ONLY 27, JAZZ bassist Christian McBride has already established himself as the most influential bass player of the '90s. Possessing a resume that might take another player 30 years to accumulate, McBride has released three albums as a leader, Gettin' To It, Number 2 Express and 1998's A Family Affair, all on Verve records.
The progeny of an electric bassist and the nephew of an avant-garde jazz bassist, McBride's gravitation toward the instrument isn't surprising, but his virtuosity with it is. Originally from Philadelphia, a city that's spawned more internationally renowned bassists than anywhere else in the world, McBride was discovered by Wynton Marsalis in the 11th grade, and at age 17 went to study at New York's Julliard School. But constant gig offers from the likes of Bobby Watson, Freddie Hubbard, Benny Green and others lured him away from the classroom and into the clubs. From 1989 on, every band leader sought Christian's intense groove, intelligent phrasing and masterful command. Though always too mature of a player to be considered a "wunderkind," after a decade of backing the greatest artists in jazz, McBride has attained a rare status as a player.
And just when we thought we'd heard it all from McBride, he went and got funky. His experiences with the greats gave him a firm grounding in the acoustic jazz tradition, but he is 27, and grew up with the sounds of funk, soul and R&B. A Family Affair is in many ways Christian's return to his funky Philadelphia roots. Gettin' To It, his first CD as a leader, offered a taste of his groovy side, and now he's taken his playing a step further by adding the electric bass to his estimable talents. "My dad is an electric bassist, so I started on that instrument at age 8 and didn't pick up the acoustic bass until three years later," McBride explains. His new CD is both a look back and a step forward. "It seems I've gotten a reputation as a hard core traditionalist, so I was anxious to stretch out and present the full range of music I like playing," he says. "I enjoy challenging the perception of what jazz can be, both for myself and in the hopes of exposing it to more listeners -- especially young people. Actually, there's an irony to the album's material: all of the R&B cover tunes sound more like jazz than the originals I wrote."
The title cut, a remake of Sly & The Family Stone's hit, is a hybrid of Stanley Turrentine's hard swinging soul jazz groove and the harmonic fluidity of Herbie Hancock's mid-'60s quintet. On the original composition, "Theme from Our Fairytale," McBride's electric bass playing is reminiscent of fretless bass masters Alphonso Johnson, Jaco Pastorious and Victor Bailey, all members at one time of the jazz-fusion group Weather Report, and coincidentally, all from Philadelphia.
In addition to extending his talents to the electric bass, Family Affair also showcases Christian's flair for songwriting, featuring vocal performances by Will Downing and Vesta.
"Brown Funk" is an unlikely tribute to the immortal Ray Brown, the man McBride refers to as his "other musical dad." The tune is a funky fusion romp with gritty slap and wah-wah pedal electric bass. It's great fun, and perfect for shocking his more straight-ahead fans. The tune segues immediately into a modern, free jazz interpretation of "Open Sesame," a standard by well-known composer Robert Bell of....Kool and The Gang. On this record, no expectation is safe.
On his current tour, McBride's new lineup includes Ron Blake on tenor and soprano saxes, Shedric Mitchell on piano and keyboards, and Rodney Green on drums. The quartet hits town as a part of a Southwest swing of one nighters, with Tucson being their last stop before returning to New York. The quartet is warming up new material for a CD to be recorded this November, also for the Verve label. "This record is a little more experimental; I want to try to bridge the gap with a more acoustic sound," says McBride.
On this tour, McBride foresees the electric material being used more as "decor," but for their performance here on Halloween night, he concedes, "No doubt I'll do the Goodfoot dance," referring to his moving tribute to James Brown. Whether he's playing funky or straight-ahead jazz, McBride's compositional insight and authority on the bass promise to provide a night of memorable sounds.