Perhaps the busiest bassist over the last 20 years (and he’s not yet 40), Christian McBride has covered the waterfront—the motive energy of his agile, articulate bass driving the funk of James Brown, the jazzy pop of Sting, the hard bop of Freddie Hubbard and the modern classical repertoire of the Shanghai Quartet.
As a leader, he’s written and arranged for big band acts and formed the Christian McBride Band, his popular electro/fusion quartet that’s now on sabbatical, as well as a number of temporary “Christian McBride situations,” as he calls them. In 2009, at the recommendation of Lorraine Gordon, owner of New York’s jazz mecca the Village Vanguard, he put together a new acoustic quintet, ran a contest to name the group and has been touring with the aptly christened Inside Straight ever since.
The quintet delivers swinging, straight-head jazz of a very high quality, with an equally high feel-good quotient. Next week, for two nights at the Outpost, McBride and Inside Straight—with Peter Martin (piano), Jaleel Shaw (sax), Warren Wolf Jr. (vibes) and Carl Allen (drums)—will hit a high note in the New Mexico Jazz Festival’s impressive 2011 lineup. (See the sidebar for the complete festival schedule.)
I don’t really think there is something new. ... All the elements are already there. It’s just a way of interpreting those elements.
The liner notes for the quintet’s premiere release, Kind of Brown (with Steve Wilson on sax and Eric Reed on piano), include a McBride quote about the late pianist James Williams that could be applied to McBride’s work with Inside Straight. “Young jazz artists have all been taught that we have to write something challenging to be modern, but James never fully believed that. He wasn’t out to reinvent the wheel each time he wrote a tune; he was all about fine melodies and a fine harmonic structure.”
Enlarging on the theme in a phone conversation, McBride says, “I mean, what is modern? Everybody says something like, Well, to create something new. And see, this is where I think naïveté plays a big part in statements like that, because I don’t really think there is something new. ... All the elements are already there. It’s just a way of interpreting those elements.”
More important for McBride is personal expression—the artist embracing his own individuality and path. “It’s apparent to me that it’s all about your personal stamp,” he says. “I believe you write as you feel.” Sometimes that feeling requires an odd meter and challenging harmonic elements, he says. Sometimes it needs tried-and-true eight-bar phrasing and a harmonic structure out of the great American songbook. For McBride, the validity is not in the modernity but in the emotional and artistic integrity.
Whether music is complex or simple, unusual or familiar, what makes a composition attractive and listenable, McBride says, is “some sort of core in it that draws people to it.” Groove, melody, harmony—whatever the core may be—that’s what he looks to get to as a listener and a player.
The quintet finds it unfailingly, and with the deftly responsive and challenging rhythm section of Martin, McBride and Allen, the group can ride all over a tune’s sweet spot all day without wearing it out.
On Kind of Brown, saxophonist Wilson flows through every tune with instinctively surprising dexterity, and the sweet phrasing of Wolf on the vibes brings a lyrical touch even to burners. Explaining his choice of vibes in forming the quintet, McBride says, “There’s something about the sound of the instrument. It’s very celestial.” The great vibists, from Lionel Hampton down to Warren Wolf, he says, “bring a certain flavor out in the music that no other instrument can bring.”
Inside Straight brings out its own flavors, putting its personal stamp on music new and old.