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On The Corner Masthead

CONVERSATIONS WITH CHRISTIAN

September 13, 2016 | by Richard Scheinin

I'm only a steward for openess and curiousity and independent thought. I don't hold a torch or flag up for any particular style of jazz. 

Christian McBride

Christian McBride once recorded an album of duets with a batch of his favorite musicians. He called it Conversations with Christian, which would make a good title for his musical life. He has five different bands and a non-stop career as a sideman, and when he performs, a lusty musical conversation tends to break out because his playing projects such confidence and curiosity. He offers an invitation to the other players: “Surprise me!” The conversation grows. And when he puts down his bass and talks to the audience, the stories keep coming: McBride is one of the best raconteurs in the business. His speaking voice is rootsy and resonant, much like the sound of his bass. You’ve probably heard that voice: McBride hosts shows on SiriusXM satellite radio (The Lowdown: Conversations with Christian) and National Public Radio (Jazz Night in America), where he is a frequent contributor. He is the new artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival, hand-picked by founder George Wein to move the tradition forward. He recently led a Smithsonian tribute to Ray Charles at the White House, where President Obama “had his head bobbing to the music, eyes closed, like a real jazz lover,” says McBride, 44, who has emerged as an unofficial ambassador-at-large for the jazz world, probably because he takes such clear pleasure in the music.

Christian McBride performing with Chick Corea and Brian Blade in Season 4 (Photo by Grason Littles)

As Resident Artistic Director at SFJAZZ, McBride is careful not to make too big a deal of his growing presence. Yes, he gets described as a steward for the tradition. But the five-time GRAMMY winner -- who can pin you to the wall with his swing, and has played with everyone from Freddie Hubbard to James Brown and Sting – says, “I’m only a steward for openness and curiosity and independent thought. I don’t hold a torch or a flag up for any particular style of jazz. I just would love for more of the general listening public to be curious enough to listen to things that aren’t on the charts or on TV.”

But I never want to browbeat anyone for not knowing jazz. The only thing I can do is present jazz in a way that’s interesting or friendly enough, so people will say, `Oh, what’s happening over here? I think I like that.’ We’ll make the dish as tasty as possible, but if they don’t eat all the food, you can’t shove it down their throats.

McBride has prepared a banquet for his audiences at SFJAZZ – four concerts, four complementary dishes.

Sept. 22: “A Christian McBride Situation” is what he calls his “electric, experimental, DJ, house kind of” band. It came together at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2007, when members of his scheduled group – a straight-ahead, acoustic unit – had to cancel. “Uh-oh,” said his manager. “Looks like we have a Christian McBride situation.” No problem. The bassist grabbed some of his friends who also happened to be at the festival -- keyboardist Patrice Rushen, turntablist DJ Logic – and created a new group. Those same players (with McBride on electric bass) will perform in San Francisco along with other “Situation” regulars: saxophonist Ron Blake, vocalist Alyson Williams and turntablist Jahi Sundance.

Sept. 23: New Jawn Quartet. The West Coast premiere of McBride’s newest band, a piano-less, acoustic quartet. After spending years alongside pianists (Chick Corea, Geoffrey Keezer, Peter Martin, Christian Sands) and a guitarist or two (e.g. Pat Metheny), the bassist decided it “would be nice to play in a group where there are no chords, where I can be the only one responsible for the harmony. With a group like that, you have so many possibilities.” This one includes Marcus Strickland, one of the ascendant saxophonists in jazz; drum genius Nasheet Waits; and young trumpeter Josh Evans whose mentors, McBride notes, include the great saxophonists Jackie McLean and Billy Harper, as well as drummer Rashied Ali. (By the way, “Jawn” is a noun from McBride’s hometown, Philadelphia. In the lingo of most other cities, “jawn” becomes “joint.”)

Sept. 24: Christian McBride Big Band. With 18 members, it’s a mean machine. “If it were financially possible to work with the big band all the time, that probably could be my main group,” he says, “because it combines all of my different loves into one unit: writing, arranging, playing. You can do some small-group things inside the big band, and then you have the entertainment factor. Now I know,” he says with a chuckle, “that jazz musicians have been trained to frown upon the idea that they’re entertainers. To have people outside the family enjoy your music must mean you’re doing something artistically undignified, or not with integrity.” He laughs at the notion, and suggests you get ready for a good time. Danny Ray, James Brown’s master of ceremonies for 45 years, will be the emcee.

Sept. 25: Duets with Dee Dee Bridgewater. McBride says the singer is his “partner in crime.” Come hear a couple of virtuosos who are liable to do anything – get free, or get down in the groove. For a taste of what’s in the offing, try out their recording of the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing.” (It’s on McBride’s Conversations with Christian CD, from 2011.)

As we were saying: Four shows, four variations on Christian McBride.

What does it add up to?

McBride doesn’t hesitate: “There’s a lot of great music out there, a lot of great inflections within the same language – and I’d like to learn ’em all.”