Live at Tonic
Last year began and ended funky for Christian McBride. We’ll move backward: the bassist bade farewell to 2005 by hanging out in a dressing room with none other than the Godfather of Funk, James Brown. He kicked off the year in similar style, presiding over two nights of guest-laden grooves at Tonic, the Lower East Side’s new-music HQ.
The backstage hang with J.B. has yet to bear any musical fruit—McBride coyly hints in his online journal that something’s coming—but the other confab can now be heard on this Ropeadope release, in all of its shambling glory. The three-CD Live at Tonic offers an almost unmitigated experience; befitting the jam band crowd that the album openly courts, it has a soundboard-to-bootleg vibe.
McBride played two consecutive dates at Tonic, Jan. 3 and 4. On both nights, the first set was a standard hit by the Christian McBride Band; the late sets featured some anointed interlopers. Disc two of this release documents the first guest jam—with guitarist Charlie Hunter, violinist Jenny Scheinman and pianist Jason Moran—in raw and uninterrupted form. Disc three offers the same deal with a different crew: DJ Logic, guitarist Eric Krasno, beat-box savant Scratch and trumpeter Rashawn Ross.
It should come as no surprise that disc one, a sampling of the strongest CMB performances from both early sets, yields the most coherent music on the album. Straight out of the gate, the group’s collective impact is clear. “Technicolor Nightmare” is an unabashed fusion anthem, and it sounds far fiercer here than on McBride’s last album, 2003’s Vertical Vision (Warner Bros.). This has a lot to do with the hookup between McBride and drummer Terreon Gully, whose whiplash propulsion has probably never had a better showcase.
Gully also contributes “Say Something,” one of the set’s newer and better tunes. In fact, every member of the band has a compositional say. Keyboardist Geoffrey Keezer digs into the vault for “Hibiscus,” a splash of Pacific futurism. Saxophonist Ron Blake lends his soulful “Sonic Tonic,” which begins with a typically rousing McBride exertion. The boss himself lays down four originals, including the gently swirling “Lejos de Usted” and a waltzing ballad from his first album, “Sitting on a Cloud.” One of the album’s highlights is a McBride tune of recent vintage, a soul-jazz ode to the late comic Flip Wilson called “Clerow’s Flipped.” The first disc closes with a rampaging take on “Boogie Woogie Waltz,” the Joe Zawinul epic that connects the CMB to Weather Report, in an explicit fashion.
Things get a lot looser in the late sets: bringing his guests up one by one, McBride plays the part of an affably laid-back M.C. This sets the stage for some happily strange frissons in disc two, like Moran hammering at an out-of-tune piano on “See Jam, Hear Jam, Feel Jam” and Scheinman’s violin answering Blake’s flute on “Lower East Side/Rock Jam.” (Most of the track titles on these latter two discs were added after the fact, and nearly all of them include the word “jam.”) Everyone has a field day with “Give It Up or Turn It Loose,” the J.B. tune.
Yes, a tune. A few of them do materialize on the Hunter-Moran Scheinman disc, which is what makes it more than a mere collision. It’s especially fascinating to hear Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” theme in this setting; Moran’s stabbing pianism gives it a percussive edge that seems to add to Blake’s soprano fervor. Scheinman’s amplified stirrings on McBride’s “Via Mwandishi” also make for an oddly perfect fit.
There are few such thrills on disc three, which might have been better relegated to a bonus download. Krasno does a solid job with the funk that McBride and his gang lay down, but the other guests often seem at a loss. This is also where the looseness of the session begins to grate. I was at Tonic one of these nights, so I know how long it took for a musician to move through the crowd, but suffering two minutes of vamping while Scratch finds his way to the stage is not something I need to do at home. It doesn’t help that this music makes a thin gruel. Not even funkiness can save it.