Christian McBride is like oxygen. He's everywhere. Pick up a mainstream jazz album from the '90s, and there's a good chance McBride's on it. The straight-ahead bassist of choice, McBride, at last count, has appeared on somewhere between 150 and 200 albums since 1989. From stalwarts like Jimmy Smith to young lions like Dallas trumpeter Roy Hargrove, the 27-year-old McBride has provided the bottom line. Not since Ron Carter hit the scene in 1959 has a pure jazz bassist been in such demand. Carter is a legend. McBride is about to be.
"I think he is the rightly heralded bass prodigy that the younger generation ought to listen to for his great approach on bass, his true love of the instrument, his fine jazz feel and multistyled playing," says legendary session bassist Carol Kaye, who has played on thousands of pop and jazz recordings. "His classical approach is superb, yet when it comes time to get down, he can be the 'lowest' too. Christian has fantastic technique. He executes every 16th or 32nd note flawlessly. You can hear every note. Yet he doesn't rest on chops. No, he has the creativity, the jazz feel and overall great musicianship that goes along with great chops."
Blessed with perfect pitch, McBride picked up the electric bass when he was nine and had an "instant spiritual bond" with the instrument. He started playing along with James Brown and Motown records and was considered a natural. Maybe that's because his father is noted Philly-Soul bassist Lee Smith (whose credits include stints with the Delphonics and Billy Paul), but the fact is McBride had little contact with his father while growing up.
Best-known today as an acoustic bassist, McBride didn't want to play the instrument at first, figuring that since he played electric bass there was no need to play acoustic. But after trying out for the trombone section in his junior high school orchestra, McBride was told by the brass teacher to give the acoustic bass a chance. He has played both instruments ever since.
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One scholarship to Juilliard later, and McBride was on his way to New York City at age 17. After his first year, he quit Juilliard. He was learning more about jazz playing with saxophonist Bobby Watson's group. An original and intense musician, Watson gave hardcore lessons. "They used to stay on me all the time, man," he says. " 'Christian, you gotta do this, you gotta do that.' I used to come home in tears almost all the time. But then I remember one day they just gave me the thumbs up, and I said, 'Well, I must be doing something right.' "
After leaving Juilliard, the next stop on the McBride express was a two-and-a-half-year gig with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. McBride left Hubbard in 1993 and was already getting a lot of requests for gigs and session work. By 1995, when he was only 23 years old, McBride was jazz's first-call bassist.
He used this credibility to launch a solo career with the release of his first album, Gettin' to It. The critically acclaimed disc cracked the Billboard Top 10 jazz chart, an unusual feat for a debut recording, let alone a debut recording by a bass player. The same year, McBride co-led a Charlie Parker tribute with trumpeter Roy Hargrove and pianist Stephen Scott. While both records were straight-ahead, there was something there that hinted at a broader stylistic range. You could tell McBride had some James Brown in his blood.
For his second album, Number Two Express, McBride recruited an all-star lineup, including Chick Corea and Jack DeJohnette, but he stayed mostly in the straight-ahead tradition, though there were a few cuts that showed the cats playing good fusion.
If his recorded output demonstrated only a fraction of his musical personality, McBride's live performances were something completely different. On stage, his band mixes it up, from straight-ahead to fusion to funk. McBride has opened shows playing the theme song to The Jeffersons on acoustic bass. When he wants to, he also plays the electric. He can slap funk or play silky-smooth fusion and make it all sound right in the straight-ahead context.
"I'm amazed at this day and age how many people think of the electric bass as taboo," McBride says. "When I first started bringing the electric bass on my own gigs with my own band, I'll never forget some of the reactions I would see people have. I'm thinking, 'What's the problem?' "
Last year McBride released A Family Affair, his ode to the great soul music of the '70s. In between smokin' covers of songs by Stevie Wonder, Sly & The Family Stone, Kool & The Gang and Earth, Wind & Fire, McBride plays originals that range from soft R&B to hardcore jazz. Many songs have electric keyboards, and McBride plays electric bass on four cuts. The album, it's not surprising, is produced by fusion king George Duke. But don't confuse A Family Affair with a smooth jazz album. The playing and arrangements are creative, and the sound is lively. McBride even bows a funky bass solo on The Spinners' "I'm Coming Home" and rearranges EWF's "I'll Write a Song for You" into a moving acoustic bass/acoustic guitar duet.
What McBride is doing really isn't that revolutionary. Jazz musicians are supposed to write tunes that draw from many influences, and the tradition has always been for jazzers to interpret the pop songs of the day. Yet hearing a jazz musician cover recent pop songs is rare. Aside from Wonder, Burt Bacharach and the Beatles, few pop songwriters over the past three decades have enjoyed a considerable number of jazz interpretations (and many jazz acts covered the Beatles only because of pressure from the record companies). Today's pop songwriters? Forget it. For the most part, jazz ignores them.
"I think it's because we musicians get close-minded," McBride says. "It's almost a jazz musician's job to be anti-mainstream," he laughs, "because our music is so nonmainstream anyway."
Today, McBride has begrudgingly reduced his session work in order to spend more time with his quartet, which includes the highly underrated and superbad saxophonist Ron Blake. McBride also has been commissioned to write two longer-form works, most recently "The Movement, Revisited," a 45-minute piece that thematically and musically revisits the '60s civil rights movement. With his busy schedule, McBride also teaches at the Berklee College of Music and conducts workshops in public schools.
"One of the greatest lessons that I learned from an older musician is very unspoken," McBride says. "Don't be afraid of anyone or anything. Follow your own dreams and listen to your heart, and if you want to be influenced by some Celtic music, whatever it is, listen to it. Be serious about it."
Da Camera of Houston presents the Christian McBride Quartet on Friday, October 29, at 8 p.m. at Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center. Call Da Camera of Houston at (800)23-DACAM.
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