Untamed Lion

There will always be a little Miles Davis in electric jazz. And maybe some Christian McBride, too.

If Ken Burns' recent epic documentary, Jazz, has had any lasting effect on the state of contemporary jazz, it's ensuring that the face of jazz today is one of a neo-traditionalist vein epitomized by the meteoric 1980s rise and ensuing commercial and critical success of Wynton Marsalis. Thanks to Marsalis and his combination of straight-ahead jazz, sophisticated presentation and educational programs, a highly stylized version of jazz that recalls and attempts to recapture past eras is now what people think of when they think of jazz.

As the 1980s came to a close and the 1990s began, however, a new generation of young jazz musicians entered this neo-traditionalist vibe. Dubbed the "Young Lions," they included trumpet player Roy Hargrove, saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Cyrus Chestnut and bassist Christian McBride. Making names for themselves as sidemen before striking out on their own, their first few recordings followed Marsalis' lead and stuck to a straight-ahead approach, but as their playing and compositions matured and their confidence grew, they started to stray from the traditional and chase their own muses.

Ain’t too proud to teach: “That’s one of the reasons why I became a professional jazz musician,” Christian McBride says.
Silvia Otte
Ain’t too proud to teach: “That’s one of the reasons why I became a professional jazz musician,” Christian McBride says.

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The first North Texas Jazz Festival happens April 3-8 in Addison. Christian McBride performs on April 7.

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When his second album, Number Two Express, came out in 1996, McBride was 24 years old and already one of the top bassists in jazz. His first album as leader came out the previous year, and in 1992--at the ripe old age of 20--Rolling Stone named him the "hot" jazz artist of the year. He'd already played with Betty Carter, Benny Green, Johnny Griffin, Roy Haynes, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Milt Jackson, Jimmy Smith, McCoy Tyner and many others. And he became renowned for his instrumental versatility and sensitivity, thanks in large part to an extended stay with Green, whose command of bop and hard bop kept musicians on their toes.

But McBride didn't reveal just how versatile he was until 1998's Family Affair, his first foray into recording with electronic instruments. An electric bass adds an expected funk element to McBride's tasteful compositions, but what was even more compelling was McBride's ear for the sound of music today. This electric jazz wasn't a throwback to the fusion experiments of the 1970s, though there will always be some Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis in electric jazz. Family Affair was as much about contemporary rhythm and blues as it was about Bitches Brew.

That incorporation of more recent musical styles into his music is much more apparent on his latest album, last year's Sci Fi. "I've always been into that kind of stuff, but I wanted to get to that sound gradually," McBride says from his hotel room in Toronto, where his quartet is playing a gig one week before his date at the first annual North Texas Jazz Festival in Addison. "As far as music that I like, as far as music that I feel, Sci Fi technically could have been my first album. But I wanted my first CD to be as traditional as possible. I kind of planned it this way. I wanted my first CD, Gettin' to It, to be really straight-ahead and basic, and I wanted each ensuing CD I did to be an outgrowth of that. So if you follow the CDs, after Gettin' to It came Number Two Express, and then Family Affair and then Sci Fi, each is moving a little further away [from the traditional] than the one before."

Performed by a core band that includes Ron Blake on tenor and soprano saxophone, Shedrick Mitchell on piano and Fender Rhodes and Rodney Green on drums, with guest musicians such as Herbie Hancock on piano, Dianne Reeves on vocals, Toots Thielemans on harmonica and David Gilmore on guitar, Sci Fi is McBride's most nontraditional yet satisfying album to date. It opens with a lively interpretation of Steely Dan's "Aja" that places Gilmore's fiery guitar work as its centerpiece. On a different cover, Sting's "Walking on the Moon," McBride's electric bass keeps a bouncy groove to anchor the subtle dialogues between Carter's bass clarinet and Gilmore's guitar for an odd trio performance. McBride's own compositions swing from the plaintive--especially on "I Guess I'll Have to Forget," which uses Thielemans' surprisingly expressive harmonica to startling effect--to more mixed-tempo numbers such as "Science Fiction," a song McBride based on his viewing experience of The Matrix.

Born in Philadelphia on May 31, 1972, McBride grew up in a vibrant musical community. Both his father and uncle were bassists--his father with soul outfits such as the Delfonics and Billy Paul and his uncle with Sun Ra and Khan Jamal--and Philadelphia during the 1970s was ground zero for the rhythm and blues and soul music that defined the era. "Oh yeah, Philadelphia was a hot bed of R&B and soul music in the 1970s," McBride says. "And having a lot of musicians in the family, I was always exposed to a lot of different music, a lot of different styles. So I was taking all this in before I even started thinking about writing it into my own music."

McBride wasn't to remain in Philadelphia too long. He headed to Juilliard in 1989 on a partial classical scholarship--he initially planned on pursuing a full-time classical career and jazz on the side. But within a year he decided to tour with Hargrove's first band, and by 1990 his full-time jazz career began in earnest when Freddie Hubbard recruited him for recording and touring.

But he recently returned to Philadelphia for a project that sounds quite exciting. For The Philadelphia Experiment, McBride teamed up with an old high school friend, The Roots' drummer ?uestlove (Ahmir Thompson), and Uri Caine, who's worked extensively with Don Byron. "The guy who produced the sessions, who was the coordinator of the sessions, was this guy from Philly who I guess it was kind of like his dream to get the three of us together and do something," McBride says. "Ahmir and I went to high school together. We were old, old buddies. And I used to work with Uri a lot before I left Philadelphia. So we just went into the studio for a couple of days, kind of locked the doors and went for broke."

That coordinator was Andy Hurwitz, yet another Philly native who is best known as the maverick behind Ropeadope Records, home of producer/turntablist DJ Logic. The songs the three cranked out include a couple of covers, such as Grover Washington and Bill Withers' "Just the Two of Us," Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom" with a string section arranged by '70s soul maestro Larry Gold, and a solo-piano dedication to Washington's 1975 chart-topper, "Mister Magic," as well as on-the-fly improvisations, such as a free odyssey dedication to a former City of Brotherly Love guru, Sun Ra.

"It's a little bit of everything," McBride says. "There's some hip-hop stuff. There's some drum 'n' bass sounds. We did a couple of free jazz things. It was a good project."

Though the album hits stores in June, there are only two dates set for the project to perform--Philadelphia's Mellon Jazz Festival and New York's JVC Jazz Festival. Outside that, McBride's summer is already booked. Come June, McBride will be hopping around the country conducting workshops and seminars himself, like the ones he used to attend as a teen in Philadelphia. "Every summer I get involved in an educational program," McBride says. "This year I'm going to be doing a residency and workshops at the University of Richmond and my band will be doing a couple of shows down there, and I get to work with a lot of students, too. After that, though, I'm going out to Aspen [Colorado] for my annual work with the Jazz Colony at Jazz Aspen Snowmass summer camp. Then after that I go to L.A. for the Henry Mancini Institute. So it'll be a pretty busy summer."

It may seem odd for a professional musician to devote his entire summer, which is often the busiest and most lucrative time for a musician, to teaching, but McBride feels that it's simply one of his job's responsibilities. "I love it," McBride says. "That's one of the reasons why I became a professional jazz musician. A lot of internationally renowned artists, like Wynton, took the time to come through Philadelphia and give clinics and workshops for all the young cats growing up. So me and [organist] Joey DeFrancesco and Ahmir and all kinds of guys were able to learn from some of the best. I just want to be able to give a little something back. That's the way it's supposed to work."

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