08/18/10

Christian McBride: Before and After

Bassist gets a high score on an underrated era

For this special edition of Before & After celebrating the 40th anniversary of JazzTimes, bassist-composer-bandleader Christian McBride listened to tunes either recorded or released in 1970. Of course, the Philadelphia native wasn’t born until May 31, 1972, but being an astute listener and something of a musical historian, he has encyclopedic knowledge of music from earlier eras … and not just jazz.

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Melissa Mergner

Christian McBride performing with Chick Corea's Freedom Band at CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival 2010

Since emerging as a 17-year-old prodigy, the Juilliard-trained McBride has become a highly respected figure on the scene, both as a ubiquitous sideman (he’s recorded on more than 270 sessions to date) and as a leader (with nine CDs to his credit). In 2008, McBride signed with the Detroit-based Mack Avenue label, debuting the following year with Kind of Brown by his Inside Straight quintet. In 2008 and 2009 he also toured with the Five Peace Band featuring Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Kenny Garrett and Vinnie Colaiuta (with Brian Blade subbing on some Stateside dates and throughout an Asian tour). The group’s 2009 release, Five Peace Band Live, earned a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album.

This summer McBride will tour with Chick Corea’s Freedom Band featuring Roy Haynes and Garrett. In the fall he will tour in a trio setting with Corea and Blade. His next Mack Avenue recording, Conversations With Christian, will be a series of 20 duets with such illustrious partners as Corea, Eddie Palmieri, Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Regina Carter, Russell Malone, George Duke, Hank Jones and Ron Blake. These duo tracks were originally recorded for McBride’s interview and performance-oriented radio show, The Lowdown: Conversations With Christian, airing every Saturday at 1 p.m. EST on the Sirius/XM network. His eagerly anticipated big-band project is already in the can and is slated for release on Mack Avenue in 2011.

If all that weren’t enough, McBride is also co-director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, where this Before & After session took place.

1. McCoy Tyner
“His Blessings” (from Extensions, Blue Note). Tyner, piano, composer; Alice Coltrane, harp; Wayne Shorter, tenor sax; Gary Bartz, alto sax; Ron Carter, bass; Elvin Jones, drums.

BEFORE: [almost immediately] Alice Coltrane! Ptah, the El Daoud. Right? No. McCoy Tyner, Extensions. This is one of McCoy Tyner’s greatest albums. When I was a teenager in Philly, one of my greatest mentors was Robert Landham. He’s an alto player who is in the Ellington band now. He hipped me to this record when I was maybe 13 or 14 years old. This recording was like a pillar of my teenage years. This is “His Blessings,” I think.

AFTER: I’m glad that JazzTimes is doing this 1970 theme because 1970 marks the era in which jazz scholars proclaimed that jazz started to die. The fusion stuff was getting hot and Miles was experimenting with rock and … Oh my God! What’s the world coming to? But then you have records like this that are timeless. Elvin’s sounding good, Ron sounds great on here. And in terms of the recording of this album, you can hear Rudy Van Gelder’s sound start to change. Elvin’s drums don’t quite have that 1960s sound, that kind of In ’N Out, Inner Urge, Speak No Evil kind of sound that he had in earlier Blue Note sessions. I’m sure it’s a combination of Elvin changing some drums and Rudy changing his recording style. Also, Ron is using the DI [direct input] on here. It’s very evident that it’s no longer the microphone in front of the bass. I love this recording. Wayne is right on the cusp here, smack-dead between Miles and Weather Report. There’s a song on this album called “The Wanderer” which has one of Wayne Shorter’s greatest solos ever. Gary Bartz, of course, also sounds great. What a lineup! I think this is McCoy’s second to last album for Blue Note.

This album also taps into a kind of psychedelic culture that was emerging at the time.

Right. Everything was bleeding all into each other. I really wish I could’ve been there to see that. I got it somewhat through my parents. But at that moment in time the jazz musicians were listening to the rock guys, the rock guys were listening to John Coltrane and the avant-garde, the Indian guys were listening to jazz and the classical guys were listening to Indian music. Everything just merged. You’d have black nationalists and hippies agreeing on Vietnam. It was a beautiful period where all the lines were blurred.

2. Lee Morgan
“Nommo” (from Live at the Lighthouse, Blue Note). Morgan, trumpet; Bennie Maupin, tenor sax; Harold Mabern, piano; Jymie Merritt, bass, composer; Mickey Roker, drums.

BEFORE: [within three notes of the bass intro] Ah! Lee Morgan, Live at the Lighthouse. That’s another classical album, man. I’ve always been fascinated by this album because it’s from a period that the jazz pundits don’t really talk about that much. When they talk about Lee Morgan they talk about the Art Blakey period or the Sidewinder period or being in Dizzy Gillespie’s band as a teenager. But I like this album much better than a lot of his Blue Note albums that are considered classics. I love this album much more than The Sidewinder. That’s just my own five-cent take. Lee was much more mature in his playing here. You can hear his chops were healing a little bit, because I know he had an accident where he messed his teeth up and he couldn’t play, which is evident when you listen to a record like Caramba! [Blue Note, 1968]. I mean, Lee is strong on here, and the band is strong. You can tell they got a thing happening with the Philly rhythm section of Mickey Roker and Jymie Merritt. I was glad when Blue Note reissued this as a three-CD set, which had everything from the whole gig, practically. Jack DeJohnette sits in on one tune. And you really get to hear them stretch out here.

I was actually with Bennie Maupin not that long ago and we were talking about Lee Morgan. And just to show you how heavy Lee Morgan was, particularly this band in this period, Bennie always said that the worst thing that could’ve happened to him happened when he gave his word to Lee Morgan. He said, “Look, I would love to be in your band. When’s the first gig?” And Lee told him, “Two weeks.” Three days later Miles called and said, “Hey man, Wayne’s leaving the band. You wanna come and make some gigs?” And Bennie told him, “Miles, I can’t believe this, man. I would love to do it but I just gave my word to Lee Morgan.” And he recognized that that might’ve thrown Miles off-kilter a little bit because he wasn’t used to somebody telling him no. So he said, “Miles, I love you, I respect you, I’m honored you called, but no. I gave my word to somebody else already.” And Bennie says he doesn’t regret it one bit because Lee Morgan was a great musician, a great spirit and great inspiration to him. And I think this album clearly exhibits what he was talking about.

As far as this tune goes, it’s “Nommo” by Jymie Merritt. Another five-cent opinion of mine is that Jymie Merritt was the [most swinging] bass player that Art Blakey had. I think he hooked up with Art Blakey better than any other bass player. Obviously, no disrespect to Doug Watkins or Spanky Debrest or Reggie Workman, but Jymie Merritt was so strong. To hear him play with Art Blakey, it was like a 747 engine—just sheer power! And as a composer, you can listen to this tune and hear that Jymie Merritt was very much a forward-thinker. Yet, sadly, he is a very overlooked figure in the jazz world. He’s playing a baby bass here [electric Ampeg upright bass] and really projects his notes. And you can hear from what he’s playing that he obviously is not in the bebop thing anymore. You can hear him say, “I’m going over here.” And he’s doing it in a very strong fashion. From what I understood, when Lee Morgan was murdered it just took him out so bad that he just got off the scene. But I really wonder what would’ve happened had he stayed on the scene. He’s still alive and well in Philly though he doesn’t travel much anymore. But I hope we can get him out again, maybe get him up here at the [National Jazz Museum]. He’s got a whole lot of rich history that he can talk about [as part of the museum’s “Harlem Speaks” interview series].

3. Tony Williams Lifetime
“Allah Be Praised” (from Turn It Over, Verve). Williams, drums; John McLaughlin, guitar; Larry Young, organ, composer.

BEFORE: [within seconds of the opening drum flurry] Tony Williams! Alright, I’m three for three. This is from Lifetime’s second album. I can’t remember the title but I know this record. What can you say about the Tony Williams Lifetime? Obviously, this band was way ahead of its time, but it seems to me that it didn’t catch the fire that it should have, on a commercial level. People go back and listen to this band now and they say, “Well, how could this band not be as huge or as influential or as commercially successful as the Mahavishnu Orchestra?” When you think about the melding of jazz and rock, it doesn’t get more perfect than this. I really think that Tony Williams—with his jazz roots and totally rewriting the book for jazz drums but also being young enough to be influenced by rock ’n’ roll and to really understand what that was—was perfectly suited to trailblaze this fusion path. And then finding McLaughlin and having Larry Young there, who also had firm jazz roots and was somebody who was young enough at that time to be inspired by rock ’n’ roll, helped make [Lifetime] the preeminent fusion band of its time. I think Miles knew that. Because you hear those stories that Tony got upset that Miles called each of those guys separately to play on In a Silent Way. And Tony’s feeling was, “Look, it’s actually Miles Davis with Tony Williams Lifetime.” But Miles was smart. He was actually a businessman at heart. He figured, “Now, I don’t want you to get too big. Just remember, I’m still the godfather.” But I can’t imagine Miles wouldn’t have heard these guys and just choked on his own saliva and said, “You gotta be kidding me. This is bad!”

At what point in your own development did you first hear this band?

Not ’til later. I didn’t really get into Lifetime until some point in the early ’90s. I knew about the Tony Williams Lifetime but I had never really checked them out. In high school I would buy two albums a week with my allowance. So even if I didn’t listen to those records at that particular time, I’d say, “OK, I know this is a record I need to listen to, so I’m just going to buy it and put it on the shelf and I’ll get to it eventually.” [Lifetime’s Emergency!] was one of those records. I bought it in high school but I was already living in New York by the time I got around to listening to it. And when I finally got to it I thought, “Wow!” Once again, it’s just one of those great transition periods—right in between what Tony did with Miles and what I call “The Yellow Drum Era,” which was that period during the ’80s where he had his band with Mulgrew [Miller] and Wallace [Roney, along saxophonist Bill Pierce and bassist Ira Coleman]. You just hear Tony blooming into something else—and it’s dangerous. It’s like, here’s this cat who is already one of the baddest drummers who ever lived; now he’s on the way to doing something even deeper. What’s that gonna be like? Yeah, that band will forever stand the test of time. And being on tour with McLaughlin in the Five Peace Band I couldn’t help but bend his ear a little bit about Tony. He told me a great story about when they played on The Tonight Show. He thinks they got away with it because Flip Wilson was the guest host that week. You know, Flip was always looking out for the cats. And get this, they played “Vashkar.” I can’t imagine that band on Johnny Carson’s show, man.

4. Charles Earland
“More Today Than Yesterday” (from Black Talk!, Prestige). Earland, organ; Virgil Jones, trumpet; Houston Person, tenor sax; Melvin Sparks, guitar; Idris Muhammad, drums; Buddy Caldwell, congas.

BEFORE: [almost immediately] Oh! Charles Earland. My homie. Yeah, I remember this one.

It was a big radio hit in 1970.

Yeah, Ron Blake, who was in my band and who also used to work with Charles Earland, said that that’s the first organist he had ever worked with who had two Leslie cabinets stacked on top of each other. He said, “Man, the volume was something you couldn’t imagine.” But yeah, I do know that this was a hit for Charles Earland. It was particularly a big hit on Philly radio. My uncle worked for WHAT Radio in Philly, and all of those DJs at that time were so well versed in the soul hits of the day but also the jazz hits of the day. And this was one of their staples in the early ’70s. Sonny Hopson would play this all the time on his show. As a matter of fact, I think Charles Earland’s nickname came from Sonny Hopson, who was also called “The Mighty Burner” on the airwaves in Philly. Yeah, this definitely hits home. I got a heads up on a lot of the great organists because my best friend throughout high school was Joey DeFrancesco. When it comes to knowing organists, this cat is a doctor. He knows every nuance of every organist who ever lived. And Joey would always talk about how Charles grooved so hard. Maybe not the hippest basslines in the world, but it would always be swinging. And that’s really all that needed to be done. I never got to meet Charles. He had already moved to Chicago by the time I was coming up in Philly. I feel fortunate I got to work with Jimmy Smith, hung out with Jack McDuff a number of times, almost got to play with Jimmy McGriff once. Melvin Rhyne, of course. But Charles, I never got to meet him.

The rest of this article appears in the September 2010 issue of JazzTimes.

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