By Mike Zwerin
13 March 2003Christian McBride was once, as he puts it: "Everybody's
favorite young acoustic jazz traditionalist bass player."
was only 19 when the late Ray Brown asked him to join his "SuperBass"
group in 1991. Still a teenager himself, Brown had been hired by Dizzy
Gillespie some 50 years earlier. McBride became the bearer of Brown's
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?'"
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,
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.
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."
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
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.
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.'
would be selling out."
McBride Web Site
Mike Zwerin has been
jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last
twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village
Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a book called "Parisian Jazz
Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of