Q&A with Christian McBride: Big Band, Big Imagination

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Christian McBride leads his namesake big band at the 2017 Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. (Photo: Steve Benoit/Boston Concert Photography)

After a six-year wait, renowned bassist Christian McBride reunites with his big band to release Bringin’ It, the anticipated follow-up to their Grammy Award-winning 2011 debut, The Good Feeling. And this worldly 11-song collection proves the 45-year-old educator and composer has the swing game on lock as this super ensemble (featuring such heavy hitters as Rodney Jones on guitar, Freddie Hendrix on trumpet and Steve Davis on trombone) delivers soulful, transformative renditions of such small-group classics as McCoy Tyner’s 1972 epic “Sahara,” Wes Montgomery’s “Full House” and Freddie Hubbard’s “Thermo.”

The bassist’s wife, vocalist Melissa Walker, turns up on two tracks, including a bandstand-ready rendition of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” that is closer to Sammy Davis Jr.’s take than the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s, while the bandleader himself journeys through the past to revamp some of his original smaller ensemble material, namely a swinging transformation of the title cut off his 1994 Verve debut Gettin’ To It. DownBeat spoke with McBride about the influences and opportunities that led to his position as one of jazz’s most exciting bandleaders.

What is it about big band music that attracts jazz bassists? So many greats on the instrument have ventured into this territory, including Charles Mingus, Jaco Pastorius, William Parker and Ron Carter, to name a few.

I never thought of big band as being a haven for bass players, but it is interesting. I know that all of those players that you named have vastly different styles, but there’s something in the writing of that music. That’s one of the reasons why I got into it, was I just fell in love with the possibilities and studying all of the great orchestral masters from Oliver Nelson to Benny Golson to Duke and Strayhorn, of course, Maria Schneider all the way up to another great bass player, John Clayton. I got into orchestration and counterpoint, because it really moved me listening to all those big band records and seeing what these guys could do with 14 horns.

Did you find it a challenge to convert some of these small group arrangements into the big band format?

All you need is some imagination. For all of those songs originally written for the small group, if you got the imagination you can actually hear something and have the skills to write down what’s in your head and make it come to life. Whatever the original version was, the instrumentation doesn’t matter. You can transfer anything from something in your imagination. Any musician worth his or her salt is always up for a challenge. The challenge should be more of an exciting endeavor than a hindrance. I love challenges; I find it exciting to be somewhat in a corner and finding out a way to figure something out.

You have mentioned Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers as a prime influence on your big band. How old were you when you saw the last incarnation of that band with your current trombonist Steve Davis in the mix?

That was right after I moved to [New York], so I was still 17. I saw them at Sweet Basil. You know Art used to have his regular residency there, and I got to see the final Messengers band. In fact, Art was already sick, so he didn’t play that much. He only played the first song, and then he left the stage and didn’t come back until the end of the last song. It was somewhat difficult for me to see knowing the physical power Art Blakey had when he played, and to see him so challenged health-wise, it was hard to get my head around. But his presence wasn’t diminished at all. You certainly knew he was in the room.

You have James Brown’s old emcee Danny Ray—of “cape draping” fame—introducing the Christian McBride Big Band on the road. How did you connect with him?

Well, I worked with Mr. Brown before he passed—I played with him during his annual birthday bash in Augusta, Georgia—so I knew all the guys in his crew for many, many years. And when James Brown died, I had a feeling like, ‘What’s Mr. Ray gonna do?’ His whole life revolved around introducing James Brown; he’s such an iconic voice. So I asked him to come on the road with me when I tour with my big band, and he was more than happy to do it. We’re always happy when he’s around. They guys all love him.

James Brown himself was a major catalyst to the big band concept these last 60 years or so, no doubt.

In his heart, he was a bandleader. He was influenced so much by jazz bandleaders. He loved Duke Ellington. He really loved Count Basie. And everyone who ever played with James Brown was a Ray Charles fanatic. They all admired and worshipped Ray Charles. But very much James Brown’s whole thing was steeped in big band tradition.

Who was your favorite bandleader from the swing era?

I love them all, man. But I love each of them for different reasons. I love the consistency of the unbreakable swing of the Basie band, and I love Ellington’s prolific nature; how he was able to write so much, and so much of what he wrote was so amazing. How could one person have so many great ideas all the time? Of course I love the post-swing big band era as well with Quincy Jones and Thad Jones. Ernie Wilkins, Frank Foster, Gil Evans—all those cats. They each had something I really loved a lot.

It’s not considered big band, per se, but how much of an impact did the soundtrack work of composers like Roy Budd and Lalo Schifrin factor into your style?

Well, a lot of my big band writing has been heavily influenced by the stuff that Quincy and Lalo did for television. Some of that music is very much steeped in the big band tradition, but that certain sound of those TV and film dramas of the ’60s and ’70s, it’s certainly filtered into my style as well. I worked with Lalo quite a number of times through the years. I made a couple of records with him. Plus, he was not just a great big band writer, but a great symphony writer as well. He wrote this piece called A Portrait Of Duke Ellington where he did these masterful symphonic arrangements of Duke’s music. And being on the road with Lalo, you better believe every minute of the day I had him in the corner asking him questions like, ‘OK, Lalo, how’d you orchestrate those flutes in there?” I wanted information! (laughs)

You’re holding a pipe on the cover of Bringin’ It.

Well, I used to smoke cigars. So I traded in one evil for what I believe is a lesser evil. That’s what I keep telling myself (laughs).

It’s not the worst vice a person can have. Plus, Mingus smoked a pipe.

That’s right! DB


On Sale Now
October 2017
Cécile McLorin Salvant
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