Christian McBride Spreads Serious Fun

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Christian McBride was voted Jazz Artist of the Year and topped the Bass category in this year’s DownBeat Readers Poll.

(Photo: Jimmy & Dena Katz)

Christian McBride has some valuable wisdom to share. He knows how to make jazz more popular with young people and how to widen its appeal among the general public.

“It’s got to be fun,” said McBride, who has mastered the art of audience engagement in his roles as bandleader, composer, bassist, jazz radio host, festival artistic director and jazz ambassador. “People just have to simply like it, you know what I mean?”

McBride, who was voted Jazz Artist of the Year and topped the Bass category in this year’s DownBeat Readers Poll, elaborated on his point during a phone call from his New York office. “Even if you present something that’s really great, if you are dogmatic or stern and have this sort of over-analytical, erudite way of presenting the music, I don’t really think you’re going to get mass acceptance and reach a wider audience,” he said. “I like baiting people with fun. You get them to laugh and feel good, and then once they’re in, they’re like, ‘Whoa, this is serious.’ So, things that are serious can be fun.”

A case in point would be McBride’s album The Movement Revisited: A Musical Portrait Of Four Icons (Mack Avenue), a large-scale project inspired by the civil rights movement that relies on dramatic spoken word to convey the messages imparted in statements and speeches by Rosa Parks, Malcom X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali, as well as former President Barack Obama. The album’s subject matter is serious in concept, no doubt, but the music comes across as a celebration of the passion, optimism, empathy, humor and intellectual liberation associated with the movement.

The Movement Revisited was set in motion in 1998 as a musical portrait of the civil rights movement when McBride received a commission from the Portland (Maine) Arts Society to write a piece for his quartet to perform with a choir. Ten years later, the L.A. Philharmonic invited McBride to reimagine the project on a grander scale for a performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, so he revamped it as a four-part suite that featured jazz quartet, big band, gospel choir and spoken-word narration, quoting historic speeches by four celebrated civil-rights icons. For a performance later in 2008 at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Detroit, McBride was asked to expand the suite to include a fifth movement, excerpting President Obama’s election-night victory speech from that November. After that, the piece continued to evolve with each live performance. When it came time to finally record The Movement Revisited in 2013, McBride chose as his narrators author Sonia Sanchez (as Parks), actor Wendell Pierce (as King), actor Vondie Curtis-Hall (as Malcolm X) and actor Dion Graham (as Ali).

Getting all the necessary permissions led to extremely long delays in releasing the recording, partly due to Ali’s death in 2016. The Movement Revisited finally saw the light of day in February of this year, just months before the Black Lives Matter movement would reach a peak of renewed momentum.

“Once we finished the recording, we knew it was going to be a challenge to get the legal clearances from all of the estates to be able to use the recitations and things,” McBride said. “But we didn’t think it would take six years.”

McBride acknowledged that, considering what’s currently going on in the country, now is as good a time as ever for the album to come out. “If The Movement Revisited gets mentioned in the context of this latest social uprising, I will be more than happy,” he said.

Less than eight months after the release of The Movement Revisited, McBride unveiled another album built upon an overarching theme. This one, however, was all about the music. For Jimmy, Wes And Oliver (Mack Avenue), which dropped in late September, features the Christian McBride Big Band with collaborators Joey DeFrancesco and Mark Whitfield paying homage to the famous mid-’60s summit meetings of Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery and Oliver Nelson. Those sessions produced two classic Verve albums, The Dynamic Duo (1966) and Further Adventures Of Jimmy And Wes (1968).

Recorded in early 2019, For Jimmy, Wes And Oliver balances big band tracks and quartet tracks, just like the original Verve releases. It includes four tunes from the Verve albums (Miles Davis’ “Milestones,” the spiritual “Down By The Riverside,” Montgomery’s “Road Song” and the instrumental blues “Night Train”), plus some new originals (McBride’s “Pie Blues,” DeFrancesco’s “Don Is” and Whitfield’s “Medgar Evers’ Blues”) and standards in a similar stylistic vein (Freddie Hubbard’s “Up Jumped Spring,” Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought Of You” and Billy Eckstine’s “I Want To Know About You”).

McBride noted that while his and DeFrancesco’s shared passion for the source material certainly helped to drive the project, they could have recorded just about anything together and it would have come out great. “With somebody like Joey, repertoire almost didn’t matter, because we go so far back,” he said, noting that the two met during middle school in Philadelphia and have been friends ever since. “We could have been doing a Guy Lombardo tribute album, and it would have been fun, because we know each other so well.

“It kind of made sense that we would salute those great, fun, swinging records that Jimmy and Wes did together, and particularly with the big band angle, since Oliver Nelson is one of my biggest heroes,” McBride continued. “It just seemed to be a no-brainer.

“People always ask how come Joey and I took so long to make a record together. I say, because he carries his bass player on the left side of his body, there’s no need for that. Playing with a bass player cuts off one of Joey’s limbs, so basically, he now just has to play the organ like a pianist—he’s just kind of copying with the rest of the band and not playing any bass lines [on For Jimmy, Wes And Oliver]. But Joey’s so versatile, that’s not a big deal for him. I love playing with organ.

“In terms of the organist playing the bass line, Joey has been always been my favorite. And now he’s trying to play the saxophone, too? I told him, if you even think about playing the bass, I will end your life [laughs]. If he starts playing the bass, I’m now going to have to start getting serious about playing the trumpet, which I really don’t want to do. But enough is enough, Joey.”

With two new albums, two ongoing radio shows, occasional streaming concerts and deep involvement in virtual jazz fests, virtual jazz camps and the educational nonprofit Jazz House Kids (founded by McBride’s wife, vocalist Melissa Walker), McBride has managed to maintain his profile as a leading figure in jazz during this pandemic year of cancellations and profound changes in the industry.

“Everything that was supposed to happen this year ostensibly will happen next year,” McBride said, when asked about future plans. “That would include the reunion tour of the Joshua Redman band with Brad Mehldau, Brian Blade and me. The pandemic hit right in the middle of our European tour with Chick Corea and Brian Blade—we’ll have to get back together and finish what we started. There’s a lot of stuff that’s going to get jammed in, fingers crossed, between the summer of 2021 and 2022.” DB

This story originally was published in the December 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.



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