There are few bassists in jazz with quite the formidable reputation that CHRISTIAN McBRIDE has as a player. His compelling sound on both double bass and electric bass guitar has made him a first call sideman with a huge range of players over the past 20 years of the order of Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Joshua Redman, Diana Krall and Sting to name just a few. As McBride’s latest album The Good Feeling comes out STEPHEN GRAHAM talks to the great Philadelphian about writing for big band, his views on hip hop, that man Sting and a worrying polarisation in American politics
:courtesy photos t was a quarter-past-12 early on a Friday afternoon the day after a gig the night before at a New Haven church in Connecticut. Performing with his trio that time, Christian McBride, who it’s extraordinary to think is still only 39, is on the phone. Asked about the acoustics of the church in which he performed he says matterof-factly “All those old churches weren’t built with jazz concerts in mind, it was very boomy, but you adjust.”
McBride had been playing that night in mid-September with pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr, a smaller, to use one of his favourite words, “situation” than the one McBride finds himself in on his new big band album The Good Feeling which has just been released by the Michigan-based label Mack Avenue. McBride has stayed with the label, home to Gary Burton and McBride protégé Warren Wolf, following his earlier Inside Straight group debut for it Kind of Brown two years ago. With more material ready a second big band album is planned but first the label is putting out a new duets album later this year featuring an appearance by Sting, with whom McBride has been playing on and off for over a decade.
This interview took place just ahead of Sting’s 60th birthday concert in October which McBride was to appear in with the singer and bass guitarist. “I saw the press release for the first time a few weeks ago and there’s Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga, Stevie Wonder and more. I’ve no idea of what’s happening,” he says disarmingly about an occasion that will no doubt garner headlines in New York, with McBride in Sting’s band joining Dominic Miller, keyboardist David Sancious and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta plus backing vocalists.
Sting is no stranger to working with jazz musicians, indeed he started in a jazz-rock band, then later in the 1980s filling his Dream Of the Blue Turtles band with jazz musicians, Branford Marsalis, the late Kenny Kirkland, Omar Hakim and Darryl “The Munch” Jones.
The Good Feeling could not be more different for McBride, working with Sting or even Diana Krall (with whom he appeared on The Girl In The Other Room album released in 2004). After all a big band record, especially one with a retro sound, is not an obvious choice for a musician such as McBride who is respected by a new generation as attuned to hip hop and funk as he is by an older jazz-rooted generation at home with Ellington, Miles Davis or Charles Mingus.
“I have always been fascinated with big band writing,” he says, in a strong bass baritone voice. “Maybe the title of the album is obvious; it’s a description of the way the music I hope makes people feel and the feeling the musicians have recording it, but also to return us to what makes us love the music in the first place.”
Asked if and how he identifies with Oscar Pettiford, McBride says adroitly: “Of course, it’s like asking a boxer if he identifies with Joe Louis. Goodness, I think the first recording that I paid attention to was the larger ensemble on the Oliver
‘I’ve never felt that something that makes you feel good gets enough credit’ – Christian McBride
Nelson album Blues And The Abstract Truth. I heard ‘Stolen Moments’ when I was in high school. Our band played it, and when I heard it was fascinated by it and kept listening to it over and over again.”
The son of bassist Lee Smith, McBride went to the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts in his home city and was a friend of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, of seminal freestyle hip hop group The Roots. McBride continued his education at the prestigious Julliard conservatoire in New York where decades earlier Miles Davis had studied as an 18-year-old and Wynton Marsalis followed more recently in 1979. “And then,” McBride continues explaining the background to his burgeoning big band direction, “there’s Tender Moments by McCoy Tyner on Blue Note. I heard the harmonies and started transcribing the horn parts, then ensemble. Then it was Thad Jones, and I started to study Count Basie.”
On The Good Feeling, which also features
Christian’s wife singer Melissa Walker on ‘When I Fall In Love’ and ‘A Taste of Honey’, the bassist as arranger draws partly on Basie’s work with Frank Sinatra At The Sands arranged by Quincy Jones. The instrumentals include arrangements of McBride compositions dating right back to his own debut and moving on to more recent work. Of the former, ‘The Shade Of The Cedar Tree’ has that languid big city feel that is reminiscent so much of Oliver Nelson’s approach, but which also recalls the 1990s when retro acoustic hard bop was in vogue.
“It was wonderful to go back to the original material,” McBride says. “‘The Shade of the Cedar Tree’ is a popular song in a lot of colleges, so a lot of students in New York have recorded it. It’s made a little bit of impact on some.” Indeed the album from which it’s from, Getting’ To It, sold well when it came out with The New York Times in 1995 noting that the album had at that time sold more than 21,000 copies. McBride was one of a tsunami of future stars passing through including Joshua Redman and in the previous year performed on Redman’s landmark album Moodswing, along with Brad Mehldau and Brian Blade, just ahead of his own debut for Verve.
Unlike Wynton Marsalis, who often says at concerts that “he comes to swing”, McBride has a different mantra. “I come to make things work,” he says. “I do whatever I do to make everything work, be it swing, funk, freestyle. You know there’s this Bruce Lee interview and he talks how important it is to be like water, the water becomes the shape of the glass and I think that as a musician I have to do this.”
He picks up a thread that says a lot about his approach: “In jazz there are musicians who are very esoteric, that sort of musician gets credit to take chances. But the musician who make you feel good, smile, snap your fingers, that gets discarded as too regular, clichéd, passé. I’ve never felt that something that makes you feel good gets enough credit.”
Aside from his own records as leader McBride, before exploring jazz rock on Vertical Vision, had recorded another side of his musical persona for the Ropeadope label on The Philadelphia Experiment with Questlove released in 2001. “I feel very lucky, we grew up together. I knew what he was doing as a 13, 14 year-old. One thing I deeply respect about him as a famous hip hip producer is that he’s one of the only musicians in that genre able to understand all of the music. He could talk about Jack DeJohnette and Chick Webb at the same time as hip hop. Everyone
26 NOVEMBER11 // Jazzwise