BASS IS THE PLACE – CHRISTIAN McBRIDE brings his big band to the UK in May

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The ubiquitous Christian McBride is still relatively young – he’ll be 46 in May – but in terms of the number of recording sessions he’s contributed to, he’s a true veteran, having played on several hundred albums during a career that stretches back to 1991. That might be a drop in the ocean compared with fellow jazz bassist, Ron Carter – who has made the Guinness Book Of Records for appearing on over two thousand recordings – but McBride’s achievement is impressive none-the-less. But he is the first to admit that Carter’s amazing feat is unassailable. “I don’t know if that’s even possible anymore (to do that) just because the recording world doesn’t exist the way it used to,” he laughs when I ask him, somewhat tongue-in-cheek if his ultimate aim is to overtake Carter. “I caught the tail end of the recording scene. At one point, throughout the ’90s, I was probably averaging about 20 albums per year, which was not that many compared to what most people were doing in the ’50s and ’60s. I think for my generation it was a lot, but I’m not nearly doing that kind of studio work anymore.”

The reason for that situation, he explains, is the way that the music industry has changed due to technology, which has resulted in the closure of many of New York’s big, professional studios. “Just about 5 or 6 months ago, Avatar, one of the largest studios in New York closed,” he reveals. “Who can imagine New York City without a major recording studio? There’s a lot of small studios still active but a lot of people are recording at home doing projects on the fly.”

But while some things change – and for the worse, perhaps – other things that are declared dead and gone in the music industry have a knack of being resurrected. Take vinyl LPs, for example. Who’d have thought they would have made such a big comeback?  Another – but smaller – case in point is the jazz big band, which first dominated popular music in the swing age of the 1930s but has been in terminal decline ever since. But it hasn’t shuffled off its mortal coil just yet. Christian McBride is one of just a handful of musicians keeping big band jazz off death row. In 2010, he put together a large ensemble and released the album, ‘The Good Feeling,’ a year later. Last year, in 2017, he followed it up with a second big band, album,  ‘Bringin’ It.’ Needless to say, both albums grabbed a Grammy award. Those living in the UK who have yet to witness McBride’s seventeen-piece ensemble up-close will get the opportunity this May when the bassist brings his band to the Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

altAccording to McBride, it will be the full band and not a stripped-down touring-lite version. Big bands, as no doubt Count Basie and Duke Ellington discovered years ago,  offer both financial and logistical challenges to bandleaders as well as testing conundrums in man-management, but McBride, who confesses to not having travelled at any length with the band before, is fairly phlegmatic yet positive.   “This will be the first time that I’ve actually gone on an extended tour with the big band, so I actually don’t really know what challenges I’ll face yet…check back with me after the tour is over,” he laughs. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. I’ve pretty much had the same players in my big band for the last eight years now, so we all know each other, and this year I don’t foresee any real issues.” 

 McBride says that his interest in big bands goes way back, many years before he actually recorded with one.  “I’ve always been interested in writing for big bands,” he discloses. “Back in 2001, a guy in New York named Jack Heinsinger knew that I’d been writing some big band arrangements – I don’t quite know how he knew that – and he gave me a gig and I put together my first big band. I enjoyed it so much that I thought I want to keep doing this.”  But almost a decade elapsed before McBride officially launched the group. “I didn’t really, formally, start a big band until 2010, and that’s when we did our first gig at The Iridium in New York and we went into the studio a year later and recorded ‘The Good Feeling.'”

The bass maven prefers to write his own arrangements for the band and the material ranges from original, self-written pieces (like the funky, James Brown-inflected title track) to antique jazz standards. For McBride hearing his scores brought to life for the first time he says is an almost indescribable thrill and pleasure. “When you write music or if you write an arrangement, you’re sitting alone at a piano or whatever instrument you play,” he explains. “You write all that music out and then, when you hear 16 people play what you wrote back to you, that’s the most incredible feeling you can ever imagine. It’s like all those little notes on the paper come to life. That also happens in small groups but when you’re in a small group you’re just hearing maybe three or four players, but when you hear it come from sixteen or seventeen, that’s a different feeling. I can only imagine what it’s like for a symphonic writer. I hope I will experience that one day.”                          altIn terms of the musicians that have shaped his big band sensibility, McBride admits to several. “The truth is that anyone who’s ever written anything for a big band has had an influence on me,” he declares. “There are some obvious ones, like (Duke) Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Quincy Jones and J.J. Johnson, and people like that, but Oliver Nelson is probably one of my biggest big band heroes. In the myth that Quincy Jones has become, a lot of people forget that he’s actually a brilliant writer and a brilliant arranger, not just the guy that produced Michael Jackson.”

Listening to McBride’s big band records – especially the first one, ‘The Good Feeling’ – one can detect another, more textural, influence, that’s more in keeping with the Gil Evans and Maria Schneider big band school. McBride considers fellow Grammy winner, Schneider, as a friend and mentor: “Maria has been a huge influence on me and someone who’s always given me advice when I’ve needed it. I tell her some of my ideas and say what do you think, and she’s always there for me, so he’s a great person and musician.”

In terms of the material on his big band’s new album, McBride features tunes by jazz greats Freddie Hubbard (‘Thermo’), McCoy Tyner (‘Sahara’), and Wes Montgomery (‘Full House’). “I just play songs that I like though I don’t know why I like them,” he laughs.  “You know when a particular type of music or style of song hits you, and you like it? That’s what it’s like.  I don’t think I’ve ever picked a time to say why I like a particular tune, but they have a certain ring that pleases me.” The bassist admits that the inclusion of the Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Thermo’ probably stems from the friendship he had with the late trumpeter: “I played in Freddie’s band for almost three years in the early ’90s and he was someone I admired. Every moment around him, I cherished it. I learned something from that special, crazy man and a musician every day.”                 altFreddie Hubbard (pictured above with the bass player) isn’t the only jazz great that Christian McBride has played double bass with. His impressive CV includes such illustrious names as Joe Henderson, Ray Brown, Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, George Duke, Gary Bartz, Jimmy Smith, Harold Mabern, and McCoy Tyner. He’s also recorded with the generation of hotly-tipped young lions who rose to fame in the 1990s – Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove, James Carter, Pat Metheny, Wallace Roney, and Diana Krall. But that isn’t all, McBride – who can play electric bass as well – has recorded with soul singers Regina Belle, rock pianist, Bruce Hornsby, and has even appeared on records by fellow bassists, Sting and Paul McCartney. He admits, though, that one of his best sideman gigs was with James Brown (pictured below with McBride).  “When I started to become friends with him, I knew I was in for a rollercoaster ride,” he chuckles. “I guess it lived up to expectations and more. I first got to know him in the mid-’90s, when my first CD on Verve (‘Gettin’ To It’) was released in 1995, so from that time until the time of his death, I would say that I probably had the sort of relationship with James Brown that most people had – I never got to really know him that well and he would have really good days when he would be cool and really bad days when he would not be cool. So I share the same experiences as many who knew him.”                         altThough McBride is acknowledged as one of the top bass players in jazz, funk, and soul music are deeply embedded in his DNA. That’s not surprising, perhaps, as he was born and raised in Philadelphia. “It was a great place and time to grow up,” McBride divulges. “A lot of soul music was very popular when I was a kid –  the great Gamble & Huff stuff: Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the O’Jays and Teddy Pendergrass, of course. Teddy was probably the most important and popular person in Philadelphia when I was a kid.”

But it wasn’t just soul that was thriving in the ’70s and early ’80s when McBride was a juvenile. Philadelphia has a long history of producing some of the greatest talents in jazz –  including John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, Benny Golson, Stan Getz, Stanley Clarke, Archie Shepp, Clifford Brown, and myriad others. “There was always a great jazz scene,” acknowledges McBride, “but there’s also a great rock scene, and a great orchestra there, the Philadelphia Orchestra. So it was a wonderful place to grow up. You were never unable to hear great music at any time of the week. It’s a city that has always been seriously dedicated to the arts and it continues to be that way.”

He says that the gravitational pull of the bass on him was natural and mainly due to the presence of jazz bass players in his immediate family: “My father’s a great bass player. His name is Lee Smith and he plays mostly around the Philadelphia area. My great uncle, whose name is Howard Cooper, also plays bass as well, so bass is a family tradition.”

                               altHeavily into soul and funk music as a kid, McBride started off on electric bass before moving to the double bass at age eleven in middle school when he joined an orchestra. It was during that time when he was introduced to jazz, thanks to his uncle Howard:  “When he found out I was taking acoustic bass lessons, he gave me a stack of records to listen to and probably the record that really stood out for me was a record called ‘Jazz At Massey Hall,’ with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. The energy that came from that record was just so incredible that that really made me fall in love with jazz.”

That particular LP started off McBride’s love affair with jazz and by the time he was a teenager, his natural talent for playing the bass combined with his voracious appetite for knowledge and diligent attitude in regard to practising resulted in him beginning to work professionally. While still a teen, he played in saxophonist Bobby Watson’s band, then later was recruited by Freddie Hubbard and Benny Golson. His apprenticeship with those masters taught him a lot.  “I think when you’re learning to play any style of music it’s important for you to understand what the role is,” he says, explaining how that early experience and knowledge impacted on his development as a jazz musician and bass player. “A lot of people feel that role should be challenged, which is true – I mean it’s always great to experiment. I think experimentation is necessary in any sort of art form but I also think that knowledge really eliminates a lot of trial and error. There have been a lot of musicians who have experimented and tried a lot of different things but  I think if you choose not to learn the knowledge, you’re just repeating somebody else’s mistake that’s already been experimented with. So listening to different records and bass players across a lot of different styles, I think I learned what I needed to play in somebody like Bobby Watson’s or Freddie Hubbard’s or Benny Golson’s band. You listen to their records, you get a feel for what their music sounds and feels like, and you do that. Inside of that, if you experiment, they either give you a thumbs up or thumbs down and you have to pay attention to the bandleader because it’s their band  …and they know more than you.”

Having honed his craft from playing with the greats, Christian McBride feels it deeply incumbent on him to pass the knowledge down to the next generation of musicians. “I think that’s not just a jazz tradition, that’s the tradition of life,” he says.  “I think like anyone, there are moments when I get frustrated and complain about the younger generation, wave my hands in the air and say ‘these people don’t know anything,’ but at the end of the day, instead of doing that, I believe that you should just share with them what you know. If you don’t think they know what they need to know then teach them. Some of them won’t listen to you but you’ve done your part if you actually try to share some information with them. Everybody has to make their own mistakes in their own time. So yeah, it is my job to pass on knowledge when I recruit younger musicians, like Christian Sands, Warren Wolf or Josh Evans, or whoever’s been in my band. But I almost don’t have to impart any information to them because they always ask for it and they understand the deep history of this music.”                            altIt goes without saying, of course, that McBride, knows his history, especially in regard to his fellow bass players. “My biggest heroes have always been Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Oscar Pettiford, Jimmy Blanton, and then Jaco Pastorius, Bootsy Collins, Larry Graham, and Marcus Miller,” he reveals. Ray Brown, in particular – an innovative bass player who rose to fame in the late 40s and played on many of Oscar Peterson’s records in the ’50s and ’60s – had a profound influence on McBride when he was younger. In fact, they played together many times in a bass supergroup called (fittingly enough), Superbass. “Ray was like a second father to me,” says McBride. “Seeing him play for the first time changed my life. I was 18, just about to turn 19, the first time I saw Ray Brown play and every now and then you discover something that just makes everything very clear for you, and I think when I saw Ray Brown perform live, things became very, very clear for me. I found a path and a style and an energy that I was deeply drawn to.”

McBride has been a bandleader now for many years but says that he is fairly laidback in his attitude towards the other musicians in his bands (he has four). So, he’s not like Miles Davis (who was like a mystic guru) or  James Brown (who was a notoriously stern martinet), then?  He laughs heartily. “Not at all. There have probably been times when I needed to be that way but that’s just not me. I’m more a George Clinton kind of guy, but not nearly as imaginative. I’ve ever consciously patterned myself after a particular bandleader. I think it all depends on who you are as a person as to how you lead your band. I’m a pretty easy-going, democratic kind of guy. I’ve never been much of a taskmaster.”

As well as being a world-renowned bass player, since 2016, Christian McBride has been a director of the prestigious  Newport Jazz Festival. “I’ve been doing some curating for different festivals for a long time before Newport, but I think that’s why George Wein (the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival) felt comfortable in asking me to take over that position,” he says. McBride’s new role has opened his eyes to another side of the jazz world – to do with booking acts – and because of that, he admits that it took him a while to adjust to it. But the bassist sees the humorous side of his new position. “I always like to tell my friends that my name is no longer Christian McBride but is William Morris,” he laughs, “because everyone seems to call me to get a gig now, as opposed to calling me to play bass. Now they’re like, ‘we don’t want you to play bass anymore, we want you to book us on a gig. What’s your address so that I can send you my press package?'” He adds: “You should see my trunk of my car. It looks like the warehouse of Tower Records.”

Besides the big band that he will be bringing to Cheltenham this May, Christian McBride has three other projects on the go – Inside Straight, The Christian McBride Situation, and  New Jawn. “I’ve been concentrating on the New Jawn – which is my main group that I tour with – and the big band, and at some point next year, I’m sure I’ll get back to The Christian McBride Situation,” he says, peering into his crystal ball.

I ask him if he has any unfulfilled ambitions, but McBride, who seems happy and contented with his lot,  answers in the negative.  “No, I’m just taking it day by day,” he says, adding that his two main goals in music have already been fulfilled. “My biggest dream was working with James Brown and to spend time with Quincy Jones, picking his brain about music. Both things have happened so, at this point, I’m just doing my best to inspire some younger musicians and to learn as much as I can as life progresses.”



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