On his eight CDs that precede Conversations With Christian, bassist Christian McBride has framed himself in ensemble contexts, most recently on the widely lauded 2009 Mack Avenue release Kind of Brown, which showcases the Inside Straight quintet (his return to the acoustic jazz format as a leader) and The Good Feeling, released in September, comprising a suite of well-wrought charts for an A-list 17-piece big band.
Although McBride’s leader and sideman c.v. includes no small number of pungent duos with various game-changers—to name two, McCoy Tyner and Jim Hall—he has heretofore refrained from devoting an entire recording to the genre. That discographical gap is now rectified with Conversations with Christian, on which the 39-year-old maestro places himself in the forefront of the flow on a duet apiece with “13 of my closest musical friends and cohorts”—singers Angélique Kidjo, Sting and Dee Dee Bridgewater; pianists George Duke, Eddie Palmieri and Chick Corea, as well as Dr. Billy Taylor and Hank Jones (who both passed away in 2010); violinist Regina Carter; trumpeter Roy Hargrove; guitarist Russell Malone; tenor saxophonist Ron Blake; and actress Gina Gershon. In the process, McBride unleashes the full measure of his already legendary skills, crafting as complete a portrait of his diverse interests—different vibrations of the blues and African-American church experience, bebop, the American Songbook, the Latin Tinge, the Freedom Principle, even comedy—as he has ever presented.
“I love and appreciate so many different styles and cultures,” he remarks. “Changing hats, going from one project to another, from a straight-ahead session to an R&B session to a pop session, has always fueled my activity. I try to put all those different sounds into one pot and make it a coherent, jazz-inflected sound.”
McBride first considered a proposal to do a duet project during the latter ‘90s, when he was signed to Verve. “At the time,” he recalls, “I didn’t feel I was ready, or that it was the project I wanted to do. I had other things in mind. But as time progressed, I got to do other projects—putting together the Christian McBride Band and experimenting with a lot of different sounds and layers—and my focus returned to the duets idea.”
This renewed interest coincided with McBride’s involvement with the National Jazz Museum In Harlem (he is co-director), where he launched a still ongoing series of public talks and interviews. “My manager, Andre Guess, and my wife, Melissa Walker, noticed that I had a good rapport with almost everyone I interviewed,” recalls McBride, whose warmth comes through as palpably in conversation as in notes and tones. “They both suggested that it might be time.”
In conjunction with the project, McBride conducted videotaped interviews with each participant. Available as discrete podcasts since 2009, this series eventually led to the popular Sirius-XM radio show, The Lowdown: Conversations With Christian.
“I think the duet is a logical extension of the nature of the bass itself,” McBride says. “It’s the root. Joe Zawinul once stated that the drums are the father of all music, and the bass is the mother. I had a hard time disagreeing. The bass has the rhythm and the pulse, and also the notes and harmonies. That would seem to make it the ideal instrument for any sort of duet.”
If the bass is the ideal instrument to perform the duo function, McBride would seem to be its ideal practitioner. He immersed himself in the genre directly after arriving in New York City from Philadelphia, his hometown, in 1989. Then 17, just out of high school, he entered the rarefied atmosphere of such New York piano saloons as Bradley’s, the Knickerbocker and the Village Gate, learning the tools of the trade on drummer-less gigs with such elder masters as Larry Willis, John Hicks and George Cables.
“Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, and Oscar Pettiford were my main favorite bass soloists, plus Jaco Pastorius on the electric side,” McBride says. “Their articulation was so clean and so sharp, and you wondered why all bass players didn’t play with that clarity. It seemed to me that musicians across the board were learning the language of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and more modern geniuses like Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner and Joe Henderson, and that as a bassist I should also learn that language. With the exception of a few people, most bass solos I heard seemed a little uncertain and ambiguous, and I didn’t buy that the reason was the instrument’s frequency. I wanted every single, solitary note I was playing on the bass to be as crystal clear, as articulate and precise, as any other instrument, while still keeping the full tone.”
Such formative experiences, as well as extended tours with “arena” acts like Pat Metheny, Chick Corea and Sting, many years playing with the drummer-less three-bass unit Super Bass with Ray Brown and John Clayton, and consequential engagements with pop icons like James Brown, Queen Latifah and The Roots, gave McBride the confidence to eschew the original material that he “had ready for almost all of the duets.” He realized that, “since everything is exposed in a duet, my partner should be as comfortable as humanly possible, whether it meant doing a song of theirs or some mutually-agreed upon standard. I knew that I could feel comfortable with just about anything.”
McBride transcends the challenge, crafting one eyebrow-raising solo after another, and conjuring a lexicon of apropos, state-of-the-art bass-lines. On Kidjo’s anthemic “Afirika,” which opens the proceedings, he adapts the band arrangement into a surging, metrically complex bass part, rendered with the huge sound that is his trademark, complementing to perfection the Beninoise diva’s over-the-barline phrasing. Later, with Sting on the 1985 hit “Consider Me Gone” from the film Bring on the Night, he sets up a gentle 4/4 vamp to blanket and complement the singer’s keening tenor and self-comping guitar; still later, he signifies with good-humored, “filthy” expertise to Dee Dee Bridgewater’s lusty interpretation of “It’s Your Thing” by the Isley Brothers.
Observe the intense, contemplative mood that McBride’s arco introduction sets for “Spiritual,” a late-in-life composition by Dr. Billy Taylor; his comfort zone swinging through the changes on songbook standards “Alone Together” (Hank Jones) and “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” (Roy Hargrove); the soulfulness he imparts to his own “Sister Rosa” (Russell Malone) and up-tempo “McDukey Blues” (George Duke). He surefootedly explores the open spaces with Chick Corea on “Tango Improvisation,” a spur-of-the-moment creation, and finds a path into Eddie Palmieri’s singularly Afro-Caribbean universe on “Guajeo Y Tumbao.” On “Fat Bach and Greens,” he and Regina Carter morph seamlessly from a well-wrought reading of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Double Violin Concerto into extemporaneous highbrow back-and-forth on the blues, while on “Shake ‘n Blake” he engages in informed variations on rhythm changes with tenor saxophonist Ron Blake, his long-time partner.
The operative principle throughout is McBride’s dictum, “Most of what I enjoy doing is based in, around, and upon the groove; I want to hold down the fort—but have the ability to visit the roof if I want.” Conversations With Christian will assume its place as a masterpiece of the duo idiom.