Christian McBride: Knocking on the Door

Bob Kenselaar By

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AAJ: You originally wrote a number of the compositions on the CD for smaller ensembles—like "Shake 'n' Blake" as a duet with Ron Blake and number that you recorded with Inside Straight. How would you compare the experience of writing for small groups and large ensembles?

CM: I'm starting to wonder—if I ever get the discipline—if the big band could be my main band one day. Because I'm really starting to hear layers all the time now, and when I started taking songs like "Shake 'n' Blake" and "The Shade of the Cedar Tree" and "In a Hurry" and started expanding them for big band, it seemed really natural. So I actually plan to see how far I can take this big band.

AAJ: Who are some of your influences for big band writing?

CM: Oh, everybody. Anybody who has made any music remotely connected with a big band—that's who my influences are. On the liner notes of The Good Feeling, I included a list of people, being facetious, saying "just to name a few," and it almost took up the whole page.

AAJ: Well you mention Duke Pearson in particular.

CM: Right. My arrangement of "I Should Care" is basically an arrangement of his arrangement. Duke Pearson is a big influence. I probably would have to say Oliver Nelson may be my biggest influence. I think a lot of people, even in the jazz world, are asleep about how important he was in the '60s and early '70s, not just in jazz but in the commercial world, writing for television and film. I guess he just never really had the opportunity to write the big Hollywood movie score like Quincy Jones or Lalo Schifrin did, but had he lived, I believe he would have eventually gotten there.

AAJ: About the musicians in the big band—I noticed that saxophonist Steve Wilson was counting everybody off at the beginning at the Highlights in Jazz concert.

CM: Well, the lead alto man is the man, and for me, Steve Wilson is unequivocally the man. He is probably the most focused and professional musician I've ever known. You know, he approaches every situation the same way. It could be some little small gig in a supermarket with maybe five people, or we could play in front of 15,000 people at Yankee Stadium. He approaches every gig the same exact way. And I totally respect that about him.

AAJ: And Nicholas Payton is also in the band.

CM: Yeah, it was really sweet. Nicholas and I have worked together on and off for years in a lot of different contexts, and my original intention was to just have him play on the CD. But Nicholas kind of volunteered himself. He said, "Well, if you're going to have me play on the CD, why don't you just have me do the gig?" We were going to play at Dizzy's a week before we made the recording, just so that we could kind of warm up and get everything together. So he made the gig with us at Dizzy's, and then we went straight into the studio, and you saw him again at that concert.

AAJ: He's been kind of on people's minds lately with some broad statements about jazz. Where do you stand on that?

CM: Yeah, I have pretty broad statements on jazz, too. I'm not quite sure I would come off as incendiary as he has, but, you know, I agree with him on many issues regarding what jazz is. I once said that jazz now seems to be the only kind of music where a mistake can be changed into a concept and then be applauded for it. Now, on the one hand, that could be good, because a mistake could be something like, "Wow! I didn't know that could work! Check that out!" Somebody like Herbie Hancock can get away with that. But it's almost like—if I gave you a guitar, and I said, "Here, play a tune for me." And you say to me, "But I don't play guitar—I don't know what I'm doing." I say, "Well, play it anyway." And you get up there and play the guitar, fumbling and stumbling; you're getting your fingers all in the wrong place. Jazz is the only kind of music where there's one out of five people that will listen to you and go, "Wow, he's got something there! Yeah, that's different!"

It's so easy to fool people in jazz. And you can't do that with any other style of music. You can't do it. What I love about playing with a lot of musicians in the funk and R&B world is that you can do anything you want—kind of like jazz. You can play any kind of weird chord changes. You can sing anything you want, as long as it's funky. As long as it's got some power behind the groove, you can put anything you want in there. So, I like that. When you mess around playing European classical music, even if you play something more so-called modern or cutting edge, I think even the untrained ear can tell when you're faking it. But in jazz, you can really get away with a whole lot.

AAJ: It's funny you bring that up, because at the Highlights in Jazz concert, you were introducing the song "I Should Care," and you made a joke about playing in free-jazz style. And then, during that song, when it came time for Loren Schoenberg to take his tenor sax solo, as a joke, he started out his first couple of bars sounding like Albert Ayler.

CM: Which was amazing, I thought. It was amazing because I'd never heard him do that before. I didn't even think he knew how to do that. Just the contrast of it was brilliant, I thought, for those first two bars.

AAJ: And then, when it came time for your solo—

CM: I had to do the same thing. I had to steal his idea.

AAJ: You also work with Loren at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.

CM: I've been working with Loren and the Museum now for seven years. Loren and I have a very long relationship. We first met in 1990 or '91, something like that. He was leading the American Jazz Orchestra down at Cooper Union. And he called me for a gig. I knew who he was, and he tracked me down, and we worked together. That was also the first time I played with Steve Wilson. And we did all of the music from Miles Davis and Gil Evans projects. Dick Katz played piano and Kenny Washington played drums. It was a very memorable gig. Jimmy Knepper was in the trombone section. And Loren and I always kind of loosely stayed in touch ever since, and we started working together at Jazz Aspen in the summer of 2000. I was the Artistic Director; he was the Educational Director. And we had such a nice rapport in Aspen. He had already been working with the Museum for a couple of years, and he said, "I think we need you. Come up to the Museum, and let's work together. Let's build this from the ground up." So, at that time in 2005, it was nothing like it is now. The entire museum was our back office space. But the free programs that we helped implement in those early days, kind of put the Museum on the map. "Jazz for Curious Listeners"—I did a whole month of session in that series in December—and "Jazz for Curious Readers," and particularly "Harlem Speaks," that's been a very popular program. I enjoy it. It's much, much bigger now; we have a very powerful board. We have our approval to move into a new building, and hopefully, we'll be in there by 2015—the old Mark 25 building, which is directly across the street from the Apollo Theatre. So, it's been something to watch how it's grown over the last seven years. And the same thing is happening now with Jazz House Kids.

AAJ: Yes, that's the jazz education program for young people that your wife, Melissa Walker, founded—she's the Executive Director and you're the Creative Director.

CM: Right. It seems like in the course of the last five years, it's just really exploded. Melissa's really put the pedal to the metal, and she is getting out of it what she puts into it. I always think this is a good lesson for people in general. If you really, really focus on something that you want, you can get it, if you work hard enough.

We just did our annual "Inside the Jazz Note" master class June 6 at Montclair State University, and we've the tenth anniversary gala coming up on October 17th at NJPAC—the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. Diane Reeves came in for "Inside the Jazz Note," working with the Jazz House Kids big band along with the members of Inside Straight. I always love when younger instrumentalists can hear a vocalist's point of view. In jazz, nobody ever wants to hear what the singer thinks. It's like, "You guys aren't musicians, you're just singers." But they can't do that to Diane, because they now that Diane can lay something on them. So, it was exciting to have her there, and I just love working with her anyway. She's one of the greatest singers of all time. I don't think anybody can deny that. And as far as this day and age is concerned, she may just be the greatest jazz singer on the planet.

And then, on October 17th, I'm also excited about the Jazz House Kids' tenth anniversary gala at NJPAC. My big band will be the house band, and we have some serious special guests coming in. We have Angelique Kidjo; we have Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley; we have George Duke; and we have Maurice Chestnut, the great tap dancer. And we're hoping—he's not going to play; it would be great if he did—but we're hoping we can get Wayne Shorter to come so we can give him a lifetime achievement award—have him come back to his home town. I'm really excited about that. I can't wait to see these students' faces when they hear Maceo and Fred Wesley play all that funk up close. I know they won't know what hit 'em.

AAJ: Melissa is also featured as vocalist with your big band, too.

CM: Yes. I'm always teasing her. I say, don't let Jazz House Kids let you forget why you originally got in this business in the first place. I'm glad that she has a vehicle with the big band to still sing.

AAJ: She was great on the three songs she sang at the Highlights in Jazz concert.

CM: "When I Fall in Love," "The More I See You," and "Bright Lights, Big City."

AAJ: How do you approach arranging for a singer in the big band context?

CM: Well, it's actually not that difficult because a lot of the big band stuff I love listening to is stuff with vocalists. Beyond Duke Ellington, Oliver Nelson, the Count Basie band, and all the great instrumental big band material, some of my favorite stuff is Basie with Sinatra, Nat "King" Cole with the Stan Kenton band, all of the early Ellington stuff with Ivie Anderson, and all of Ray Charles' recordings. So, I've followed that lead when it came to writing for vocalists—all those great Nelson Riddle and Ella Fitzgerald recordings. Knowing what Melissa likes and knowing what was going to be the general personality of the band, I kind of knew where to take it. And I think I've learned a lot not just from the older legendary arrangers, but also from current legends —people like Maria Schneider; John Clayton; Billy Childs, who I think is brilliant; and Gil Goldstein. They've all said one of the big early humps you hit when you're learning how to arrange is over-arranging, because you're trying a lot of different things, and you want to prove to people you can write. So you just start dumping the whole kitchen sink into the arrangement. You have to learn that there's nothing wrong with space, as a general rule. Listening particularly to those Sinatra records—I mean, such a perfect use of space. All of his arrangers had that, under Sinatra's direction, I'm sure.
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