Jazz Album Review: Christian McBride’s “For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver” — A Mighty Cheery Big Band
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Jazz Album Review: Christian McBride’s “For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver” — A Mighty Cheery Big Band

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Inspired by their leader, bassist Christian McBride, the musicians in this big band always sound like they are having the times of their lives.

Christian McBride, For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver (Mack Avenue)

In the late 90’s, I was assigned by Verve Records the pleasant job of writing the notes to reissues of classic albums by the king of the Hammond organ, Jimmy Smith: Blue Bash! was one, another was The Dynamic Duo, co-led by another prince of the music, guitarist Wes Montgomery, who gives one of his sunniest performances.(I also chose the selections as well as wrote the notes for Verve’s The Finest Hour of Jimmy Smith.) Generally, one talks to the musicians before writing these little essays. I tried. I called Smith so many times that I became friends with his wife. He was unwilling to talk, even when Mrs. Smith said, “Oh, Jimmy, do it for Mike.” The one thing he said to me that I remember — and that is printable — is the bleak “What’s in it for me?” What would he get out of a reissue of his music? Not much in terms of cash and he didn’t want his reissues to be competing with his latest recordings. I had a backup plan for my essay on Blue Bash! I called co-leader guitarist Kenny Burrell, whose son got back to me with the discouraging news that Kenny, one of my musical heroes, wouldn’t be available for a conversation “this year.”

Still, those reissues garnered whole new generation of Smith and Montgomery fans. They included bassist Christian McBride and his high school classmate, also featured on this new disc, the supremely talented organist Joey DeFrancesco. They listened to those records together so it was probably inevitable that McBride, who for the past few years has been leading one of the slickest, happiest big bands in recent jazz, would revisit the Montgomery-Smith collaborations, especially those that were arranged by Oliver Nelson. Nelson was the top of his game in the mid-’60s when he arranged six sessions for the equally extroverted Smith. His bright, sweetly swinging arrangements were not only appealing in themselves — they set up Smith’s solos brilliantly. (Listen to Smith’s sublime entrance on “Walk on the Wild Side.”) Nelson and Smith loved popular pieces: “Ol’ Man River,” “Blueberry Hill,” “Down by the Riverside,” and Gus Cannon’s “Walk Right In.”

I think of McBride and his big band in an equally cheery light. Inspired by their leader, they always sound like they are having the times of their lives. Four cuts on this new session are by a quartet with McBride, guitarist Mark Whitfield, organist Joey DeFrancesco, and drummer Quincy Philips. The other six are big band numbers, mostly recreating the Oliver Nelson originals. (His arrangements of “Night Train” and “Down by the Riverside” were first heard on Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery, “Milestones” on Further Adventures.) The McBride disc begins with Night Train, the segment from Duke Ellington’s “Happy-Go-Lucky Local” saxophonist Jimmy Forrest isolated, re-named, and made a hit. “Night Train” is taken at a brisker tempo than Nelson’s original arrangement. It’s a jaunty, conversational piece that unfolds over McBride’s bass line, whose introductory melody is stated brashly by the reeds with brass punctuation. The playing is clean, and also exuberant. Cleverly, the arrangement leads to the first solo is by guitarist Mark Whitfield, who is unintimidated by Wes Montgomery’s performance. He plays some notes the other guitarist wouldn’t have dreamed of, but fits right in with the riffing brass behind him. DeFrancesco takes over, with a succession of wildly — and widely — ranging lines. He includes a Jimmy Smith trademark, an extended trill. (I heard Smith play a whole chorus that way.)

Montgomery’s “Road Song” was one of his most popular recordings. It was also controversial, or as controversial as any piece by this low-key guitar genius could be. The Don Sebesky arrangement of Road Song included incursions made by synthesized strings. Critics complained that this meant that Montgomery wasn’t improvising as boldly or at length. Fans loved it. It was the top selling jazz album of its day. In McBride’s hip arrangement, there are, of course, no strings; instead, we are given the rich tones of his warmly, precisely recorded band. It’s a fine feature for Whitfield, who recaptures much of Montgomery’s spirit. For hard core jazz fans, Nelson recorded Miles Davis’ “Milestones.” McBride’s slightly faster version of the tune generates the most adventurous Whitfield solo. The collection includes two well-chosen ballads, “The Very Thought of You” and “I Want to Talk About You,” the latter a favorite of John Coltrane’s. The quartet also plays Freddie Hubbard’s delightful “Up Jumped Spring.”

For Jimmy, Wes and Olive ends with a Whitfield piece, “Medgar Evers Blues,” and with “Pie Blues,” a composition McBride and DeFrancesco cooked up while they were both going to Philadelphia’s High School for Creative and Performing Arts. It must have been quite a school.

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