Christian McBride started playing bass with the very best musicians in jazz before he was able to drink or, probably, even drive a car. Now in his mid-thirties, the guy has become pure monster: on acoustic, on electric, as a grooving bandleader, and as a general spokesman for the music. As an artist, perhaps, he’s still finding his way. But Live at Tonic is a heck of a search party.
First, this set is an astonishing value from the good folks at Rope-a-Dope: three full discs of live, perfectly recorded music for fifteen smackers. Given that the musicians here are mostly first-call cats—Ron Blake’s saxophones, Geoff Keezer on keyboards, Terreon Gully’s drums, Charlie Hunter on guitar, Jenny Scheinman’s violin, DJ Logic, even Jason Maron on piano—whoa. In the small downtown New York space called Tonic, this date was full of potential.
That said, the collection is closer to being one “real” album by the Christian McBride Band (Blake, Keezer, Gully, plus CM) playing very involved, very accomplished jazz fusion, followed by two discs of funk jams featuring the guest soloists. If this kind of late night groove music is your thing, it’s hard to see how you could go wrong. But it does meander, just so you’re warned.
The conventional first disc features just the quartet on a series of funky and precise McBride originals. Even more than McBride’s bass (which is impressive both as an instrument of the groove and as a solo voice), the material features the amazing drummer Terreon Gully. He powers this fusion stuff with so much polyrhythmic fire that it’s vaguely alright that the musical ideas, on their own, are kind of trite. They can be clever, snappy and catchy, but the tunes seem like the kind of thing you’ve heard before (and probably sometime before 1975). But Mr. Gully—in collusion with Ron Blake’s surging horn and Geoffrey Keezer’s atmospheric, white-knuckle keyboards—brings every tune to a boil. “Say Something” lets the band swing as well as groove, and that’s when it’s at its best, displaying how it can bring fire to the straight-ahead feeling and really make it burn.
Not that the guys can’t play a ballad (“Sitting on a Cloud”), but then they sound a little too smoove for the crowd at Tonic. Much better is “Sonic Tonic”, where the stutter-step groove keeps everyone guessing and tapping their feet. “Hibiscus” let’s McBride get his Jaco Pastorius on, which I’d just as well skip, but then it’s interesting when the band moves into “Boogie Woogie Waltz”—an actual Weather Report tune. Too few “fusion” outfits have followed in the ambitious tracks of Mssrs. Zawinul and Shorter, and this cover simmers for a long time before it explodes in a soprano saxophone frenzy that’s a highlight of the collection.
The first night’s second set (on disc two) is not what you would expect after the fusiony precision of the first set. “See Jam, Hear Jam, Feel Jam” begins with snap-crack N’Awlins drumming and acoustic bass groove of the highest order. The liner notes make much of the musicians “completely improvising every note of every song”, but these are simply very tasty one-chord jams (when they aren’t copped from Miles or Herbie). It’s not the imagination that kills here, but the groove. Charlie Hunter sounds good, but it’s the introduction of a real wild card—Jason Moran on acoustic piano—that stokes the fire. Within ten bars of starting in, Mr. Moran challenges the band to raise its game. He is remarkably free of the groove, and so he makes it dig that much deeper, playing like the young Hancock might have done if he’d applied his acoustic imagination to his Headhunters’ funk. It’s tough for violinist Jenny Scheinman to follow, but she gets the game: she plays hard-pulled blues with plenty of repetitions and bent notes, getting close enough to the mic to sound like an updated version of Jean-Luc Ponty in his Zappa days. With this cast of characters established, the gang mutates through several different feels—with Mr. Keezer and Mr. Blake acting as chameleons as necessary—on organ or Rhodes, on flute, tenor, or baritone, dropping into the Miles Davis “Bitches Brew” groove when it is suggested, or spacey atmospherics as interlude. It’s hard not to imagine how much fun it would have been to be in the audience on that night, listening to the gang simply stumble into Herbie’s “Mwandishi” riff without any apparent earlier agreement.
The second night’s second set (on disc three) is pure groove without the same level of soloism or exploration. In addition to Eric Krasno’s fairly straight-up funk guitar and some pentatonic licks from trumpeter Rashawn Ross, DJ Logic scratches up a storm, then Scratch—a beat-box guy formerly with the Roots (CM is out of Philly)—flips everyone out with his vocal imitations of turntabling. Amidst it all, McBride locks down the bottom so tight it’s ridiculous, quoting “Mister Magic” and “Red Clay” among other vintage one-chord bass vamps. It’s a party, there’s no doubt. But—and I feel awful writing this given what a gas it must have been to be there that night—you just know these guys can do this in their sleep. It’s an impressive exercise in group dynamics and playing the crowd, but I wonder how many times you will listen to this side of music. The “D Shuffle Jam” starts with some superhuman (and he knows it) acoustic bass playing and brings you to some Fender Rhodes work by Keezer that makes your hair stand up, no doubt, but these cuts run 20 and 30 minutes long. Are you down?
That the Christian McBride Band is already a get-you-to-your-feet live act is without question. But are they a thoughtful jazz group that is moving the music forward? Maybe that’s not what this two-night stand was about. But, after sticking with it and even enjoying it for its three-disc length, you probably have the right to expect more the next time out. We’ll see.