Jazz musicians coming of age in the last 20 years have had a difficult charge. “Innovate!” the music seems to demand. “But know every nuance of my history”, the music also commands. Innovation is tough in a music that passed through atonality in 1965, and paying homage to the tradition is so often stuffy or dull.
Christian McBride has, however, forged ahead as if all this was simple as pie. He has played “out” dates and free jams, he has gone electric and back, he has incorporated classical themes—and of course he has played countless straight-ahead dates with every major working jazz musician. As a leader, he has released about six recordings, but few with his working band and none that really staked a serious claim.
In short, McBride’s career as a player is near-legendary, but his identity as a leader has been blurry.
With his new band, “Inside Straight”, and its new disc Kind of Brown, McBride finally feels focused and serious. This music is unself-consciously traditional: it’s fun; it swings its ass off. It’s not experimental, but it gives superb voice to several brilliant players and one new discovery. This is the kind of recording that the great players of the past would have put out every year or so.
And now Christian McBride, the finest bassist of his generation, is on track. It’s his best record, and it puts a little jump in your step. It’s hot.
Here is the band: Eric Reed on piano, Carl Allen on drums, Steve Wilson on alto and soprano saxophones, and Warren Wolf, Jr. on vibes. The rhythm section simply kills. Allen and McBride are hand-in-glove, neither overpowering the other, swinging every tune like a Rolls Royce engine set on “purrrrrr”. Eric Reed, who once played in the Wynton Marsalis Septet and developed seriously down-home chops, uses them here to stoke the McBride/Allen fire. Wilson swaggers on alto and gets sinewy on soprano, modern but always bluesy. And this kid Warren Wolf from Baltimore: BAM! He sounds like the most exciting vibes player in jazz since Stefon Harris emerged.
Most of the tunes here are by McBride, the leader, and they each infect with the toe-tapping disease, no doubt incurable. The blues-based tunes, such as “Brother Mister”, simply won’t quit. Allen sets up four-to-the-bar snare clicks under a funk bass line (though all the bass here is acoustic), and the vibes and alto snap out a great melody. The solos crackle and sing, with accompaniment and improvisation bouncing off each other in real time. Reed: gospel great. Wilson: witty and blue. Wolf: utterly inventive inside the idiom. “Stick and Move” is a fast 12-bar with a short theme that gives way to fiery cooking. “Used ‘Ta Could”, in contrast, is a gospel blues that fries up the sweet stuff with no shortage of spice.
How wonderful it is to listen to a whole album of this delicious music, rooted in the compelling work of old masters like Art Blakey and Cannonball Adderley, but not a disc of mere mimicry. When the group tackles an older tune, Freddie Hubbard’s “Theme for Kareem”, the relatively unusual instrumentation—alto paired with vibes in the front line—and the decision to start things with an articulate bass improvisation before the theme even arrives keep things fresh. Wolf’s solo here is fantastic: a rush of ideas that seem to bubble out from the rhythm section’s prodding. Wolf, on tune after tune, is the highlight: floating freer and spinning his ideas with more zeal and relish than anyone else, remarkable given the quality across the board here. Keep an eye on this kid, goodness.
But the core of what works about Kind of Brown is in the vigorous honesty of he rhythm section. McBride has always been both muscular and lithe as a bass player—great tone, great time. And in Carl Allen he has a partner who is also incredibly versatile. Reed too: fleet but earthy. And so the proceedings here are modern in the best sense. The whole things cooks, but it’s not a self-conscious “throwback” date that tries to recapture the funky jazz of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Rather, the wonderfully balanced trio here comes by this kind of Cadillac swing naturally.
Steve Wilson does his part too. Wilson has moments where he channels the smart sass of Adderley, there is no doubt, but more often he is his own man, simply working the same kind of honest territory: blues-drenched but up-to-date, urgent but carefully edited too. It’s hardly news that Wilson is a great soloist and a major voice, but in a world that is crowded with inventive horn players, it’s great to see Steve Wilson getting a clear platform for his playing. His say-so is worth hearing all over again.
By calling this disc Kind of Brown, Christian McBride is having some fun but also not fooling around. Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is now 50 years old, and we’ve all been kneeling worshipfully at its feet for our whole lives. McBride seems to be reminding us that the eternal verities are here and now as well. This new collection may not be timeless, but it’s in the timeless mode. (The disc even has a set of classic “liner notes” that are not a chore to read.) This new band has also been given a moniker, Inside Straight (a suggestion from a fan), and that tells it too. This band plays “inside” the modern harmonies, but it’s not a worshipful act of history.
McBride and his quintet are indeed playing the music straight, and they’ve drawn a card or two here to create a winning hand. The notes suggest that McBride intends to keep this band together, which may also be against the odds. But it’s a bet worth making.