What was it like at the ceremony?

CM: It feels nice to win a Grammy. You know, there are so many great musicians out there who haven't won Grammys that have deserved them. I'm very happy about it, but I'm not the kind of guy who thinks "now I'm a star!" The ceremony was great. They do about 85 percent of the awards before the telecast. I think they give out over 60 awards during the morning and then in the afternoon. When they do the televised portion, that's just basically a concert, and they give out not much more than a handful of awards.

It was great sitting there with Melissa. She screamed and gave me a big, wet kiss when they called my name. We were with all the guys from Mack Avenue Records. For the award that was announced before the big band category—Chick Corea won. So, Chick and Stanley Clarke were on the stage, and they were walking off when the big band category came up. And it was really sweet when all of Chick's family stood up and applauded—because I know those guys so well—and that was a big thrill. I went up on stage and made my little speech and then went back stage, and they took all these pictures. Terri Lyne Carrington was there; she won also. So, it was a big thrill. And then they had some press person scoop me up and take me to four or five different press rooms and talk to reporters and get pictures taken. It was a whirlwind.

AAJ: You brought the big band to New York in May for the Highlights in Jazz series at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center—a fabulous show.

CM: Thank you! If only you knew what was happening before that concert! The music for the band didn't show up until the last minute. Man, I thought I was going to commit suicide!

AAJ: But it came off perfectly, from where I was sitting.

CM: Thank you. That was just the second show we played since the Grammy, but we have a nice chunk of work coming up the month of June and July, so I'm excited. We're going to L.A. to play the Playboy Jazz Festival. We're doing the San Francisco Jazz Festival. We're doing the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival in Wilmington, Delaware. And then we're going to play for four nights at Dizzy's Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center in July. So, I figured an engagement like Dizzy's—that's the perfect opportunity to start breaking in some new material, maybe start putting together some small pieces for the next recording. You know, because you don't want to keep repeating the same stuff night after night after night. So, I'm looking forward to that week at Dizzy's so I can work out some of these new charts. We start July 12th and go through the 15th.

AAJ: At the Highlights in Jazz concert, you had another bassist with you, Ben Williams, featured on your tune "In a Hurry," a real up-tempo flag-waver that had the two of you trading solo choruses—a great finale.

CM: Thank you. I like doing that with Ben. I figure that, to me, Ben Williams is one of the new, young, important musicians to come on the scene. And I really like the way he plays. So, I figured this was a good situation to make him like he could grow and put a little extra heat on him—like Ray Brown and Ray Drummond and all those guys did to me.

AAJ: He was with you also at Ron Carter tribute concert at Alice Tully Hall in March, "Ron Carter at 75." You arranged a piece for a large bass ensemble there—what was that like?

CM: Yes, a piece for 12 bass players. I really wish I could have stayed for the rest of evening, but that was the night that Inside Straight opened at Birdland, so I played that one song with the 12 basses, which was the opening number of the concert, and then I had to get out of there. So I missed the whole concert. I saw a little bit of the rehearsal. I was flattered that I was asked to write the arrangement. Buster Williams was there—anybody could have written that arrangement. And Ron had a specific request that I arrange "Mister Bow Tie," which was a song that he had written for his father. Then I went to listen closely to the tune and I thought, man, that's going to be hard to arrange for 12 bassists—how am I going to do that? But when Ron Carter has a special request, you go out of your way to accommodate him. So, I came up with what you heard and saw that night, and I got a very nice email from Ron a couple of days later thanking me for the arrangement—big thrill...

AAJ: You've done quite a lot of writing over the years—including all the arrangements on the big band CD. How did you get started writing for big band?

CM: I got a commission from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to write a piece for them. They were doing a concert centered around songs of New York, and Wynton Marsalis asked me and a couple of other different musicians to write something about New York. I told Wynton, "Man, I've never written for big band before." I said I wanted to, and it was on my list of things to learn how to do, but I didn't know if I'm ready quite yet. He said, "I'm sure you'll get it together." So, he really forced me into writing for big band a little earlier than I had expected. I always loved big bands. I always admired anybody who could sit down and orchestrate for that many horns. And that's how "Bluesin' in Alphabet City" happened. After that concert, here and there over the course of the next 15 years I had some different writing projects—little things under the radar. The next thing I knew, I had built up all this material for the big band. And, in the process, I'd like to think that I had gotten better and much quicker at writing for big band. So, I thought, now seems to be the perfect time to go ahead and record it.
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