copyright © 2003 Mike Zwerin
Paris: Christian McBride was once, as he puts it: "Everybody's favorite young acoustic jazz traditionalist bass player."
He was only 19 when the late Ray Brown asked him to join his "SuperBass" group in 1991. Fifty years earlier, while still a teenager himself, Brown had been hired by Dizzy Gillespie. McBride became the bearer of Brown's torch.
So when, after having been "afraid of negative press" for years, McBride began setting up his electric bass on stage, he got looks from the audience that said, "'you're not going to play that thing are you?'"
Actually, the electric bass was his first instrument. McBride switched to the bass fiddle at the age of 11 and by 13 was already creating a buzz in Philadelphia, his home town. Awarded a scholarship to Julliard, he moved to New York, "only to discover that Wynton Marsalis had already put the word out on the street about me," and he went right to work instead. He worked with Roy Hargrove, Joshua Redman, Diana Krall, Pat Metheny, Joe Henderson, D'Angelo, Kathleen Battle, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Natalie Cole and Milt Jackson. He was in Robert Altman's film Kansas City, and he became a leader in his own right.
McBride's electric quartet is currently on an extended tour of Europe and North America. Their new album Vertical Vision (WB) is a refreshment of that 1970s mixture of rock and jazz called "fusion." For him it's a major career move, a decisive break from the past. Influenced by more than derived from fusion, the textures and grooves are, however, perhaps a bit closer to Weather Report than McBride is ready to concede.
Either way, his mood was, if not bitter, frustrated. His voice is deep and resonant, his diction excellent, his choice of words precise and he obviously thinks a lot about all of this: "Jazz critics said that my CD is trying to be a Weather Report record but it doesn't have the same nuances and fire. They say I'm recycling Jaco Pastorius licks. I can't help laughing because while here they are telling us we'll never be as good as Weather Report, I remember in 1978, Down Beat gave one of their best albums Mr. Gone only one star. At least we got two. We must be doing something right."
McBride recalled a "1995 feature article in the New York Times, the premise of which was that Miles Davis ruined every musician who came into his company after he electrified with Bitches Brew. Miles 'ruined John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul and had Branford Marsalis not played with Miles, he might never have joined Sting's band.' There was a sort of diagram with it, a kind of corruption tree with John Scofield and all these people hanging from it. Oh, come on!"
It is hard to believe that the same jazz/rock, acoustic/electric controversy is still raging in the world of jazz. It should be clear by now that the increasing frequency and creativity of many stylistic mixtures is inevitable. "Swing was different from dixieland and bebop was different from swing and that's okay with most people," McBride explained. "Since then it's become political. To a lot of people, jazz became an idea more than a music. The idea is to hold on to the familiar. They wonder who are these guys who don't wear suits and ties and use electric pianos, electric basses and a backbeat and turn it way up loud? When this band first started playing this music live, people would come up to us and say they loved it but 'I wish you guys were still playing straight ahead.' And I would say: 'We are playing straight ahead.' This is our music. Some critics think that playing electric bass is selling out. We're making advanced music.
"If selling out means to do something insincerely to make money, in my case that would be playing traditional jazz. If I were to unplug and put on a three-piece suit and play Cole Porter and George Gershwin all night long I could make money hand over fist. Then everything would be nice and neat like it was 50 years ago and they could say: 'Chris McBride is back to playing real jazz again.'
"Now, that would be selling out."
C o m m e n t s
Christian Is Doing The Right Thing. 1 of 2 Alan Chase March 24, 03
First of all, thanks to Mike Zwerin for this insightful piece. Second, cheers to Christian McBride for having the courage of his convictions, and for pursuing his current path. There is still too much of the electric versus acoustic nonsense going on in jazz. Good music is good music, period. And Christian makes good music whether it be jazz, funk, electronica, whatever. Ridiculous comparisons of one persons music to another, earlier group are moot. We should applaude the efforts of musicians like Christian McBride, John Scofield, Dave Douglas and others for doing what they can to move the music forward. One last comment. If you were to ask any of these musicians if they have forsaken jazz of the past, I'm sure they would say "no". Any one of these musicians have already proven that they can swing their butts off. We have plenty of musicians out there who have dedicated themselves to preserving the best jazz traditions of the past. Let's not continue to denigrate those who look forward rather than backwards.