Christian McBride Throws Down

Chris M. Slawecki By

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AAJ: There's another live album it brought to mind: Les McCann Live at Montreux. What got me was, there's a moment on side four where Rahsaan Roland Kirk comes out and he begins blowing backstage and as he walks onstage he gets closer to the mike, you hear him cookin', like whatever's been boiling, he's about to drop in more hot pepper. Rashawn Ross' entrance on disc three sounds a whole lot like that.

CM: Well, I'll tell you, we had a whole lot of fun on that. I think the second night, which is disc three, that was more of a... the second CD was very experimental yet very much a jazz performance whereas the third CD was pretty much an all-out party.

Fred Sanford and "the fifth Beatle

AAJ: You've appeared on so very many great records, we want to give you the opportunity to reminisce about what must have been three of many highlights for you: The first is Jimmy Smith's Damn! (1995), his first recording for Verve Records in twenty years.

CM: Jimmy Smith was by far the real-life Fred Sanford. I don't think anybody on this earth—I'm almost willing to bet that Norman Lear got the Fred Sanford character from Jimmy Smith. He was a terribly funny, crotchety, grouchy, hilarious old man.

I remember he refused to play any song unless (producer) Richard Seidel went out and got him a new six-pack. So by the end of the day, at the end of every session, there'd just be a sea of beer bottles at the bottom of the B-3. So many people were on that CD... it was another one of those sessions that was a big party atmosphere; we didn't do any rehearsing, we just kind of went in there and worked out the songs right before we recorded them. As you know, the concept was originally to kind of recreate his old Blue Note jam sessions like The Sermon and things like that. But we had a lot of fun on those albums; I mean, Jimmy kept us in stitches the whole time, telling us stories and really just doing raucous things.

AAJ: Shifting the mood: The second is McCoy Tyner's What the World Needs Now: The Music of Burt Bacharach (Verve, 1997)

CM: I'll be honest: That CD, I'm actually not quite that fond of, because I think that was a really... It was in good faith but it was Verve's opportunity to try and make McCoy Tyner less African-rooted and make him little more mainstream. McCoy Tyner's music has always been coming out of and been influenced by Coltrane, it's been influenced by African and Indian influences, and his sound has always been about as singular as someone's sound can be.

I can remember when we all got the call, that McCoy Tyner's doing this Burt Bacharach album, we all kinda looked at each other going, 'Whaaaat? McCoy plays who?' We were all just kind of interested to see—we can't wait to see how McCoy interprets that.

Actually, the album probably could have worked had it not been with that orchestra. Had it just been the trio or small group, it might have come off a little better. But my personal opinion was that that album came out terribly schmaltzy, and I think that album should have been recorded with someone else. I think with someone else that album would have worked out perfectly. Just because of our passion and knowing McCoy Tyner's history, I personally didn't think that album worked as well as a couple of other albums I worked with him on, like Illuminations and Preludes and Sonatas. But you can't blame Verve for trying...

AAJ: And then another shift of mood, with The Philadelphia Experiment (2001)?

CM: I have fond memories of that album mainly because it was my first time getting to play with Ahmir (Thompson) again after, probably since high school I don't think I've had a chance to play with him. And Uri Caine of course was another guy I used to work while I was still in high school; as a matter of fact, we used to play in Joe Sudler's Swing Machine together. So it was kind of like a homecoming. I just knew right off the bat that this was going to be a fun, real loose, sloppy but happening kind of jam session. And I think Aaron Levinson and Andy Hurwitz did a good job, in the post-production they did a good job putting all of the music together. It's unfortunate we didn't get the chance to do too many live concerts behind that album. We only did two, one in New York and one in Philly. But I have a lot of great memories about session and the two gigs that happened from it.

AAJ: While you're in a reflective mood let's move into your own catalog, beginning with your debut, Gettin' To It (Verve, 1994): Anything you know now that you might have done differently then?

CM: I don't think so. I think that album was a very innocent album, when I think back on it. You know, it was my first CD and it really wasn't an overly conceptualized CD. I really just figured, 'Hey, I've got a few songs, I'll call some great musicians, and we'll put together a good session.' And that's what it turned out to be and fortunately it was not only successful artistically but it was also successful commercially. I got a lot of gigs out of that CD for the entire year of '95 and most of '96.

AAJ: Next I want to ask you about A Family Affair (Verve, 1998) and in particular about producer George Duke.

CM: Hoping you would.

AAJ: Was George Duke a good match as a producer with the material for that record?

CM: I think he was the perfect match for me because a lot of hard core jazz fans really forget how great George Duke is. I mean, they think of 'George Duke' and they think of all of the... you know, they think of the...

AAJ: "Boogie Oogie Oogie

CM: ..."Sweet Baby and all that kind of stuff, and they never remember about the Cannonball Adderley days.

AAJ: Even the Zappa stuff!

CM: Yeah, the Zappa stuff. Well, even the jazz fans, I think, don't even recognize Zappa probably as they should. But George Duke, I think, you talk about all the great jazz pianists from the '60s, you talk about the Herbies and the Chicks and McCoys and the Keith Jarretts—I think that George Duke was right in there. He came after those guys, but just in terms of sheer harmonic palette on the piano, feel, knowledge of the history—I mean, George Duke can hold his own with any of those guys. He just made a conscious decision to kind of go the other route.

But the one thing that I remember most about A Family Affair, which was probably one of my most—I mean, in my own memory—that was probably my most romanticized recording session because secondary to making the album I got to be really really close with George and his entire family. And after we finished A Family Affair I got to stay close with George on a personal and a musical, a professional, level. A Family Affairs opened the doors to a whole lot of different things in a lot of different ways.

AAJ: Is he as nice as he seems—is he that much of a teddy bear?

CM: That he is. He is probably the nicest, sweetest man in the whole world. He's quirkless. He doesn't have many quirks. I mean, he's just a real everyday kind of regular guy.

AAJ: Your most recent studio release was Vertical Vision (Warner Bros. Jazz, 2003), and was surprised to learn that it included guitarist David Gilmore? How did that come about?

CM: Well, David was also on Sci-Fi. Actually, David Gilmore, we affectionately call him "the fifth Beatle in my band. He's worked on our last two CDs but I've never had enough money (laughs) to make him a permanent member of the band. So we call him "the fifth Beatle. I first started working with Dave, we worked together with Wayne Shorter briefly back in '97. I was familiar with his work with all the M-Base stuff with Greg Osby and Cassandra Wilson and all those guys. I love his playing so much. Unfortunately he couldn't be part of the Live at Tonic CD because he was out of town on a state department tour. But his spirit is there.

My memories of that particular session are ones of just kind of hoping that the energy that we had live could be captured in the studio. It's really hard to do that. I think we got... it was fair. I particularly like "Technicolor Nightmare and "Boogie Woogie Waltz, we were able to capture that real hardcore, and "The Ballad of Little Girl Dancer, that kind of raw energy that the band had live. It was an okay record. I think that this new CD certainly, for obvious reasons, gets that pure electricity of the group, that pure, primal feeling. It captured it much better than Vertical Vision did.

All the Way Live at Tonic

AAJ: Which brings us up to the new record: Your previous studio album was released on Warner Bros. and the one before that on Verve—How did this live album end up on Ropeadope? And as a follow-up: How was the pricing decision made for this album and by whom?

CM: First question is that this live CD was originally supposed to be on Warner Brothers but in 2003 I believe it was Warner Bros. dissolved their jazz label. So there were a lot of artists like myself, Joshua Redman, Kenny Garrett, Nicholas Payton, who got jammed up because of the fallout at Warner Brothers. As a matter of fact, Joshua Redman's Elastic CD was actually finished and was waiting for a release when Warner Brothers dissolved, so he was stuck with an album and nowhere to put it out. So Nonesuch picked it up.

It was the same thing with my live album: We were originally supposed to record my live album at Yoshi's in Oakland and as things happened there was no more Warner Brothers Jazz and we all had to kind of scramble and start making new plans. Then of course Andy Hurwitz and I had a really good relationship from The Philadelphia Experiment and a couple of Ropeadope shows that he put together with myself and Charlie Hunter and DJ Logic. So I kind of figured, for the kind of thing that we're doing, Ropeadope probably would be the perfect place to do a live album.

And as far as the pricing is concerned, Andy decided that, 'Well, you know, we've got to think of some really good things to kind of hook people, not just musically but to give 'em something else, so how about a double CD for a list price at $15.95,' whatever it was. We thought, 'Yeah, okay, sounds good, no problem.' 'Cause it was going to be a cheap record to make, you know, low overhead. So we had a double CD but then we had so much music that I thought, 'Man, I don't know how we're gonna work this out. How are we gonna jam two sets into one CD?' So Andy said, 'Well, screw it. Let's just make it three CDs.'

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