Christian McBride: Knocking on the Door

Bob Kenselaar By

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AAJ: Another key member of the big band is Ulysses Owens, Jr.

CM: The drummer is the bassist's best friend in any band, in any genre. If the bass and drums are not one instrument, then the entire band will suffer. So, in starting any band, really, I start from the drums. When I knew I wanted to put together a big band, my first thought was, who's going to play drums? It's a lot different driving a sports car than an 18-wheeler. Who do I know who can do both? The list is terribly short, because in modern jazz, a lot of drummers seem to come from the same place.

I was trying to think of somebody who—not so much played like Sonny Payne or Papa Joe Jones or Grady Tate, but at least was familiar enough with the language—knowing how and when to set a rhythm up, knowing when you've got to step on the high hat a little harder so the rest of the band can hear it—real big band experience. And it seemed to me that Ulysses was the right person. There's no irony in the fact that he actually did play with the Basie band for a short period. I dig working with him in a big band.

AAJ: How about your own playing in big bands—what other big bands have you played in over the years?

CM: Well, I've never played in anybody else's big band on a regular, steady basis, but anybody who's had a big band in the last 20 years—I'm sure I've played with their band at least once or twice. I've done a number of gigs with Maria Schneider's band. I even sat in as John Clayton with the Clayton—Hamilton Orchestra. As a matter of fact, when Queen Latifah did her last jazz recordings, I guess it's been about five years ago now, the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra was the band, but I played bass, because John did all the arranging and conducting. And when I was programming for the Los Angeles Philharmonic—I was Creative Chair for Jazz from 2005 to '09—I would say two-thirds of the programs we put together involved some sort of a large ensemble. That was another way I got my chops polished—not just playing in a big band, but my writing chops, too.

Christian McBride & Inside Straight—Kind of BrownAAJ: "Science Fiction" is one of your most ambitious big band charts.

CM: That's a good word. It's one of those pieces where I think you try as an artist to get out of your own head—to try to write outside of yourself—that's the phrase I've always heard used. I've heard a lot of actors use that phrase, like in acting school, and musicians as well. Again, talking about those guys like Oliver Nelson, Lalo Schifrin, John Williams—I've always been inspired by action-adventure and dramatic film music. So, I think that was my subconscious audition for writing for, like, a Dreamworks film or something like that.

AAJ: You mentioned at the Highlights in Jazz concert that if there was anybody from CBS, NBC, or ABC in the audience, you're available. Seriously, though, do you have any interest in writing for TV or film?

CM: If I ever do get to do that, I actually wouldn't mind if it were a little later in life, because I've heard some horror stories from musicians I know who've written for major films and television. It's no longer about your music. In the producer's eyes, the music is a very small part of the picture.

AAJ: The title, The Good Feeling—where does that come from?

CM: I don't know, just a random phrase that came to mind when I was thinking of the overall vibe of the project. It just seemed right to call it The Good Feeling.

AAJ: You have another recent CD out, Conversations with Christian—a series of duets. You've also got the podcast interviews on iTunes and the Sirius XM radio show that tie in with that, correct?

CM: What happened was we decided that when I would go into the studio to record a piece of music with my duet partners, I would also interview them. The interview would become a podcast, and the musical performance would be on the CD. So, the podcast and the CD are kind of together. And then there was the radio show on Sirius XM, a live performance radio show kind of based on the same format. So it got a little confusing in trying to explain the difference between the CD, the podcast, and the radio show, because roughly they're all the same thing.

AAJ: The CD has you teamed up with 13 different partners, including five different piano players. You've got Billy Taylor, Hank Jones, George Duke, Chick Corea, and Eddie Palmieri—all strikingly different kinds of performances.

CM: It's hard to believe that both Hank Jones and Dr. Taylor would pass away so soon after we recorded. I knew Hank had been on the decline leading up to the last six months or so of his life. But Dr. Taylor, that surprised me a little bit. I knew he had heart surgery, but I had seen him after that, and he looked like he had never been touched. He looked like the same Dr. Taylor. He hadn't lost any weight. His face was still full, and his skin was beautiful. And the next thing I know, he's gone—cardiac arrest. So, you just never know sometimes.

AAJ: So these recordings were done over some time, then.

CM: Oh, yeah. It took over the course of a year. We started doing the first duets I believe in December of 2008, and we did the last one in around early 2010.

AAJ: The recordings with Hank Jones and Chick Corea are interesting contrasts—with Jones, "Alone Together," an American songbook classic, and with Corea a loosely structured improvisation.

CM: Yeah, it was no structure. That's what I love about working and being around somebody like Chick. I mean, I'm sure Dr. Taylor or Hank Jones would have done it also, but with Chick it's just a little different. We went into the studio, and he says, "Well, what do you want to play?" And I said, "I thought we could just freely improvise—whatever happens, happens." And Chick said, "Great, let's do it." Again, I'm sure that Hank or Dr. Taylor would been game for that, too, but I think the results would have been a shade different than what they were with Chick.

AAJ: You do a James Brown tune with Dee Dee Bridgewater, "It's Your Thing."

CM: That seems to be the hit off the CD. I've gotten more requests for that. I get emails from radio programmers, "Oh, man, 'It's Your Thing'—we play that every day!"

AAJ: And you play one of your own compositions, "Sister Rosa," with Russell Malone, who you played with in a trio setting in February with Monty Alexander—part of a two-week stint Monty did at the Blue Note.

CM: That was so much fun. That gig was so rockin.' Man, I love playing with Monty. He's a one-man big band.

AAJ: He introduced you as "Ray Brown's son—plus!" They billed that show as "Triple Treat Revisited," after Monty Alexander's Triple Treat trio with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis.

CM: I was using one of Ray Brown's old basses for that gig. Ray died—he owned three basses—his wife kept one, I have one, and John Clayton has the other.

AAJ: Is this the bass you usually play?

CM: No, but it was the bass I used at the Blue Note with Monty. And we recorded that also. So, I'm dying to hear that. I cannot wait to hear that. I love being around Monty. He's a real guy's guy when it comes to rhythm—and sports. He's a huge sports fan, especially boxing. So, when we're together, we're either talking about R&B or Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown or Muhammad Ali. Great guy to be around.

AAJ: So, for the Triple Treat show, did you try to evoke Ray Brown's playing style at all?

CM: Well, you know musicians don't do that. You do what the gig calls for. But once a year, actually, sometimes couple of times a year, members of what we call the Ray Brown family—you know, Benny Green, Gregory Hutchinson, Russell Malone, Karriem Riggins, Jeff Kaiser, Marlena Shaw, Jeff Hamilton, whoever it might be—we do a series of Ray Brown tribute concerts. This year I think will be the first year we won't get together and do it, although the year's not over yet. Last year we did it with Benny Green and Greg Hutchinson and Dee Dee Bridgewater. So, Ray Brown is still very much alive. His spirit is still alive in all of his former band members who are still here. And so, we get together and try to do that at least once a year.

AAJ: So, where do you do it?

CM: We usually do it for the Blue Note. We did it for Jack Kleinsinger one year. We've done it at Yoshi's out in Oakland. We did it in St. Louis—Jazz at the Bistro. We did it in Detroit for the jazz festival—not last year, but the year before. I definitely got to get my Ray Brown fix in.

AAJ: When did you first met Ray?

CM: The first time I met Ray Brown, Benny Green and I were together in early 1991. Benny had met him once before in the mid '80s. He and I were playing a duo gig at the Knickerbocker in the Village. Ray was working at the Blue Note. At that time, Benny and I had the same manager, and she knew Ray Brown extremely well. Mary Ann Topper is her name. She told us earlier in the evening, she said, "Ray has got to hear you guys. You guys are incredible. He's going to love you guys. You guys are coming out of the old school mode that I know he's going to love." So, she got him to come over after he finished at the Blue Note. I couldn't believe it. And knowing what I know now about being on the road, usually, once you've played a long gig, the last thing you want to do is go hear more music. You just want to go somewhere where it's quiet, have a drink, and cool out. But he came and heard us. He heard our last three songs, maybe. And he was so kind. We could see he was a little tired, because he'd been working all night. But he gave us some words of encouragement. He was really sweet. He invited us down to the Blue Note for his final night, which was the next night. And I will never forget this as long as I live. He acknowledged us over the microphone. He said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I want to introduce to you these two young men I heard last night, and for only two guys, they were swinging like dogs." I had never heard that phrase before, so I started laughing my head off. Swinging like dogs?!
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