BY RON NETSKY
When bassist Christian McBride hit New York City at the age of 17, he hadn’t planned on starting at the top. But his talent and musical persona were so fully developed that he soon found himself working alongside greats like Freddie Hubbard, Jimmy Smith, and McCoy Tyner.
Listening to his lyrical – and impossibly dexterous – style, it’s easy to understand why he’s maintained that position. McBride not only provides a rock-solid foundation in the rhythm section, he is perhaps the most melodic and compelling bass soloist on the contemporary jazz scene.
Like a lot of other talented musicians, McBride started 90 miles southwest of the Big Apple.
“When I got to New York, what kept me above water was all the great music and the great musicians I worked with when I was in Philly,” says McBride. Not only did he come from a town steeped in music (Joey DeFrancesco was in his high-school class), his father played bass with top Philadelphia R&B artists like the Delfonics, Blue Magic, and Billy Paul.
Still, when you listen to McBride work his straight-ahead magic on the bass, you might not guess the artist that influenced him most from the age of 8.
“James Brown is by far my biggest musical hero, and he was the biggest hero my generation had culturally as well,” says McBride. “He was a very important person in my life.”
McBride not only got to meet Brown, he played a key role in recreating one of Brown’s most obscure – and jazz-oriented – albums. “Soul on Top” was recorded by Brown in 1969 with Louie Bellson’s band and Oliver Nelson’s arrangements.
“We played that album live at the Hollywood Bowl with James Brown on one side of the stage, the Christian McBride Big Band on the other side, and Louie Bellson right in the middle,” says McBride.
The concert was not recorded, but McBride says he will never forget the experience. “I worked with him closely, and we had a chance to be friends,” says McBride. “I was honored to be let into his circle.”
He’s written a book, to be released later this year, about working with Brown called “I Never Got To Say Goodbye.”
At this stage of his career, McBride has a four-pronged approach: a trio, the quintet called Inside Straight that he will be bringing to the Jazz Festival, a big band, and his most recent project, which he calls Conversations.
On the CD “Conversations With Christian” McBride performs duets with jazz artists like Chick Corea and Hank Jones and pop stars like Sting and Angélique Kidjo. He is by no means a jazz purist.
“Most musicians come into music the way everyone else does,” says McBride. “We just love music. There’s a certain feeling you get hearing masters at work. Whatever style – it may be happiness, romance, or sadness – you get that feeling, that emotional attachment to the music.”
In fact, the masters who give him those feelings range from Miles Davis to Stevie Wonder, from James Brown to Dmitri Shostakovich, from Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky to Sting.
Since 1994, McBride has released a dozen albums as a leader. But as a sideman he appears on hundreds of albums by artists ranging from jazz giants like Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, and Jim Hall to top-tier pop singers like Sting, Paul McCartney, and Willie Nelson.
Because he loves great pop music, McBride bemoans the state it’s in today.
“I see a lot of pop stars and writers and producers, and it seems worse now than it’s ever been,” says McBride. “Now more than ever it’s: let’s just get a hit. Let’s not worry about whether it’s good music or has any musical integrity whatsoever. I hope sooner or later some icon comes along and says I’m not worried about making a hit; I’m just worried about making good music.
McBride is known for making some of the best music in jazz, but he’s not exactly sure how he does it, especially when it comes to his inventive improvisations.
“Who knows?” he says. “At this point, when you’ve worked at a certain thing for a while, you’re not into conscious thought any more. It’s like speaking.
“I always ask students: Before you asked me that question, did you say to yourself, I’m going to start my question off with this word, and then I’m going to follow it up with an adverb, followed by a noun – you didn’t do that, did you? Of course not. You have grasped the English language so well, you don’t consciously think of doing that. It’s the same thing with music. After you study chords and scales and modes and notes at some point you don’t think of that anymore.”
When he’s not busy touring and recording, McBride spends a lot of time with students and others as an ambassador of jazz. As co-director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, he is working to make the museum (which will be moving to a building across from the Apollo Theater) a cultural institution for everyone in the community.
“People somehow believe that this music has gotten away from the black community because the black community does not appreciate this music anymore,” says McBride. “That’s about the most wrong summation of what’s happened. When you look historically at where this music was played, there were way more jazz clubs in Harlem.
“The places where you can go hear music now are so few and far between in major cities in this country. If you’re not a contributing member or donor to a big cultural institution like Lincoln Center, you’re going to have a hard time hearing some quality music. So the music has to be taken back to the community as opposed to expecting the community to always go somewhere else to hear it.
“I’ve been trying to do that in terms of going to different schools, or going to play in community centers or retirement homes. People don’t have the money they used to to go hang out on a Friday or Saturday night.”
Christian McBride’s Inside Straight quintet performs Friday, June 22, at 6 & 10 p.m. in Kilbourn Hall. Tickets cost $25, or you can use a Club Pass.