By Michael Ullman
As serious a musician as he is, and as virtuosic as he can be, the naturally extroverted Christian McBride knows how to entertain, a talent generously evident in this live performance.
Now 49, the leader of three groups, a sometimes sideman on record and in concert to dozens of jazz stars and, since the illness and passing of George Wein, the musical director of the Newport Festival, bassist Christian McBride first entered a recording studio in 1990 when he made an updated version of the 1957 single by country singer Bobby Helms: “Jingle Bell Rock.” The song, a hit amongst pre-teens like myself, couldn’t have been more innocent: “What a bright time, it’s the right time/ Jingle bell time is a swell time,” Helms sang, in what must have been the last un-ironic use of the word “swell” in pop music.
McBride got serious right away. In 1990 he also recorded twice with trumpeter Roy Hargrove, once with another emerging trumpet star, Wallace Roney, and also with alto saxophonist Donald Harrison (For Art’s Sake). Since then he’s recorded about 350 times. Every leader seems to want a piece of him. He is valued for his rhythmic power and precision, for his warmth of tone and tact and, as a live performer, for his natural exuberance. He’s been on a number of Grammy-winning sessions, including Joe Henderson’s Lush Life, McCoy Tyner’s Illuminations, and Chick Corea’s Trilogy. McBride’s big band has won Grammys in 2011 and 2015. He’s got range: he’s recorded with salsa star Eddie Palmieri and with Paul McCartney, with Hank Jones, Jim Hall, and Queen Latifah. The first, luscious notes we hear on singer Diana Krall’s Love Scenes are by McBride,who buoyantly introduces “All or Nothing at All”: the cut begins as a duet between Krall and the bassist, and it’s beautifully expressive as well as intimate. One can hear McBride’s bebop chops in many places, including Chick Corea’s Remembering Bud Powell and Bobby Hutcherson’s Skyline.
In 2014, McBride recorded for three nights live at the Village Vanguard with his trio featuring Christian Sands on piano and Ulysses Owens on drums. As issued, the unimaginatively titled Live at the Village Vanguard begins with a driving version of Wes Montgomery’s blues tune, “Fried Pies” (from Boss Guitar). His solo on “Cherokee” won McBride a Grammy for best instrumental solo. On this bop display piece, McBride plays the A sections at a lightning speed. In the bridge, a funny thing happens: the band performs it in three as a kind of floating waltz. In some ways, this “Cherokee” was the disc’s climax, but I like what happens next: a moody, out of tempo introduction to “Good Morning Heartache” with McBride first improvising an almost inarticulate few bars and then bowing the melody. It’s then back to fun time with the gospel tune, “Down by the Riverside.” Then we hear a surprise, the clapping beat from the disco hit “Car Wash.” A member of the audience shouts out in recognition, “Oh yeah!” As serious a musician as he is, and as virtuosic as he can be, the naturally extroverted McBride knows how to entertain. He makes “Car Wash” bounce along playfully.
His newly issued disc, Inside Straight: Live at the Village Vanguard, was recorded in 2014 a week before his trio gig at the same basement club. The band already had a tradition there. Seven years before, club owner Lorraine Gordon encouraged McBride to perform in her Vanguard, but she asked him to leave behind his funk and “rock” sides. McBride still likes funk and electric bass, but he describes the music on Inside Straight: Live at the Village Vanguard as “no-holds-barred-swinging.” The hard-bopping band, which was named by a fan, consists of Steve Wilson on alto and soprano; Warren Wolf on vibes; Peter Martin, piano, and Carl Allen on drums. It’s meant to swing, yet the compositions, beginning with Warren Wolf’s “Sweet Bread,” are neither simple nor one-sided.
“Sweet Bread” begins with a short introduction played by alto and vibes in unison. The bright-sounding tune that follows unfolds in sequences of contrasting short phrases that lead to some good old-fashioned four/four swinging in the solos. In contrast, the introduction of Wolf’s “Gang Gang” features a simple repeated phrase that is played over what sounds like clapping and a cow bell. Somehow it builds in intensity until the actual theme, played by Steve Wilson on alto, seems like a release. The solos that follow maintain the excitement. McBride’s “Uncle James” is a sweet theme in 6/8: the uncle in question must be a gentle man. There is a sober, relaxed piece by Steve Wilson dedicated to writer Maya Angelou called “Ms. Angelou.” The set ends with its opposite. “Stick and Move” goes so fast that McBride can hardly call out the tempo. In this live set the happy audience is a vocal participant. Obviously pleased at what went down, the bassist invites us to join him next December at the Vanguard.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.