Like many of his post-Motown bop contemporaries, bassist Christian McBride steadily reconciles pop, soul and jazz-fusion with today's bebop paradigm. On his latest venture, McBride picks up where 1998's A Family Affair left off-a big nod to '70s music. But this time the results are more even, with a more unified sound. That's mainly because McBride chose more durable pop for Sci-Fi (Steely Dan's "Aja" and Sting's "Walking on the Moon") and showcases more of his own burgeoning composition talents.
As the title suggests, the album has a questing quality that's sometimes expressed in the longing melodies of Ron Blake's tenor saxophone on "Aja," Dianne Reeves' celestial vocalese on "Lullaby for a Ladybug" or drummer Rodney Green's rocketing rhythmic bursts on "Xerxes." McBride's robust acoustic bass alone could propel any ensemble to the stratosphere, but on Sci-Fi he adds even more ammunition to his arsenal: he plays discreet Fender Rhodes as a complement to Shedrick Mitchell's acoustic piano. On the Wayne Shorterish title track, McBride tosses in some spacey keyboard effects, while Blake's adventurous soprano saxophone probes right through the spacious composition, like the Enterprise warping through galactic wormholes.
McBride pays tribute to two of his electric-bass heroes, Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke, with "Havana" and "Butterfly Dreams," respectively, and gives a mighty pound to the '70s fusion with the infectious "Via Mwandishi," which features James Carter's bass clarinet recalling Bennie Maupin, one of the instrument's underrated players.
McBride restrains from using too many electronic effects to get that Dr. Who vibe going. Even when he opts for the electric bass, as on "Walking on the Moon" and "Science Fiction," it's done tastefully. His bubbling conversation with Carter's bass clarinet towards the end of "Walking on the Moon" is McBride's most emotionally alluring electric bass playing on record to date. Sci-Fi is not the masterpiece that McBride's capable of, but it's his most focused and delightful album yet.