HE’S 37 YEARS OLD AND HAS WON A GRAMMY, BEEN COMPARED TO RAY BROWN on upright, toured with Chick Corea and John McLaughlin on electric, gotten first-call treatment from both hardcore jazzers (Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner) and pop stars (Sting), arranged for orchestras, directed the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, obtained artist residencies at the Detroit and Monterey Jazz Festivals, and even conducted his own radio show about jazz and—wait for it—sports. But for Philly native Christian McBride, being referred to as one of the masters still evokes incredulity. “Are you kidding? I’m still the young phenom,” he says, chortling. “I can feel it now. I’ll be 70, and all those old jazz writers are gonna be going, Young Christian McBride, in his brief career . . . .”
A lot has happened since McBride moved to New York 20 years ago, where he left Juilliard after only 12 months to tour with jazz trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Freddie Hubbard. His debut CD as a leader, the landmark straightahead release Gettin’ To It [Verve, 1994], was all about establishing something. “My thoughts at that time were, ‘Well, I plan to have a long recording career, God willing, and I want to be able to build out from something.’ So the most logical thing was to make a straightahead CD, and anything I did after that could come out of that.” With jazz bona fides firmly in place, the next 13 years saw bandleader McBride stretch out over six critically acclaimed, stylistically divergent records that drew on funk, fusion, ballads, jazz, and plenty more. The 2000s saw the rise of the Christian McBride Band as his main creative vehicle. And though the band “didn’t think of themselves as fusion,” that’s what they were to some in the jazz community.
“It certainly was not your dad’s style of jazz,” admits McBride. “Most of the groups I’ve played in over the last ten years had that hint of electric in it, which I felt was cool, but there was something that said, ‘It’s time for you to come back home’—home being the real straightahead stuff. I figured it would be time to come back around and make one of those ‘just in case you forgot’ kind of records.”
Featuring a newly formed acoustic quintet that McBride calls Inside Straight, Kind of Brown reflects and embodies the spirit of Christian’s traditional jazz homecoming, with a nothing-left-to-prove, relaxed feel over a series of hard-swinging grooves that reflect the melodic and compositional maturity of someone with a master’s view of the genre. Its musical restraint is also a statement of sorts. “A lot of modern jazz is written with little bumps in the road just to trip you up, so it can keep you on your toes. But I realized with guys like Chick, Wayne Shorter, and Pat Metheny, and younger guys like Roy Hargrove … their songs aren’t that difficult. They sound difficult, but they’re not. They’re good, strong melodies that have a good harmonic structure … they’re singable, they’re memorable. There’s a lot to learn from simplicity.”
The remaining pages of this magazine could be filled simply with what McBride is up to right now. He just finished a touring stint with the hottest fusion ticket of the year, the Chick Corea/John McLaughlin Five Peace Band. Artists featuring his recorded sideman work in just the past two years include Pat Metheny, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Jonatha Brooke, Diana Krall, and George Duke (see Christian’s Dream Sideman Gigs, page 32). Then there’s the Conversations With Christian series, a project in which McBride both interviews and performs a duo with artists such as Duke, Corea, Hargrove, Krall, Sting, Gina Gershon, and Bruce Hornsby. The sessions are being released one at a time online at iTunes and at ChristianMcBride.com, and will end up as a CD later this year. And he’s still involved in a variety of educational leadership roles at several institutions. Somehow Christian still finds time to watch sports on TV, proving the adage that Philly sports fans are some of the hardest of the hardcore.
We were fortunate enough to catch McBride after a day of tracking for Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater. The conversation lasted nearly 120 minutes, but somehow it still felt like we had only touched the surface.
Tell us about the origin of your new group, Inside Straight. How did you conceive it?
I’d been in the middle of all of these different projects, and I realized that I hadn’t played the Village Vanguard in a decade. So I went to [club booker] Lorraine Gordon and said, “It’s been ten years since I’ve played here. Can I come back?” She said, “Are you nuts? You can always come back! But I don’t want that rock & roll band you’ve been playing with,” talking about the Christian McBride Band. She’s like, “If you come back, I want you to put together something special that’s tailor-made for the club. And you know what I mean.” So I thought, Well, who can I call in town? I thought of Carl Allen and Eric Reed, and Steve Wilson, and Warren Wolf. Not to mention Steve, Eric, and Carl were Vanguard regulars anyway. The week turned out to be so good … everybody said, “Man, it was great to hear you play some good old, straight-up, swingin’ jazz again. You gotta keep this band together!” I said, “I can’t. Look who’s in it—these guys are booked for the next 20 years!” But somehow or another we were able to book a couple of gigs, and about a year later, Mack Avenue heard about the gig and said, “We haven’t heard it, but we can tell just from everybody’s reactions and the reviews in the paper, we want to record this band.” Okay!
How do you see your role on Kind of Brown? Is there anything specific in your approach, to go back to this place?
Well, I’ve always been attracted to players who really like to hold down the fort, but with their own language—just a bit extra, you know? Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Bootsy Collins with James Brown, Larry Graham, Anthony Jackson, Marcus Miller … guys who are acutely aware of the traditional role of the bass in the band and do it better than anyone, but bring just a little extra flair to let you know that they’re there. I think no matter what band I’m playing in, unless I’m told differently, that’s always my M.O.: to hold down the fort but do it with my own thing—a little bit extra, so you know it’s me. And with this particular style of music, with these particular cats, the objective is to swing like hell.
What was your compositional process like? Did you write the material before the band’s formation, or after?
Truth be told, I had so many projects leading up to literally the day before the session … I’d been out on the road with Pat Metheny, and then I did this thing at the Detroit International Jazz Festival where I arranged all of Marvin Gaye’s hits for a big band, and then I went out to the Monterey Jazz Festival and had to write some big band material for a youth ensemble there—so with all of these things coming back to back over the course of three months, I had no time to write any new music for Inside Straight. So right before the first day in the studio, I was on that piano all night long. I thought, Man, you have no choice—sit your ass down and write some tunes. So I wrote five tunes that first night, and I wrote five songs the second night. And considering the circumstances and how under the gun I was, I’m a little impressed! [Laughs.]
As a bassist, how do you keep your solo approach fresh on blues-based forms like “Brother Mister” and “Stick & Move”?
When I was starting to learn how to solo, I actually didn’t listen to a lot of bass players. There were only three bass players who floored me: Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, and Jaco Pastorius. Those three guys helped me to learn what the greatest bass solo language was. And Oscar Pettiford later on. But I was always trying to transcribe Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner—like a dummy, I would try to do that. I would listen to them solo and think, “Wow, that’s so melodic, and so hip, and so slick.” Every note they play is just so … shiny. They play with such conviction, but with the intensity that a heavy metal guitarist would play with. I want to be able to put that on the bass. Jaco was the only person I’d heard who could do that. His notes came out like rapid fire, like an automatic rifle or something. Every 16th-note was so brutally clear. I was like, “Man, I gotta learn how to do that.” Because most bass solos I heard were muddy, and I only heard every third or fourth note. Especially acoustic bass players. I’m like, “Man, I don’t understand why I don’t like most bass solos.” So I think my concept came from learning solos on other instruments.
On “Used ’Ta Could,” what made you pick up the bow for that solo?
It’s just a silly, funky, greasy kind of song, and when you think about silly and funky and greasy, usually the bow comes to mind [laughs]. At least for me it does. When I was in Roy Hargrove’s band, every time we would play some kind of slow blues, I would pick up the bow, and even before I started playing, these guys would start smiling and laughing. I’d go into my “Delta Blues” sound. That seemed to get a big rise out of everybody. I think that’s probably the closest thing you can do on an acoustic bass to sound like a blues singer. You can get that Big Joe Turner, that Big Mama Thornton kind of sound with the bow.
What makes the Freddie Hubbard tune “Theme for Kareem” tricky?
First of all, the song is in C#. Most of the time, Db sounds a lot better than C#. But the fact is, that song has E7’s and F#7’s and A7’s and all of those notes that you don’t solo on too often. The structure of it feels like a blues, but it’s not a blues, and the fact that it’s got those E’s and F#’s and B’s and A’s, they sneak up on you. That’s what makes that song tricky.
Talk about “Shade of the Cedar Tree.” What drove you to re-record it for this particular record?
The first reason was, from what I’ve been told, the song has a potential to become a standard. And I was flattered to hear that. There’s like ten college bands that are playing that song with their lab combos or some- thing like that. So I thought, Well, let me record it again, and maybe I can hurry up and make it a standard [laughs]. The second part was that it was a song I wouldn’t have to worry about composing, and I knew I didn’t have much time that first night while writing. And third and most important, I figured, “If people like the song so much, I can only imagine how much more they’d like it had it been correct.” Because on the original recording [on Gettin’ to It], there’s actually a wrong note! It was a note that Roy Hargrove played wrong in the bridge. So now I fixed it.
Now that it’s done, what’s your bottomline takeaway from Kind of Brown, as a bassist and as a bandleader?
Man, I just want people to say, “This is one swingin’ record.” Kind of Brown is one of those records where my sole objective was to do music that was gonna be footstompin’ and finger poppin’ and toe-tap- pin’. That’s really all I wanted at the end of the day.
Talk a bit about the Conversations with Christian project. Where did that drive to mix it up conversationally come from?
It all started from the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. One of our programs that we started was the series “Harlem Speaks,” which is like the jazz version of Inside the Actor’s Studio. That spun into my wife telling me that I needed my own radio show. She said, “As much sports as you know about, you should have a talk show and figure out how to mix jazz and sports together.” She was adamant. About a year later, my manager saw the “Harlem Speaks” series and said, “Hey man, you should have a radio show.” And I just said, “You too?” Somehow this got all convoluted, and then the radio show spun into, “Why don’t you do a duet CD?” Then that turned into, “Why don’t you interview the people you do your duets with?” And by that time, so many people had so many ideas about so many things, I was like, “Yeah, Okay, fine. I’m tired of thinking at this point. Whatever y’all say, just … fine. Great.” [Laughs.]
What do you hope people get out of the series?
What I hope will be special about Conversations is that you can hear Sting talk about bass stuff. He’s not talking about the Police, or the rainforests. He’s talking about Jaco, Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, and things like that. He’s talking about the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the Newcastle United football team. You get to hear these great artists talk about things that you don’t usually get to hear them talk about, with just enough about their artistry that you still get what you would expect. But you certainly get a lot of things that you wouldn’t expect. You get to hear Chick Corea talk about playing football in high school. I know I’m the only person who ever asked him about that!
What’s your best advice to aspiring bassists who want to achieve what you’ve achieved so far?
If you really love serving the music, if you’re in this to be a better musician, all of the hard work that you have to do will not be work. There’s a difference between something being difficult and something being a drag. If you’re having fun and you come across something difficult, you’ll spend that time until you get it, because it’s something you really want, that you love, that you want to figure out. But if it starts to become drudgery, that means you probably don’t have that passion you need to really get to the higher level. You’ve got to really, really love it. It’s not about being famous, or being on a lot of records, or wanting to be in demand. If you love the music, and you love doing what you’re doing, all that will come.
What’s the one question you wish I’d asked you, but didn’t?
Do I think the Phillies will repeat as World Series champs this year?
And the answer to that question?
Christian’s Dream Sideman Gigs
ON THE CHICK COREA/JOHN MCLAUGHLIN FIVE PEACE BAND (WITH KENNY GARRETT ON SAX AND VINNIE COLAIUTA ON DRUMS)
“It was devastating in the best way possible. I’d played with Chick many times through the years. I’d only met John a couple of times, but I’ve been a huge admirer of his work. And Vinnie and I had played together a bunch of times as well, but it was always in the studio, under controlled circumstances, so we never really got to cut loose. Going into it I thought, Oh man, if this is anything like I think it’s gonna be, it’s going to ruin me!
“Chick and John would be having band meetings, and they’re asking, ‘So what do you guys think? What do we need to do different?’ And I’m saying, ‘Are you serious? You actually care what we think?’ They were beautiful leaders. And musically I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
ON DIANA KRALL
“It amazes me how people view Diana as being somewhat of a smooth or almost pop-ish gig. That is hardly the case. Just because she’s the chick who plays the piano and sings doesn’t mean it’s light at all. Diana comes from the same school that I and Russell Malone and Greg Hutchinson and Benny Green came from, and that’s the school of Ray Brown. And Ray Brown was all about swinging really hard, breaking a sweat, and getting down and getting funky. She’s still very much into swinging hard. I think if Diana had her druthers, she wouldn’t even sing—she’d just play piano. And it would just be a straight jazz gig. So I find myself playing her gig and feeling like I’m playing a jazz gig in New York in some bar. I dig playing with Diana a lot.”
“When I first started playing with Sting, I had this naïve notion that I was going to do a pop gig. We’re gonna get onstage, we’re gonna be hittin’ hard, this is gonna be awesome. But when I got to the first rehearsal, it was quiet, and smooth, with lots of acoustic instruments—almost a jazz gig! And even the songs we played where we rocked out a little, like ‘If I Ever Lose My Faith in You,’ or ‘If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free,’ still worked at jazz volume, which was shocking to me. It was a positive shock, but I was just so unprepared for it.
“When I first started, Sting said, ‘Look, I want you to play primarily acoustic bass.’ I’m thinking, Really? I’m pretty sure I’m going to get buried under that wall of sound. I was still thinking the Police, but it wasn’t that at all. Turns out the acoustic was the perfect instrument for that gig. So it surprised me in the sense that I almost had the same feeling playing with Sting as I did with Diana, because it was still at jazz volume and acoustic-based. And it was a fun gig.”
Acoustic “No-name German” e bass, built in the 1920s, with D’Addario Helicores Hybrid e Scale Light Tension strings, and David Gage Realist pickup
Electric Fretless maple-neck Penza 4-string, fretless maple-neck Atelier Z 5-string, ’76 mapleneck Fender Jazz, strung with nickel D’Addario XLs, .040–.095, .125 B string
Live rig (acoustic & electric) All Epifani amps/cabs; small (in town) gigs: UL502 or PS400 head with NYC 1x15 or two NYC 1x12s; larger (touring) gigs: UL902C head with NYC 4x10 and NYC 1x15 cabs “On the [UL902C] head, you can do different EQs for each channel. I have one channel set up for the acoustic and one for the electric, and I just A/B them onstage.”
Studio Occasional various miked Epifani rig configurations “Ninety-nine percent of the time, I only use an AMT microphone. Once in a blue moon, I hook an Avalon U5 DI in there, just to give it some outline.”
AS A LEADER
Kind of Brown
[Mack Avenue, 2009]
Live at Tonic [Rope-a-Dope, 2006]
“Live at Tonic captured my band at our peak. Everything just kind of fell into place. The club was the right club, the players were the right players, it was two good nights where people came out in droves to hear the band … and when it seems to be a good space like that, I find myself feeling exceptionally comfortable with my instrument.”
A Family Affair [Polygram, 1998]
“It was like an emancipation, because I made that CD right when it was like, ‘Christian McBride, the young bebop guy. . . .’ I love playing bebop, but electric bass was my first instrument. I had this feeling that I hadn’t been clear with my musical background before. It goes back and forth between jazz and ballads and funk and fusion. Probably my favorite in terms of bass playing.”
AS A SIDEMAN
George Duke, Face the Music [Bizarre Planet, 2002]
“If Blue Note were a funk label, this would be a Blue Note record. Everybody’s just playing long, killin’ solos, with great heads, but funky. And I’m playing mostly acoustic. The fact that George was able to make this funky, R&B-type of instrumental CD built around the acoustic bass, I think that sent a lot of messages to cats who think funk should only be popping and slapping on the electric. George is like my second dad; I played on five CDs of his, and he always gives me more room than I think I deserve. George is beautiful like that.”
Joe Henderson, Double Rainbow: The Music of Antonio Carlos Jobim [Polygram, 1995]
“I’d been busy recording all the music for my first CD, and then I had a few days to take it all in and recover, and then I had to fly to L.A. to record with Joe. And I come to rehearsal, and there’s Joe Henderson, there’s Herbie Hancock, and there’s Jack DeJohnette, and … me. Why am I here?’ That was a very special session.”