Christian McBride: Or So You Thought You Knew
The first thing you hear on Christian McBride's new album, Vertical Vision, is a hot-jazz tune that sounds like something Fletcher Henderson might have recorded in 1931. Beneath the crackling static of an old 78, you can hear a bouncy piano stranded somewhere between Dixieland and swing and an upright bass playing a tuba part. When you glance at the album credits, however, you find that the song is called "Circa 1990" and was composed by McBride.
After a mere 13 seconds of the tune, you hear a needle sliding across the disc as McBride shouts out, as if from the other side of the room, "No, no, no, put that other record on." As if someone were fulfilling his request, a fusion track comes blasting from the speakers, sounding like Return to Forever circa 1974, the electric bass, electric guitar and drums locked into a fast and tricky funk line. This tune, "Technicolor Nightmare," is also credited to McBride but after a mere 16 seconds, the funk subsides to make space for an acoustic bass solo over atmospheric Rhodes piano chords.
"That's all a joke," McBride insists. "The title, 'Circa 1990,' refers to that era when all the 'young lions,' as they called us, were labeled as disciples of Wynton Marsalis, whether we were or not. A lot of people assumed our one and only goal was to restore the traditional side of the music. So I thought, 'I'll show them; I'll give them something really traditional.' I told the guys in my band to play something that sounded as far back as possible, and when we put some sampled static on it and EQ'd it to take out the highs and lows, t sounded really old."
It's a joke that cuts several ways. Return to Forever, a band formed more than 30 years ago, has been relegated to the past every bit as much as Fletcher Henderson. If a young player like McBride is going to borrow from jazz history, why not from fusion as well as hard-bop, from Dixieland as well as free jazz? McBride's album-opening prank is a way of saying, "If I'm going to draw from the past, why not from my youth as well as yours? If I jump around in history, maybe you won't be able to tie me to any one style and I'll be able to develop a sound that's truly my own."
McBride, who turns 31 in May, is the best-known bassist of his generation, and with Vertical Vision, his first CD for Warner Bros. following a long tenure with Verve, he's trying to redefine what his generation is all about. His first two albums-the 1995 debut Gettin' to It and 1996's Number Two Express-were straightahead projects that showcased his prodigious talents on the acoustic upright. But he turned the tables on 1998's A Family Affair, which prominently featured his electric bass on jazz arrangements of his favorite R&B tunes. On 2000's Sci-Fi and now Vertical Vision, McBride has sought ways to combine acoustic and electric, mainstream and fusion, swing and funk.
"First they tried to put us in that hard-bop box," McBride complains, "and now they're trying to put us in a different box. I was in Japan a few months ago, and every last interview said this new album sounds like Weather Report. Yeah, sure, Weather Report has been an influence on me and anytime you play a fretless electric bass, you're going to remind people of Jaco, but I would never be dumb enough to imitate another band. That's why 'Technicolor Nightmare' begins with everyone playing really fast in unison, but then a long, acoustic bass solo comes in and the chords change. We're messing with fusion just like we would mess with anything else. I'm not looking to make a rock record. I don't want to be boxed in again like I was in the '90s. Back then, people looked at us with blinders on and assumed we only did this one thing; they put us in that retro box. Man, that's the worst thing you can do to people in their 20s. We weren't finished growing as people much less as musicians.
"This isn't a shot at Wynton, because I love and respect him, but we can't all do the same thing. And it's been fun to see what corners people have turned over the past dozen years. Terence Blanchard is about to start an organ group, for example, and Roy Hargrove has been touring with RH Factor, which is pretty much a straight-up R&B band. We're all doing different things now."
With the rumbling laugh of a stand-up comedian and the earnest baritone of an A.M.E. preacher, McBride delivers his thoughts from a black leather armchair, where he has settled in like a king. We are in the living room of his apartment, located in that part of Manhattan where the plush Upper East Side nudges up against the rawer Spanish Harlem. From the 32nd-floor window we have a spectacular view of the East River.
McBride is wearing the pale blue jersey and maroon cap of the world champion 1980 Philadelphia Phillies. He wears thick, black-framed glasses, a goatee and the beefy but softened physique of a former athlete turned TV fan. The room is full of sports paraphernalia, mostly from his hometown teams. On the top shelf of one wall, three Philadelphia Eagles football helmets are lined up in a row. Below them are bobble-head dolls of Allen Iverson and Donovan McNabb. Two posters of Muhammad Ali hang on the walls. ESPN hums on low volume beneath our conversation.
Music has an equal presence in McBride's locker room. There's a poster from Kansas City, the Robert Altman film that McBride appeared in. There's a poster from the Chick Corea/Roy Haynes tour that McBride was a part of. A glass cabinet holds several shelves full of awards. Black-and-white photos of Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis line an archway. But holding the place of honor is a color photo of McBride with James Brown, autographed by the Godfather of Soul himself.
For Miles Davis and his generation, James Brown's funk was a new development they had to respond to. For Christian McBride and his generation, funk is a fact of life; it has always been there. For them, it is the first rhythm, the foundation of popular music, just as swing was for Davis' generation. The challenge is this: Can a jazz of true invention and elasticity be fashioned from funk as it was from swing? Or does the dance-beat imperative of funk make it too rigid a material to work with?
"What people don't understand is that funk came out of jazz," McBride argues. He jumps up and puts on a James Brown CD. "Listen to that. Maybe the eighth note is straighter than it is in swing, but it still has that triplet feel over it. And James is one of the great improvisers of all time. The groove underneath might be hypnotic, but James was likely to do anything at anytime. He was the navigator.
"Fred Wesley [Brown's longtime trombonist] told me that the first thing you learn when you join the band is to always watch James. Because just when you think you're going into another eight-bar phrase, James will raise his band in the third bar and go somewhere else. That's the sound of surprise that jazz is all about.
"Miles was like James except he was playing trumpet instead of singing. And the rhythms were looser. In James' bands, everyone had a part that fit together like a puzzle; if the second guitar wasn't there, it didn't sound right. Miles would have the drums and bass play strict rhythm while everyone else played free or he would have the guitar and drums play strict rhythm while everyone else was free.
"Miles decided in the '70s that he couldn't use hot jazz rhythm players anymore. To get those rhythms right, he had to have guys like Michael Henderson and Reggie Lucas. But he always had serious jazz cats to stir the pot. That's why anyone who says Bitches Brew is a rock record doesn't know what they're talking about; it sounds nothing like Band of Gypsies or Blind Faith. It's all about the tension between grooving and improvising. And because it's a new kind of groove, it's a watershed jazz record."
McBride is the kind of player Davis was looking for in 1970 but couldn't find, a bassist who can play straight-ahead funk but who can also improvise on any changes. As one of the most active session players of the '90s, he played with everyone from McCoy Tyner to George Duke, from Benny Carter to Nnenna Freelon. On his own records, McBride has been seeking ways to combine both roles.
"Technicolor Nightmare" does just that. The song kicks off with a fusion rush, with McBride's fat-toned electric bass rumbling up and down through the chords like a roller coaster. But then the guitar and sax drop out and McBride trades the electric for an acoustic bass, playing a Dave Holland-like solo full of prodding tangents and thoughtful pauses. Slowly but surely, however, McBride's upright returns to the original funk riff and plays it with the same muscular authority as he did on the fretless electric. Soon he is overdubbing that repeating figure on electric, allowing him to play more freely on acoustic.
Thus he combines the two very different roles assigned to bassists: playing a steady, repeating dance rhythm and playing as melodically and as harmonically free as any other jazz instrument. Nonbassists often assume that the instrument's first role is drudgery, a chore to be accepted only because it's required, and that every bassist (and drummer) yearns for the liberty of the second role. Not so, insists McBride.
"I love playing strict rhythm," he declares. "I wouldn't want to do it all the time, but I wouldn't want to be in a situation where I never did it either. Like when I play with Sting, 90 percent of what I play is a part. Once the band gets rolling, this tremendous momentum gets going and I know it's all coming from me and the drummer. There's genuine pleasure in hearing the music roll at such a velocity and knowing that the velocity comes from you. When we play 'Every Breath You Take,' Sting plays electric bass and I play acoustic bass and we lock in so tightly that the cymbals shake and the drums vibrate. There's nothing like that.
"If I had been lucky enough to be around in the '40s, I can't imagine anything better than being the bassist in the Count Basie Band when they started rolling through 'Jumping at the Woodside.' I sat in with James Brown at his birthday party in Augusta, Georgia, and got to play on 'Sex Machine' and 'Jam.' They were real simple bass parts, but it was so satisfying, because you play that part and the groove happens. And you know if you don't play the part, the groove won't be there."
But it's not as if McBride were content to only play funk grooves. After all, he wrote "The Wizard of Montara" for the new album to give himself a chance to play a Ron Carter-like walking bass line behind a postbop tune reminiscent of the Miles Davis Quintet's mid-'60s work. And McBride walks all over the place, sometimes striding straight down the sidewalk, sometimes skipping up and down some stairs, sometimes darting out into traffic, sometimes breaking into a jog. He even does some showy bowing.
When McBride switches back to electric bass on another original composition, "The Ballad of Little Girl Dancer," he allows the drums and keys to carry most of the rhythmic weight so he's free to add counterpoint commentary. After the piano and soprano sax introduce the slow, romantic melody, for example, he responds with a jittery, suggestive bass phrase. As the rhythm evolves from a ballad feel into a midtempo funk groove, the sax and drums push the tune forward, but the synth and bass keep trying to pull it off the road and down into the bushes.
That kind of tension was at the heart of the early fusion triumphs but went missing when fusion seemed to reach a dead end at the end of the '70s. McBride would be the first to admit that the fusion era produced some really bad records-even by his heroes Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea-but he is mystified why critics, musicians and listeners condemned the whole genre rather than just the mediocre albums. He argues that fusion still has many unexplored possibilities, and he plans to check them out.
"Fusion was great when it was unpredictable," McBride argues, "when it had this powerful momentum but you still couldn't tell what any guy was going to play at any minute. When it got predictable, when it was one guy playing safe changes over an unchanging rhythm, that was the death of fusion.
"It was the disco era, and the music industry was telling guys, 'We can sell millions of records if you forget what you were doing and keep it predictable.' And a lot of musicians believed, 'I can do what I want on the side, but right now I have to appease the brass and keep my record contract.' That led to smooth jazz, which wiped out serious fusion music. But even after fusion supposedly died, there were still great fusion records. Weather Report never changed; everything they did was on the cutting edge. Even the post-Jaco stuff was great. Some of Herbie and Chick's output was better than others, but the good stuff was really good. The same with Miles. It was obvious to me which albums were playing the commercial game and which ones were serious music. I just stay away from the records of that era that I don't like."
McBride discovered most of this music after the fact, for he was born in 1972, in the heart of the fusion era. He lived with his single mother in Philadelphia, but he saw his father often enough to be impressed that his dad, Lee Smith, was a professional bassist who worked with Philly Soul superstars such as the Delfonics and Billy Paul.
"When I was eight," McBride says, "I saw my father playing with Mongo Santamaria at the 1980 Atlantic City Jazz Festival. Also on the same bill were Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Tormé and Ella Fitzgerald, and I was impressed by all these great musicians. After the show, I went backstage, and my dad introduced me to Dizzy and Mongo. What most impressed me, though, was the camaraderie backstage; guys from different bands were slapping each other's hands and say, 'Hey, how are you? Where've you been playing?' I liked that. And I liked the bass; I liked the way it looked and sounded. The fact that my dad played one helped. So for Christmas in 1981, my mother gave me my first electric bass, and the first time I held it, I said, 'Wow, this really feels natural; this feels right.' I practiced religiously every day. Every day except Sunday, because I had to watch my Eagles. It was a battle there for a while between bass and football."
His mother made sure he went to a junior high school with a good music program. McBride tried out on trombone, because Fred Wesley was already his hero, but his trombone career lasted exactly 25 minutes. When the youngster couldn't get any sound out of the horn, the teacher said, 'There's a rumor you play electric bass; why don't you try acoustic bass?"
"There was something about having all that wood next to my body; it felt like Mother Earth," McBride says. "When my Uncle Howard heard I was playing an upright bass, he said, 'Come on over here and let me turn you onto some stuff.' My mom and I went over at 9 a.m. one day and stayed until 1 a.m. During those 16 hours we listened to nothing but jazz, everything from Jimmy Blanton to Paul Chambers, from Al McKibbon to Ray Brown."
Howard Cooper was actually McBride's great-uncle on his mother's side, but he too was a professional bassist, having played with such avant-gardists as Sun Ra and Khan Jamal. But he never imposed his personal tastes on his great-nephew; he never claimed that one style of jazz was better than another. And that ecumenical tolerance for all kinds of music stayed with McBride for the rest of his life.
That proved crucial, for the bassist was a teenager in the '80s, when his love for jazz was balanced out by his love for the pop music of the day: funk, rock 'n' roll and hip-hop. Instead of feeling as if he were forced to choose one or the other, he was encouraged to appreciate both jazz and pop and to find ways to make connections between the two.
"One of the most important things I did as a teenager was to play with Joe Sudler's Swing Machine," McBride notes. "Joe was one of the town's musical patriarchs, and his band included Count Basie's old drummer Dave Gibson, Zach Zachary, an alto saxophonist from the Philly soul sessions, and keyboardist Uri Caine. Here I was 16 and I was playing with all these hardcore professionals. We played everything from 'Knock on Wood' to 'Hava Nagilah,' from 'Tea for Two' to 'White Room.' That band taught me that a professional musician has to be prepared to play anything at anytime."
McBride attended Philadelphia's High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where his fellow students included future members of the Roots and Boyz II Men as well as organist Joey DeFrancesco and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. When McBride was a sophomore, Wynton Marsalis came to the school to do one of his jazz workshops. The trumpeter was so impressed with the 14-year-old bassist that the dapper star invited the youngster to an upcoming gig. Marsalis then shocked McBride by bringing the kid up on stage to sit in for a number.
Experiences like this allowed McBride to win a scholarship to Juilliard. But two weeks into his first semester, McBride joined Bobby Watson's band and soon was gigging all over New York with the likes of John Hicks, Kenny Barron, Larry Willis and Gary Bartz. After a year of college, the 18-year-old bassist concluded he could learn more on the bandstand than in the classroom and reluctantly withdrew from Juilliard in 1990.
That summer he began a three-year run with the Freddie Hubbard Quintet. And when the trumpeter wasn't working, the band's rhythm section worked as the Benny Green Trio. By the time he released the first album under his own name, McBride had recorded with Joe Henderson, Betty Carter, Benny Carter, Joe Lovano, McCoy Tyner, Diana Krall, Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove, Cyrus Chestnut and more. McBride had already been named Rolling Stone's "Hot Jazz Artist" of 1992 and had landed major features in the jazz mags.
When Gettin' to It finally appeared at the beginning of 1995, McBride was already a well-known figure. It was a typical "young lions" project, showcasing the bassist's virtuosity in a straightahead acoustic setting with such peers as Hargrove, Redman and Chestnut.
The follow-up, Number Two Express, was also an all-acoustic project but it loosened the straitjacket by exploring the transitional mid-'60s period when Miles Davis was using modal minimalism as a bridge from bop and cool of the past to the fusion of the future. McBride's album evoked that era with tunes by Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter as well as the bassist's own increasingly confident compositions. On board were such older experimentalists as Corea, Gary Bartz, Jack DeJohnette and Kenny Barron.
But it was on A Family Affair that McBride broke decisively from the "young lions" stereotype. The album opens with the finger-snapping funk of the Spinners' 1974 Philly-soul hit "I'm Coming Home," and never looks back as it tackles R&B hits by Sly & the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Kool & the Gang and Earth, Wind & Fire. McBride played both acoustic and electric basses, but he came down hard on the one more often than not, establishing a groove that owed as much to James Jamerson and Bootsy Collins as to Jimmy Blanton.
"I'm not the first guy to record pop songs on a jazz album," McBride says. "If Miles could record Richard Rodgers and George Gershwin, why can't I record Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone? I've always felt these songs are good enough to work as acoustic jazz. I think people shy away from post-Beatles songs, because they require more work. If you adapt a pre-Beatles show tune, you don't have to think about it very much; the swing is there, the chord changes are there. But if you take 'Crosstown Traffic' or an Incubus song, you have a lot of decisions to make. Should the rhythm be straight eights or dotted eights? Should the power chord remain a power chord or should I substitute another chord? And if I substitute a chord, do I have to change the melody? It requires a lot of effort, and it's easier for some guys to just say, 'Ah, it's rock 'n' roll; it will never work.'
"But there's a lot of good pop songs from 20-30 years ago," McBride insists. "There's a lot of good pop songs today; you just don't hear them on the radio. Why should we keep playing the same old show tunes when there's this wealth of material to explore?"
As much as he enjoyed making A Family Affair, McBride felt it wasn't a successful listening experience. The transitions from the funky R&B to the acoustic jazz numbers were too abrupt. He wanted to find a way to unite the two sides of his musical personality.
"I got closer to it on Sci-Fi," he says. "I wanted to get away from the mindset that it can't be funky unless it has slapped electric bass and the mindset that it can't be jazz unless it has acoustic bass. Why can't I combine electric and acoustic bass on the same song? Why can't I combine electric and acoustic keyboards?"
Sci-Fi featured McBride's road band (saxophonist Ron Blake, keyboardist Shedrick Mitchell and drummer Rodney Green) playing compositions by such jazz-rock bassists as Jaco Pastorius, Sting, Stanley Clarke, Walter Becker and McBride himself. The acoustic instruments dominated, but the undercurrent of electric instruments and funk beats might it difficult to pigeonhole. Which was the whole point.
"Filles de Kilimanjaro is one of my favorite Miles records," McBride says, "because it's in that gray area. It's too jazz to be rock and too rock to be jazz. You can't tell what it is. That's the kind of music I like."
McBride refines that approach on Vertical Vision. "On [Sci-Fi], the acoustic piano was always shadowed by the Rhodes. On this new CD, I tried to take it a step further and shadow the bass the same way. The whole concept of my band now is to blend acoustic and electric sounds. Sometimes I go with something that's not the obvious choice just to further that concept, like playing a groove song on acoustic bass and a swing song on electric.
"Vertical Vision is more of a band record than Sci-Fi," McBride says. Instead of dictating parts, he gave his current road comrades-Blake, keyboardist Geoff Keezer, guitarist David Gilmore and drummer Terreon Gully-more room to come up with their own parts. Moreover, aside from Weather Report's "Boogie Woogie Waltz," McBride, Blake or Keezer composes every track. Because it's such a collective effort, Vertical Vision has more continuity from cut to cut and more cohesion overall.
"That's what I love about a working band," McBride exclaims. "You can leave parts for them to mess with, and no song comes out quite like you think it will. Geoff Keezer has been the X-factor. He's not only interested in all kinds of keyboard sounds, but he's very knowledgeable as well. We'll do a straightahead, swinging jazz tune and he'll dial up these trippy sounds on the keys and the song will still swing. And when Geoff goes that way, the whole band goes that way.
"I compose on piano and I'll usually have a melody, the chord changes and the groove when I bring the song to the band. But at that point I haven't even played the song on bass yet, so there's a lot of freedom for everyone to try out different approaches. I'll listen to what everyone comes up with and I might say, 'I want this looser' or 'I want that funkier,' but usually I'm excited by the ideas the other guys come up with. That's why I hired them.
"The worst mistake a bassist can make when he leads a band is to try to take over everything. It's bad enough when a horn player or pianist tries to hog all the solos, but it's even more obvious when it's a bassist. If a bass player leads a band and takes all the solos, even a postman could tell that this guy is frustrated. You have to be comfortable with your role, which is lock in with the drummer behind the horns and keys for most of the night. I like to think if you didn't know I was the leader of this band, you couldn't tell by just listening to us."
When he's not recording and touring with his own band, McBride continues to tour with Sting and to sign up for as many recording dates as he can. He's also made a conscious decision to devote as much time to jazz education and jazz programming as he can. In recent years, he has accepted positions as a faculty member at the Henry Mancini Institute in Los Angeles and as artistic director at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Summer Program in Colorado, at the University of Richmond's summer jazz program, and at the Dave Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.
"If guys like Wynton or Bobby Watson or my uncle hadn't taken time out of their busy schedules to get me interested in jazz," McBride says, "I might not be as serious about it as I am now. So I feel like I have an obligation to give something back.
"It was hard growing up in the inner city in the '80s and it's so much harder now. Kids in the inner city have no idea that there's a whole other world out there; when Bobby and Kenny Barron came to my school, it was like they were opening a window. When Wynton came, it was like the Messiah was visiting our high school. In five minutes, someone who's been out there and knows a world you've never seen can make it real and make you believe it's something you can do.
"And it's not like they just came by and said, 'Yeah, practice, practice, practice, and I'll see you later.' They got involved and stayed in touch. When Wynton was in Philly about a year after I first met him, I went to his hotel room in the afternoon and asked him to come to my house to say hi to my mom and grandmom. Knowing what I know now about the road, I can't believe he did this, but he came by my house, and when my grandmother started cooking, he missed his soundcheck just so he could hang out and do the big-brother thing. It had nothing to do with music, but it meant the world to me."
Christian McBride maintains one of the better Web sites in jazz, christianmcbride.com, a cyber-library full of diaries, a long discography, a biography and a complete list of all the equipment he uses. Nonetheless, the bassist insists, "I've never been much of a gearhead; I tell people, 'Just make me what you like.'" For example, when Mas Hino, a luthier at Rudy's Music Stop in Manhattan, offered to make him an electric fretless bass, McBride had only one instruction: He asked for a maple neck and left the rest to Hino.
Mostly McBride just trusts his ears. "Basses are such a crapshoot," he says. "Guys think the age or the brand name will tell you how good it will be, but you can find a 300-year-old bass that's as dead as a doornail and a new one can sound big and full."
About seven years ago, McBride's acoustic bass was damaged by an airline and his spare was damaged when he slipped on some ice. "So I went from having two basses to having none. I had to play on a different rented instrument every night; that was the worst tour of my life. But then David Gage, the greatest bass-repair guy in the world, called me from his shop in Tribeca and said, 'You have to come down here; someone just brought a great bass into the store. He didn't know what he had.' So I went down and this bass [a Juzek three-quarter upright] was so loud and resonant that I've been using it ever since."
On stage, McBride will plug both his acoustic and his electric instruments into a Morley A/B box on his pedal board. He will also attach a clip-on mike to his upright. "I used to be one of those jazz Republicans who would never use a DI on stage or in the studio," he confesses, "but I got tired of being overpowered. I'd still rather use the natural sound and I only use the DI when I have to, but with my band or Sting's band, that's most of the time. Plus you need the DI if you want to put any effects on the bass. I like to use a 65/35 mix of mike and DI."
Originally published in April 2003