The stank nasty roar that opens Live at Tonic, the expansive new three-disc concert set by the Christian McBride Band, rivals the hardest, nastiest Frank Zappa. Led by virtuoso acoustic and electric bassist McBride, the quartet quickly drops down into rugged, conversational bass depths before shooting into the atmosphere. These are the kinetic dynamics of one of the hottest, most scary talented bands in jazz today. Eschewing any traditionalist stiffness, McBride’s boys swing like a 50-pound haymaker clutching strands of boogaloo, rock, bossa nova, and dub. Warm-blooded and lithe as a conservatory dancer, Geoffrey Keezer (keyboards), Ron Blake (saxophones, flute), and Terreon Gully (drums) move with restless imaginations anchored by confidence and cool that cannot be manufactured.
At the helm is one of the strongest, most versatile voices to emerge in bass playing in 20 years. With this group, his compositions and personality have blossomed—the fulfillment of all the promise one hears in McBride’s past work with Bobby Watson, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Sting, Abbie Lincoln, and many dozens more. He’s also a noted music educator, Lincoln Center composer, and Creative Chair for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a position passed on to him by Dianne Reeves. When Christian McBride is holding down the low end there’s a kind of ease of spirit that takes hold. Everyone around him knows the music will have energy and substance if he’s involved.
Taken from a two-night run at the intimate, often experimental NYC club, Live at Tonic brings in some well-chosen guests to jam. The second disc gets pretty free range with guitarist Charlie Hunter, keyboardist Jason Moran, and an especially frisky Jenny Scheinman on violin. The third disc is soulful grooving with the Roots’ former member Scratch, turntable wizard DJ Logic, Rashawn Ross on trumpet, and Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno. All make appealing contributions that will likely expose McBride’s music to new listeners familiar only with the guests but it is the quartet itself that will drop your jaw on the first disc of highlights from the run. Unhampered by rules and skilled enough to wander where they will, the Christian McBride Band have the potential to be one of those classic combinations like Gary Bartz Ntu Troop or Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way-era quintet. When he speaks about music, it’s always with an ear towards wider boundaries and more intrinsic freedom for those who play it. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Christian McBride.
Your studio work has been moving away from what anyone would call traditional jazz for a while. This new live album just totally embraces the idea of the jam, the idea of funk.
I don’t think it’s any more overt than Vertical Vision  was, but I certainly think as my recording career has progressed I’ve tried to attain a more all-inclusive view of what jazz can be. Or at least what jazz is to me personally.
There seem to be a lot of forces that try to keep you in that bebop straightjacket.
Totally. The problem isn’t the music. I love playing swing music and traditional jazz. It’s certainly one of my passions in life. The thing you fight against is the people, mostly the non-musicians like writers and even some fans who think, ‘Oh well surely this is really what you’re going to keep on doing. You’re going to keep playing straight ahead, right?’ I don’t know. I don’t what I could be doing a couple of years from now. The problem is not the music it’s the people who are into the music or write about the music. They have these reserved spots for people in their heads, and they need people to fill these spots.
On public radio I worked with freeform stations for 12 years where we put jazz right next to rock, country, experimental or whatever. Musicians I find are generally much more like that. There’s far more lines of connection than there are fences.
Tell us a bit about your band. Not to be too blunt but this is a serious group of badasses.
[Laughs] Thank you! We’ve been working together for six years. Ron Blake, my saxophonist, has worked with me for seven years. It’s funny because this band came together in a period where I was really bitter and angry and frustrated about being a bandleader. I found it very difficult to find musicians who were not so much able but willing to try to combine a lot of different music together, just finding musicians that didn’t have a problem playing something funky and something swinging within the same set. So the music was frustrated but there was also the professional side, which I won’t go into too much. Let’s just say when I hired Geoff Keezer and Terreon Gully I was at a point where I just needed some musicians to get me through the next string of gigs. If they quit, they quit. If I fired them, so be it. But I think maybe it was because of that attitude that I didn’t have too many expectations so I could actually start this journey with this band on a fresh slate.
The one person who I think has been what I like to call the ‘X-Factor’ is Geoff Keezer because he’s had his own career as a leader for many, many years and he’s worked with so many great people. When I first asked him to join the band I was quite hesitant. After playing piano with Ray Brown’s trio, then playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and playing with Barbara Hendricks, well, I thought he might think playing with my band was a step down (laughs). Fortunately, Geoff was more than wide open about joining the band and it’s been nothing but great. He’s a guy who’s absorbed a lot of different styles of music and he’s more than willing to bring it all to the table.
There’s so much going on sonically with him. He’s not afraid of effects or electronics if they’re right for the moment.
I love that he’s not afraid of those effects even on straight-ahead songs. I’ve always been into weird and wacky challenges. I’m thinking like let’s play a medium swinging blues and play like distorted Rhodes on there. And Geoff is like, ‘Yeah! That sounds like a great idea!’ Where some other guy would say, ‘That won’t work.’ How do you know if you don’t try? Of course, that kind of attitude prevails with all the guys in the band. So, it’s been a really great time working with these guys.
Your band has echoes of some great jazz—Atlantic Records in the early ‘70s, Phil Woods European Jazz Machine, Von Freeman, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. You guys always seem ready to jump in and make it interesting for yourselves first, and hopefully the listener is there to meet you halfway.
Exactly. Plus, I think as a performer I always try not to play at the audience. I never want to play music that’s offensive, like saying, ‘This is who we are. Take it or leave it.’ I’ve always loved Cannonball Adderly for that reason. If you listen to a lot his live albums you hear he was a great newscaster in the way he spoke to the audience. He would play this very serious music but he had a very jovial attitude. It’s almost like he was playing angry music with a smile. It was that smile that made people meet him halfway. Therefore, he got a lot more listeners to his music than the average jazz music from that period that was playing challenging music.
He was also playing on bills with blues and rock bands, reaching very different audiences because of the approach that he took. Cannonball also brought a little church into it, which I think never hurts when trying to convey heavy things. There’s something to be said for embracing the audience. Even if you’re playing something challenging do it in a way that invites them to be part of it. I think you do that on the new live album. How did you end up choosing a small club like NYC’s Tonic over say a big concert hall for the recording?
I’ve never been one to be too judgmental towards any particular venue. It all depends on the clientele. I’ve played in some concert halls—not only with my band but with Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, and Herbie Hancock—and those audiences can be just as great or bad as playing a great intimate club with a dead clientele. What made Tonic different is it’s not a jazz club per se. People don’t go there to hear jazz. They go there to hear experimental music or whatever. It could be a Dixieland group, it could be electronica or a dance troupe. They got all kinds of things going on at Tonic. That’s what made this CD different than recording at Birdland or the Village Vanguard where you get a clientele that knows what it’s looking for. If that’s not what we’re gonna give ‘em. then it’s probably not going to be the type of reception you want on a document.
There was a small risk in that we’d never played Tonic before. We weren’t sure if people would come in thinking, ‘Christian McBride? Who’s that?’ or ‘Christian McBride? Isn’t he the jazz guy? What’s he doing playing here?’ I was little nervous making a debut at a new club and making a live album. Fortunately, any fears I had were erased pretty quickly.
You hear a strong sense of freedom, especially on the second and thirrd discs, where all rules have been set aside. Whatever happens, happens.
That was kind of how it had to be. When you’re working with musicians you’ve never worked with before, it’s not like you have a whole lot of time to get any game plan together. It’s was basically my band plus a few special guests in a jam session. That’s about as free as you can possibly be [laughs].
Did you give the guests directions or special pointers before they played with you?
No, you don’t need to do that with high level musicians like that.
You played with some of my personal favorites. I’m in love with violinist Jenny Scheinman’s work, and I think DJ Logic is the most musical turtablist out there.
I’d worked with everybody on separate occasions except Jenny Scheinman. Regina Carter was originally supposed to be on the album but she had a family emergency a few days before the concert. I knew who Jenny was but had never met her. You like to at least talk to a person before you make an album with them! Fortunately, Jenny and I met a half hour before we had to play and warmed up to each other rather quickly. Right away we hit it off.
The second CD was certainly the most experimental. The third CD is an outright party, which was certainly a whole lot of fun. If I had to do it all over again I’d probably trade one of the guests from Night Two to Night One. I think having Scratch and DJ Logic at the same time there was so much scratching going on I couldn’t tell who was who [laughs]. But it worked!
There’s a lot of sound coming at you on that third disc. What’s it like playing with a turntablist like Logic? I think a lot of people don’t see the turntable as an instrument.
That question might be better answered by my drummer, Terreon. What Logic is doing mostly is being a second percussionist. He’s playing beats and things that would normally get in the way of the drummer. It was Terreon I was worried about when we started working with Logic. But Logic is such a great listener. That’s the key to any great musician—they listen well. I didn’t know what to tell Logic when we first started. I said, ‘Just listen to what we’re doing and find something to do.’ He did some gigs with us and picked his spots to jump in there. There were gigs Terreon would lay out and Logic would play the beats on the turntables, and Terreon would be the auxiliary percussionist.
That’s the kind of humility you get with really good musicians—knowing when not to play, when their contribution isn’t needed. I think that’s almost as important as being up there soloing your ass off. One of the guests, guitarist Eric Krasno of Soulive, is a master of this. His playing is like hearing someone fly.
He’s ridiculously funky.
That is the right phrase!
He’s a hell of a player. I’ve known Eric for years. I actually knew Eric when he was going to Berklee [School of Music] in the ‘90s. Then, during the end of my tenure at Verve Records I remember Soulive was looking for a deal. Verve was courting them for a quick second but they ended up at Blue Note. I used to see those guys at the Verve offices, and then as fate would have it, they ended up scoring big. I love those guys.
A number of the guests you have on this record—Charlie Hunter, DJ Logic, part of Soulive, Jenny to a certain degree—are connected to the jam music scene, and in a way this record could be a calling card, especially being released by Ropeadope, to that scene. Do you see your music fitting in with that world?
I think probably calling a lot of those guys was not an accident on either side of the fence, musically or commercially. It was decided a while ago that the kind of thing my band has been doing the past couple years would not be 100% conducive to hardcore jazz audiences. We want to try to bring in some new listeners, as well as keeping people who were listening to us before we were more funky and electric. It’s been working so far. We just finished the “What Is Jazz” tour with my band, Charlie Hunter’s band, Logic, and Bobby Previte. It was a pretty successful tour, and hopefully it’ll keep happening.
With really high-powered musicians I find the metaphor of gunslingers works well. Gunslingers can walk into any town and everyone knows right away they’re a powerful force. It’s in their walk. It’s there before a single shot is fired.
Once you put in the time to develop your skills as a musician and get the tools you need to create on your instrument, at that point you should be more than willing to get into any kind of situation and really create and make it feel good. That’s why someone like Chick Corea can play with the Foo Fighters. I remember Freddie Hubbard playing with Billy Joel. That’s a testament to true greatness.
In that vein, I always think of Wayne Shorter’s work with Steely Dan.
It’s almost unfair to talk about how great Wayne is. He’d make any band sound great. And that’s what I’m talking about. That greatness can be pretty rare.
You’ve played on a lot of other people’s records. What’s the difference for you between that and working on your own compositions?
That’s easy—I’m not taking orders, I’m giving orders [laughs].
Do you like composing? A lot of players actually prefer getting up and blowing on someone else’s material to working up their own catalog.
You know it actually is draining for me to be able to compose. Once it’s finished it’s probably one of the greatest feelings you can have but I’ve never been able to discipline myself into being a consistent writer. I know guys like Pat Metheny, Wayne Shorter, or Chick Corea who write everyday. Even if it’s just a four-bar phrase, they have their brains geared up to write a little bit everyday. At some point in my life, hopefully sooner than later, I’ll get that kind of discipline.
What do you think are the defining characteristics of your style as a bassist?
I like to think one of the characteristics of my playing is clarity. The acoustic bass is a very difficult instrument to play with clarity of tone. The execution is very hard. I like to think I’m a bassist that has a very clear, precise tone and articulation. And a big tone. I like to think I’m a good balance between Eddie Gomez and Ray Brown. I can play what they call the “Noise Bleed Style” of bass playing—you know, really fast and high up on the fingerboard—but with the sound of a Ray Brown.
What are the challenges of making a bass a solo instrument that’s right out front? It’s usually associated with being in the background most of the time.
Because of the nature of the instrument it’s hard for people to hear it, to understand what’s going on. It’s an instrument you feel more than you hear. I’m trying to figure out how it can be both.