Christian McBride Throws Down

Chris M. Slawecki By

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I think I've been able to successfully establish myself as a musician who's rooted in jazz, but who doesn't live by the rules of 4/4 traditional swing rhythms.
Christian McBride Philadelphia native Christian McBride stands among contemporary music's heaviest musicians. That's no reflection of McBride's physical stature, or even of his cavernous speaking voice. It is descriptive of his powerful, profoundly resonant voice on acoustic and electric bass. It almost certainly applies to his formidable body of work, which includes seven albums as a leader and session work with legends inside (Jimmy Smith, McCoy Tyner) and outside (Kathleen Battle, Sting) the world of jazz, all of which seems to have singularly prepared McBride to assume the mantle of "the jazz bassist so graciously worn by Ron Carter for the past five decades.

"Heavy sure as hell describes McBride's latest release, three discs recorded Live at Tonic that document McBride's two-night, 2005 engagement at one of NYC's most famously experimental musical venues.

The first set each night presented McBride's working quartet with Terreon Gully (drums), Ron Blake (tenor and soprano saxophone, flute) and Geoffrey Keezer (piano and keyboards) working out their regular repertoire; the best takes from the two first sets comprise this first CD. These featured tracks from McBride's most recent studio release, Vertical Vision, such as the roaring jazz-rock "Technicolor Nightmare and Joe Zawinul's enduring "Boogie Woogie Waltz, plus the quietly soulful ballad "Sitting on a Cloud, from Gettin' To It, McBride's 1994 debut as a leader.

This first CD also captures four previously unrecorded tunes, including the bassist's tribute to late comedian Flip Wilson ("Clerow's Flipped, as saucy and bold as Wilson's female alter-ego, Geraldine) and Blake's on-time title "Sonic Tonic, an exercise for working out the band's considerable soul-jazz chops.

For the second set each night, McBride opened up his company to guest musicians for collective improvisations. Disc two comes from the first night with Charlie Hunter (guitar), Jason Moran (piano) and Jenny Schienman (violin) and pays tribute to two primary influences on bassist McBride: James Brown ("Give it Up or Turnit Loose, including the requisite drum breakdown/beatdown) and Miles Davis (an interpretation of Davis' jazz-rock fusion landmark Bitches Brew, with Blake blowing overtones of Wayne Shorter on his soprano sax).

The second night's second set is captured on disc three, a tumultuous party hosted by the McBride quartet for DJ Logic (turntables), Scratch (formerly of The Roots, on beatbox), Eric Krasno (of Soulive, on guitar) and Rashawn Ross (trumpet). It begins with McBride, Gully and Krasno operating as an impossibly deft, three-headed single-engine rhythm machine, which jackhammers open a heavy groove that McBride's electric bass keeps pumping for more than thirty minutes! After McBride introduces Ross as "one of the funkiest trumpet players on the scene today, pouring molten musical lava from his hot trumpet, Ross shows him right; Ross blows the stuffings out of the fourth and final number on this third disc, too. McBride, his bandmates and his guests, all join together to embody the simple, profound joy, the love (no less than this romantic word will do) of spontaneous, interactive creation—the joy of jamming.

"The second CD was very experimental yet very much a jazz performance whereas the third CD was pretty much an all-out party, McBride suggests.

From McBride's jazz roots, Live at Tonic blossoms into funk, hip-hop, jungle and other music, too. Thick, deep and heavy, it is one package that should be sold by weight and by volume. Upon the release of this album, McBride discussed Philly soul, Allen Iverson, Fred Sanford and the joy of jam.

Christian McBride

AAJ: What makes an eight-year-old boy growing up in Philly pick up an electric bass? Why didn't you just quit after a few years of lessons, like so many kids do?

Christian McBride: Actually, I was nine when I picked up the electric bass. I feel very lucky in that as soon as I picked up the electric bass, I pretty much knew that that was what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life. It felt very natural. It just felt very comfortable. You know, my father plays bass and so my initial inspiration came from watching him play. And once I got the instrument and started playing around on it, kind of getting accustomed to the feel of it, it just felt more and more natural. So I knew that that's what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life. Then once I got to junior high school and had to play in the orchestra, that's when I started playing the acoustic bass. And that felt just as natural. So I feel lucky that I "found my thing early in life.

AAJ: The first song you ever learned was "Papa Was a Rolling Stone ? Were you more of a Motown Soul guy or a Stax soul guy in your formative days?

CM: I probably would say that our household leaned a little bit more toward Motown, probably by a two-to-one ratio.

AAJ: What does the phrase "Philly Soul mean to you?

CM: Having come up in the R&B scene and the jazz scene in Philadelphia, "Philly Soul for me stretches along a pretty broad boundary line: It means obviously, I think the most general terminology that people think of (Kenny) Gamble and (Leon) Huff and Teddy Pendergrass and The Delfonics, that kind of thing. But to me it also means guys like the great saxophonists Tony Williams and Grover Washington Jr. and all of the great jazz musicians from Philly: Bootsie Barnes, the late Eddie Green, people like Trudy Pitts and Mr. C, that also means "Philly Soul to me, as well as Gamble and Huff.

Jones, Wooden & Jackson

AAJ: You once said about Quincy Jones: "Q studies people and figures out what to do with them like a great basketball coach. How did you coach your band through the two jam sessions on CDs two and three of Live at Tonic?

CM: I think most great bandleaders—at least what I've experienced—most great bandleaders are ones that give you just enough direction to kind of get what they want out of the music but also to give you as little direction as possible, just to let you be yourself. I think with most great basketball coaches, they're able to see what a person's strengths are and really kind of let them fly and produce on their strengths, as opposed to trying to make them do something that they're not really that great at.

I think that as a bandleader you kind of take a look at the field and you see what each musician does, and what you feel are their strengths, and you kind of let them do that. As opposed to saying, 'Well, you play great ballads. Well, this isn't really a ballad band—I want you to start playing more faster things.' That really wouldn't be a good coach. So after working with Quincy Jones and just looking at his history, I think he's been able to do the same thing.

AAJ: Who in your opinion have been the greatest college coach, and the greatest pro basketball coach, of your lifetime?

CM: Hmm... greatest college coach. That's kinda hard. I would have to say John Wooden, maybe, for college. Greatest pro coach? Hmm... dare I say, Phil Jackson? I know the argument is that, 'Well, he had Michael Jordan, therefore anybody could have coached the Bulls and won the title.' But I don't think so. Doug Collins also coached Jordan and they didn't get to the Finals.

AAJ: And then he went and did it with a completely different team, with the Shaq/Kobe Lakers. But, I'm a 76ers lifer, so I'm a Lakers hater. Sort of comes with the territory, you know?

CM: Yeah, I've explained to many people: Being born in Philadelphia, you're kind of born hating the Boston Celtics, the Dallas Cowboys, the Atlanta Braves and the New Jersey Devils.

Christian McBride

AAJ: If you were Billy King for one day, and could get a starting player and top ten draft pick in exchange, would you trade Allen Iverson?

CM:Well, let me say if I were Billy King, I would resign! I would step down! But anyway, top five pick and a starter, would I trade A.I.? Probably.

And the only reason I say that is because I absolutely love Allen Iverson. I think he's been probably the most game athlete probably in any major sport since he's been on the scene. You just watch all the heart he plays with, and the fire and the passion. It bothers me that it's been very difficult to find a group of guys to kind of put around him to get the Sixers over the hump. Obviously the closest they came was the 2000 Finals.

But it just kinda bothers me that throughout the years the Sixers have had some pretty good teams that actually, probably could have gotten the Sixers over the hump had they stuck with them for awhile. You look at the long list of guys who were supposed to. Each season: 'OK, this is the perfect guy who's going to compliment AI.' I'm speaking of Toni Kukoc, at one point they had Larry Hughes, then it's Keith Van Horn, then it's Glenn Robinson, then it's Derrick Coleman. They're like, 'Oh no, no, no, we got it wrong last season, but this is the guy who's really gonna...' Matt Harpring, Kyle Korver—you know, 'We need a guy who can shoot some three pointers.' Then it's defense: 'We'll go out and get (Dikembe) Mtumbo,' and 'Don't worry, Dalembert's going to get better.' It's just like, every year, 'This is the guy.' They just don't stick with anybody. I'm pretty sure that there's been a different starting lineup every year that AI's been in Philly.

AAJ: Obviously you're a fan of his song "Giveit Up or Turnit Loose. What are two of your other favorite James Brown basslines?

CM: That's easy. "Licking Stick-Licking Stick and probably "Soul Power.

AAJ: Listening to Live at Tonic brought back to mind two of my favorite live albums growing up in the 1970s. The first one was King Curtis Live at Fillmore West...

CM:I had a feeling you were going to say that.

AAJ: Really?

CM: Yeah.

AAJ: And it's because Terreon Gully rocks drums so much like Bernard Purdie... so it's safe to say that you ARE familiar with that record?

CM: I think that any person who claims for themselves to be a fan or R&B or soul music, they kind of have to know that album. I think that's one of the seminal live albums of all time and of course the album that went along with that, Aretha Franklin Live at Fillmore West. Those two albums I think are just two classics.


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