It is fitting that the four-time Grammy® Award-winning McBride would eventually record at the Village Vanguard, the most hallowed and historical nightclub in jazz: an underground Mount Olympus where the gods and titans of the music – from John Coltrane to Bill Evans – have cast their syncopated spells.
“You can literally feel the ghosts of all of the legends that played there,” McBride says. “You feel Coltrane hovering in the vortex. You feel Monk hovering in the vortex. Miles Davis, Mingus... you feel all of that in the air.”
And with his new Mack Avenue Records album, Live at the Village Vanguard, you can feel and hear McBride in the same air, along with his magnificent trio, which features drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. and pianist Christian Sands. They swing and swoon on nine tracks of originals, jazz standards and some surprise R&B/pop selections.
This record is the fruit of McBride’s long association with the Vanguard, where his first appearance as a leader for the historic club was in 1995. In 2007, the bassist and charismatic club owner Lorraine Gordon started an annual one-week residency, which featured McBride’s quintet, Inside Straight. “Lorraine enjoyed my trio and my quintet, Inside Straight. We had such large crowds, so after a few years with such supportive audiences, we added an extra week. Instead of doing the same band for two weeks, I just started bringing in a different band. This has been an ongoing relationship that I look forward to maintaining as long as I can.”
As encouraging as this association was, McBride’s fear of being typecast as a Ray Brown clone almost caused this trio to not be. “I thought the very last thing I wanted to do was to put myself in a trio, because then I’ll never be able to shed the Ray Brown comparison,” he says. “And then one day I decided that that’s sort of a silly reason not to start a trio, if musically that’s what makes sense. There were a few gigs that [saxophonist] Steve Wilson and [vibraphonist] Warren Wolf were unavailable for, so I decided to play with the rhythm section. Peter Martin was playing piano and Ulysses was playing drums. In 2010, Christian Sands started subbing for Peter in Inside Straight. So we started doing trio gigs and that’s how the group was born.
“In trying to find repertoire for the trio in our early stages, I tried to come up with songs that were easy to learn and that you can put your own spin on them,” he says. The opening track, Wes Montgomery’s “Fried Pies,” originally released on the guitarist’s 1963 LP, Boss Guitar, burns with a quicksilver, straight-ahead groove, as does the trio’s torrid take on J.J. Johnson’s “Interlude” from Cannonball Adderley’s 1965 Domination album.
Sands’ lilting composition “Sand Dune” would make a perfect companion to Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” on any playlist, while the well-worn standard “Cherokee” is rendered at a blistering, swing-at-the-speed-of-sound. In contrast, the trio’s take on the spiritual “Down By The Riverside” grooves in a medium tempo buoyed by Owens’ expert and inspired drumming. Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning Heartache” is reborn by the trio with a ghostly, rubato intro, which evolves into a soulful, sonic séance.
Two selections from the album aurally illustrate how McBride’s outward embrace of non-jazz material harkens back to a time when jazz had a long-standing engagement with pop music. The trio’s treatment of the Rod Temperton-composed ballad “The Lady In My Life,” (from Michael Jackson’s uber-LP Thriller) resonates with the same kind of noir nuance Bill Evans was known for. “If anyone can get over the fact that it’s not ‘a jazz tune,’ they’d be able to notice that it’s got one of the most gorgeous melodies,” McBride says. The album concludes with a spirited take on the funky title theme song the 1977 movie “Car Wash.” “This was one tune where even my band members looked at me side-eyes [laughs],” McBride says. “Even my wife said, ‘so what’s next? ‘I Will Survive’?”
McBride’s inspirations Ray Brown and James Brown, his respect for non-jazz genres and his outgoing personality account for this sensational recording and for his growing stature as a jazz spokesperson and ambassador.
McBride hosts and produces “The Lowdown: Conversations With Christian,” on SiriusXM satellite radio and National Public Radio’s weekly show, “Jazz Night In America.” He also serves as Artistic Advisor for Jazz Programming at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), and he works with Jazz House Kids, a nationally recognized community arts organization founded by his wife, vocalist Melissa Walker, dedicated to educating children through jazz.
“I’m glad to have these vehicles, like the NPR show, like the Sirius/XM show,” he says, “where I can tell people who may, or may not be into jazz, ‘hey, come on over and play with us’.” Live at the Village Vanguard is the titan bassist’s infectious invitation to come swing with him.
Last Thursday night, at the ninth annual Inside the Jazz Note at Montclair State’s Alexander Kasser Hall, Christian McBride sat down with none other than jazz great Wynton Marsalis.
The annual jazz festival included a tribute to musician, producer, conductor, entertainment-company executive and humanitarian Quincy Jones, who grew up in Seattle, as well as the great performances the event is known for.
On January 5, 2017, the Jazz Connect Conference will present bassist, bandleader, educator, and advocate Christian McBride with the Bruce Lundvall Visionary Award. The Jazz Connect Conference created the Bruce Lundvall Visionary Award in 2014 in honor of the esteemed jazz record executive who was a champion and advocate for so many jazz artists over the last four decades.
A year before he died in 1977, the blind jazz genius Rahsaan Roland Kirk inspired an impromptu parade in Newark. One minute he was playing the downtown club Sparky J’s. The next he was leading his band, pied-piper-like, across the street to the Key Club, a different nightspot, while still making music on one of the three saxes he was known to play in unison and in harmony.
In the mid ‘90s when he was a young, frisky jazz guy from Philadelphia who was taking New York by storm, bassist Christian Scott talked to me for an article in Strings magazine about some of his heroes. On the jazz bass tip, he singled out Ray Brown, who embraced the youngster’s talent, and Ron Carter, who was, let’s say, not as enthusiastic and even mean-spirited.
To see Ray’s legacy, you don’t have to look far. It lives on in the countless musicians he influenced, including the ones here with us tonight. And we’ve got Rickey Minor conducting the Christian McBride Big Band using some of Ray’s actual arrangements. And let me tell you, these guys can play anything, and they play it well.
For local jazz buffs, this is the summer of Christian McBride. The 43-year-old bass virtuoso will perform with a pair of Grammy-winning trios over the next couple of months, leading his own at Scullers on June 3 and 4, then joining Chick Corea and drummer Brian Blade at Rockport Music (July 25 and 26), the Newport Jazz Festival (July 29 and 30), and Tanglewood (July 31).