Jazz bassist Christian McBride brings his musical style into the present | AspenTimes.com

Jazz bassist Christian McBride brings his musical style into the present

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado
Christian McBride. Artistic Director of the JAS music academy teaching at the JAS Academy Summer Sessions in Snowmass colorado.

ASPEN ” This past week, jazz bassist Christian McBride has been in Snowmass Village, teaching the 20 or so students assembled for Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ JAS Academy Summer Sessions. Though the students are the cream of the young jazz world, none of them are likely to attain the status of McBride, who is indisputably the pre-eminent bassist in jazz, having appeared on hundreds of albums as a sideman while also leading his own band. Still, McBride feels the slightest tinge of envy when he looks at the students, most of them in their early 20s.

“This generation doesn’t have the hang-ups that a lot of previous generations had,” said the 36-year-old McBride, the artistic director of the JAS Academy. “Even my generation, we were taught that we had to solely uphold the bebop era of the ’50s and ’60s. That was our job.”

As a younger man, McBride took that task to heart. His first two albums under his name ” 1995’s “Gettin’ To It” and “Number Two Express,” from the following year ” were straightahead acoustic jazz. Given the funky, forward-thinking nature of his output since, those early CDs, as accomplished as they are, now come across just as McBride tells it ” like a musician constrained by expectations.

“But we snapped out of it,” adds the burly McBride, holding and chomping on, but not smoking, a cigar. “Our job is to uphold that tradition by not being limited to only one style. Nineteen-fifty-six all over again ” that’s not going to happen. Sure, play the traditional jazz songs. But play it with your own voice and our flavor of today.”

The Academy students adore McBride, not only for his musical prowess, but for how he has embodied that contemporary ideal of the jazz player as a musical Renaissance man.

Among McBride’s recent projects as a sideman are nearly straightahead albums headed by guitarist Pat Metheny (“Day Trip”), rocker-turned-jazzman Bruce Hornsby (“Camp Meeting”), and saxophonist Joshua Redman (“Back East”). But last year, he served as musical director for some jazz-oriented shows by rapper Queen Latifah. McBride’s latest recording, 2006’s “Live at Tonic,” is a three-disc set of groove material that features contributions from turntablist DJ Logic, and guitarists Charlie Hunter and Eric Krasno, neither of whom is known for playing in-the-box jazz. And last month, McBride could be seen at the Jammy Awards in New York City, playing Phish tunes with Phish keyboardist Page McConnell and a group of jazz players in tune with McBride’s adventurous thinking.

“One of the tunes was just rhythm changes, a Jazz 101 tune,” said McBride. “And I’m watching these Phish fans just digging it. I got paranoid playing straightahead jazz for a non-jazz crowd ” but playing these changes for a Phish crowd? And seeing they’re digging it? That shows me something.”

What it showed McBride is that younger listeners ” Phish fans, the 20-somethings in Snowmass this past week ” are listening with open ears. But it also reminded him that he is still contending with more closed mindset left over from an earlier era.

About two years ago, McBride was asked to do a gig with his Christian McBride Band, his main group over the past several years that features saxophonist Ron Blake, keyboardist Geoffrey Keezer and drummer Terreon Gully. Two of the members, however, turned out to be unavailable, and as McBride has already committed to the date, his road manager said, “Looks like we have a Christian McBride situation.”

The situation was not so much that the formal McBride Band couldn’t perform; McBride, with his pull in the music world and his broad-minded approach could easily assemble another combo. More disconcerting was his doubt whether the audience would follow McBride down whatever musical route he decided to explore. In the McBride Band, the sounds swing from straightahead acoustic jazz to a groove style influenced by hip-hop; McBride’s idol, James Brown; and Miles Davis’ pioneering electric bands of the early ’70s, so at least there was something to satisfy the jazz purists. But McBride had in mind assembling a group along the lines of the one he put together for the 2005 Monterey Jazz Festival, that included DJ Logic. So, to alert the more staid fans, McBride dubbed that appearance a “Christian McBride Situation,” and since then, any gig that hasn’t featured the usual combo has been billed as a “Situation.”

“I am surprised how many jazz fans do mind, because they’ve got a traditional mindset,” he said. “They see it’s two turntables, and I can see their faces: It’s, ‘Oh, I thought I was going to see a trio.’ They want to see something that’s been recorded a million times. Like the only way to tell if the musicians are good enough is if they can play ‘Satin Doll.’ I can’t believe people are still thinking that way in 2008.”

In fact, McBride hasn’t unleashed the two-turntable configuration ” till this weekend. The latest Situation, set for Sunday, June 22 at the Jazz Aspen June Festival, will utilize two turntablists: DJ Logic and Jahi Sundance, both of whom have been involved in previous Situations. The show, in an opening slot for Tex-Mex rockers Los Lonely Boys, will also feature the first vocalist to appear in a Situation, Maysa Leak. The lineup is rounded out by keyboardist Patrice Rushen, a key member of McBride’s proto-Situation band at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and saxophonist Walter Smith III.

McBride cautions that a Situation should not be looked at in the same light as a jazz concert. The way he describes it, it more akin to a jam session, or perhaps a jam-band gig. The music tends to be improvised from the get-go.

“With music like that, it’s going to have its peaks and valleys,” said McBride. “People see the DJ and think it’s going to be a party band, just dance all night. But it’s not like that at all. I get paranoid, hoping the crowd will stick with us through the valleys.” That paranoia doesn’t stop McBride from continuing to push forward to the groundbreaking ensemble for Sunday’s show: “I thought, since I can, why don’t I throw Sundance and Logic together? This will be our maiden voyage. This will be like, boy, I hope this works.”

In stretching musically, McBride points to Herbie Hancock as his role model. The pianist’s recent recording projects have included electronic funk-jazz with the Headhunters, an album of Gershwin material, and last year’s “River: The Joni Letters,” a tribute to Joni Mitchell that earned the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, the first jazz CD to take the award in over 40 years. Hancock’s appearance at last year’s June Festival featured bluesman Keb’ Mo’, African guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke, and South American percussionist Cyro Baptista. To McBride, what has distinguished Hancock is not the willingness to take such stylistic flights, but the ability to stamp each one with his own signature.

“Herbie, he’s the poster child for doing all these seemingly disparate projects, but having the genius to keep your identity and play like yourself,” said McBride, whose upcoming projects include a European tour with the Five-Peace Band, featuring Chick Corea, John McLaughlin and Kenny Garrett; serving as artist-in-residence with the Detroit International Jazz Festival, where he will arrange and direct a tribute to Marvin Gaye; and the first recording of a Situation Band, to include vibraphonist Warren Wolf, a former student at the JAS Academy. “He can play in the most traditional, straightforward trio, and then with Grandmaster DST, and still sound like Herbie Hancock.”

McBride says that challenge is even more difficult for himself. The bassist and drummer, he noted, are the ones who “determine the DNA of the music.” Someone playing a melodic instrument, like piano or horn, isn’t building the foundation of the music, and thus has an easier time jumping from style to style.

McBride did a major stretch in Aspen last summer, only then, it was in the opposite direction of his usual move toward funky, urban sounds. He performed for the first time with fellow bassist Edgar Meyer, in a magnificent duo recital in Harris Hall. The two played classical works, jazz standards and folk tunes. More than anything specific about technique, McBride said seeing Meyer showed him what further possibilities there were for the bass.

“Edgar Meyer is the greatest living virtuoso of the instrument,” said McBride, who recently had the premiere of his first long-form work, a four-movement tribute to the civil rights movement for an 18-piece band and four speakers, at Disney Hall in Los Angeles. “So if nothing else, I know what it looks like to be a virtuoso. I know what to strive for. I know what a guy who can do anything on the instrument looks like.”