With black, thick-framed glasses, a smart designer top, and a voice that's as deep and weighty as his bass playing (Barry White would be impressed), Christian McBride exudes the mature, charismatic air of a veteran, beyond his meagre 28 years. McBride's bass playing caused a stir in the jazz world when he was just 17, when Wynton Marsalis decided to showcase his talents in front of a small Philadelphia audience of two thousand people - more on that later. His résumé of albums now runs to well over 150 separate session dates, and four solo albums, reading like a 'Who's Who' of modern jazz and pop. From Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Benny Green and Diana Krall to George Benson, John Scofield and D'Angelo, McBride's versatility, groove, tone and sheer shocking virtuosity has made him probably the greatest young bassist on the planet.
Over here to perform a support slot on Ray Brown's 75th Anniversary tour, this earthy, gentle giant of a man is late for our meeting but is so charming and, well, just so damn cool, it's more than worth the wait. Leading his own band that features Geoff Keezer (keys), Ron Blake (sax) and Carmel Gainer (drums), Christian's supporting his latest album, 'Sci-Fi', a modern post-fusion acoustic album that seeks to slash and burn any bridges or obstacles between jazz's inherent need for categorisation. Following in his father's footsteps and taking up bass by the age of eight (his father being a pro R&B and funk electric player), gave him a solid grounding in the groove. The first tune he ever learned was 'Papa Was A Rolling Stone'. Now some 20 years later, he's reached a crossroads in his playing and it's this unique hybrid sound that fuels this latest record, but I wanted to know why this title, and was he a secret fan of Princes Lea and co?
MF Are you a sci-fi fan?
CM Not really, I've only seen maybe a handful of 'Star Trek' episodes in my entire life, but the extent of my love for sci-fi goes to, ah, the 'Six Million Dollar Man'. [Laughs]
MF Yeah, it's obviously more about modern music than about just the title.
CM Well yeah, that's where the title came from, once the record was finished and everything was done to me it sounded like something that could have been in a sci-fi movie.
MF You did a tribute on 'Sci-Fi' to Herbie Hancock's 'Mwadishi' - was that period of his music a big influence for you?
CM Oh yeah! That was one of best groups of all time! And I've always been amazed that not many talk about that period of Herbie Hancock's development. They always talk about Herbie playing with Miles Davis, they talk about the Headhunters, they talk about the V.S.O.P. group, but they never really talk about the Mwadishi group too much. I mean a lot of real hardcore fans do - but not a whole lot of guys really talk about that band.
MF Because 'Sextant' is a pretty crazy album from that time as well.
CM I like this guy! That's a great record man! [Laughs] 'Water Torture' and 'Hornets' - all the stuff off that record, oh man! That's a great album.
MF That album was 40 years before its time.
CM That's right. That whole band was before its time, I believe.
MF You seem to be someone who dislikes categories.
CM I hate 'em. Why do we need them? You got 'acid jazz', and 'free jazz', 'traditional jazz', 'electric jazz', 'fusion jazz', and it's like 'for what?'
MF I was listening to 'Morning Story' but there's a sort of mixture of sounds that are a mixture of sounds between electric and acoustic jazz. Are you going to bring this in to a fusion album - but not a traditional fusion album?
CM I think you're probably the only guy I've ever spoken to that actually understands what I'm trying to do. I think that a lot of people really could understand what I'm trying to do but once again their train of thought gets held up by categories. You know 'well, what is it? I thought Christian was a traditional jazz guy?' You know so they can't get past that, it's like people kind of expect me to play like I play on Diana Krall records and that's like 'No!' I do that sometimes but not all the time. But yeah, with music, I'm very into trying to take everything that I love and really bringing it into one picture through a jazz vocabulary. And I think out of all the CDs I've done, 'Getting To It', 'Number Two Express', 'Family Affair' and now this one, 'Sci-Fi', is the closest I've gotten to really bringing it into one focus.
MF Playing a Jaco bass line on acoustic bass on a version of 'Havona' must have been a daunting prospect. Had you been trying it out for a while before the recording?
CM Well, I've always done it just for fun - I've never really tried to do it seriously - but I battled for a very long time, I had many sleepless nights trying to think if I wanted to record that song or not. Because a lot of people who love Jaco consider 'Havona' as his pinnacle - arguably, if not his best solo ever on a record, and so I thought to play that song on electric bass would have been bordering on blasphemy! And so I thought 'how can I record this song and make it different, but still kind of keep the original vibe?' So I thought 'well, I'll play it acoustic'. Then I thought 'well, can I?' So we did it.
MF Is it faster than the original?
CM It's way faster. But when we started playing it live I couldn't keep it going, it just needed too much stamina, you know when we play it live we stretch the solos out, we play it longer, so I would have to play it as the last song of the set because if we played as the first song - I'd be dead! Either that or I'd have to resort to a two-to-the-bar samba feel, kinda cheesy one-size-fits-all kind of a groove! [Laughs]
MF You seem to bring both acoustic and electric bass languages together - has this been an unconscious thing or something you've strived for all along?
CM Well, it probably happened like that because electric bass was my first instrument, so when I started playing the acoustic bass I was thinking 'electric'. All the stuff I'd learned on the electric bass I was tying to play on acoustic, so a lot of that has always stayed with me. It was difficult for a while because I didn't play a lot of electric bass in public, I always played it at home but I never played it public for a few years. Once I started playing it again on a consistent basis I had to re-learn how to not play so hard, because I'd been used to playing acoustic that when I went to play electric my touch was completely off. Now when I play electric bass I use my first and my third fingers [on his right hand] because my callous is so thick on this finger I can't feel the string! So when I play electric I literally can't feel the string! I been doing pretty good with these two!
MF When you were starting out you had a pretty amazing break with Wynton Marsalis - that must have been quite a shock. How did you feel when he singled you out?
CM It was flattering and yet it was frightening, because this was in the middle of a concert. Much like what we're gonna do tonight, as a matter of fact, the story is he was playing with his band at the academy of music, the biggest concert hall in Philadelphia, and at the time Marcus Roberts was his pianist, Jeff 'Tain' Watts was his drummer. And you know I'm backstage enjoying the concert, and he comes backstage and says 'do you wanna sit in?' And I'm thinking, 'this is not happening!' Not in a big theatre, in front of all these people, maybe I could see it in a club - but not in a big concert hall, and national public radio is recording the concert, so I'm thinking 'these are all the wrong conditions, to invite some young guy up to sit in!' Wynton must have had a lot of faith so no matter what happens I'll always be grateful to Wynton for that.
MF Playing with such an amazing list of top players, like Chick Corea or George Benson - have you ever felt out of your depth?
CM Well, I've never quite felt like that but there've been moments when - let's say I'd gotten used to doing a certain thing. When you're in the studio, recording a lot of jazz records, there's a certain protocol that just always happens, and you just get used to it. So once I started doing more pop-orientated sessions, they're not like jazz sessions. You know, jazz sessions are very loose - one of things that makes jazz what it is is the spontaneity - things happen on the spur of the moment, but it's not like that in pop. Everything's planned; everything has to be picture perfect, nice and perfectly shaped. I guess the first time I wound up doing a session like that was a record on Verve, a guy named Pete Velasco and he had some real serious pop tracks on this record and you know sitting there playing [mimes playing a bass] and like I said I was in my jazz mode, of course I know how to play pop, but I was just used to recording in the studio with the 'jazz' frame of mind. I did the whole bass track but every four bars the producer would stop the tape and say 'OK, let's do those four bars over again', and I'd say 'what was wrong with it?' 'Well, nothing but just try to just play root and fifth this time!' [Gives look of disbelief] 'OK' I say 'no problem' - I do that part, I play eight bars and they stop the tape again - 'Well, you played a major seventh, this is pop, you don't wanna get too hip!' OK, damn, so I played another eight bars and they stopped the tape…so it was just real tedious but then I realised that's how they work when you make pop records. I remember when I worked with D'Angelo on 'Voodoo' I came to the studio and they said be at the studio at six o'clock and I get to the studio about five thirty, and these guys are just like sitting around and smoking [weed], just having a good time - and it gets around six fifteen and nobody's moving! And I'm thinking - 'you guys did say six o'clock, right?' [Mimes smoking a joint] 'Yeah!' and I'm like 'are we gonna play?' 'Well yeah in a few minutes - relax! Sit down.' We didn't start playing until, like, ten o'clock! And these cats just burn up so many hours in the studio - like 'Hey Christian, do you want something to eat?' 'No I wanna play!' [Laughs] 'You wanna drink man? You wanna hit?' No! [Laughs]
MF It's a different world though.
CM And then when we did start playing I said 'well OK then, what's the music, what song are well gonna play?' And D'Angelo's like - 'I dunno!' WHAT? You don't know?' 'Well, let's just jam' 'Well, OK', and in mind my mind I'm laughing because this is so un-jazz-like, because in jazz the budget is so tight cats don't have time to sit around and…
CM Party all day long! [Laughs] Then we're in the middle of the session and then Amir, the drummer, it's like nine thirty, says 'OK fellas, I gotta go - but I'll be back in a couple of hours!' I'm just sitting there going 'WHAT?' He said - 'I've got a gig tonight', 'what? In the middle of the session?' And then you know it finally hit me - this is a major R&B soul star - they had that studio rented out for almost a year.
MF What's 24 hours?
CM What's 24 hours, what's the big deal? I can't imagine what the bill must have been for that, the guys at Virgin records, geez…
MF When did you first meet Ray Brown?
CM I first met Ray Brown in 1991and I was playing in Benny Golson's band at the time. It's a strange story - 'cos I had two gigs in one night - I had a gig with Benny Golson from, like nine until midnight, and then I had to play the third set with Benny Green at this club called the Knickerbocker in New York city. So I rushed to New York, as the gig with Benny was in New Jersey and played the third show with Benny Green, and a woman who later would become mine and Benny's manager, she brought along Ray from the Blue Note. Ray had been working at the Blue Note with his group and she brought Ray over to the Knickerbocker so he could hear Benny and me play. And I remember Benny and I were just scared to death! I still think about that night, first of all because I knew Ray had been working all night - and this is something that I've experienced a lot - most musicians, when you've had a long night of playing music, the last thing you want to do is go to a club and hear more music. You want to just have a drink and chill somewhere. So I'm thinking, 'man, Ray's gonna be tired, he's gonna be in a bad mood, he's gonna want to sleep, the last thing he's going to want to do is hear some young cats trying to play like him!' But he came and he sat down, and he wasn't very talkative, but we didn't care - we were just happy that he came. Two nights later, Benny and I went and saw Ray's group at the Blue Note, and he told us that he really liked the music, you know not too long after that Benny Green became his pianist. Then about a year after that Ray started what became 'Superbass' with John Clayton and myself - so that was a very significant night at the Knickerbocker.
MF You were in Joshua Redman's first line-up - did that band represent a turning point for you in your career?
CM It's funny man, when Joshua first started his band I was already working round New York with a lot of guys - I'd been in Benny Green's trio for a few years, I'd been playing with Bobby Watson, I'd played in Freddie Hubbard's band, which at first I took as a serious priority, so just said to myself, 'oh Joshua Redman - a young cat on the scene, making a few gigs - yeah OK!' Then the next thing I know he's like this superstar! And I'm thinking 'whoa, what happened?' - and he's gigging all over the place. Actually the year before he started that band with Mehldau, Brian [Blade] and myself, we actually toured with Metheny - Pat Metheny, and that definitely helped Joshua when he started his band, being out there on the road with Metheny being very high profile. We had a lot of fun with that group man, and it was funny because Joshua wasn't that experienced in being on the road yet. He'd been on the road maybe about a year or two, it was just interesting being on the road, and I was about 24 at the time and I was the guy in the band who had the most experience! So that felt strange, 'wow, this is deep!'
Text © Mike Flynn