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Christian McBride: Knocking on the Door

Bob Kenselaar By

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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.

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.

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