PLE: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me so soon before you leave. Have you finished packing?
Christian McBride: No, but I’ll pack quickly. I have it down to a science. All I need is tomorrow morning.
I’m guessing you don’t travel with your bass. How does that work these days?
I just started using a thing called a Chadwick Folding Bass. A guy in Nashville makes it. It’s a Transformer bass. Some people call it the bionic bass. It has moving parts—the neck collapses into the body. So I’m able to travel with a full-size acoustic bass again. I traveled with it the first time in March, during the Inside Straight tour of the West Coast.
I once had to borrow 13 basses in a row, so I’m trying very hard to help this company.
[Look on his website for ATTENTION ALL BASS PLAYERS!! YOU MUST READ!]
How does it sound?
It’s plywood, so it’s not going to have the creamy resonance of an old rare wood, like an ebony, but it certainly does the job for what you need done on stage. I can mic it and play acoustically.
I notice now that bass players aren’t the only ones who have those travel problems. Saxophone players have them, trombone players, guitar players. [Guitarist] David Gilmore was playing gigs with me. He would bring his small guitar in a tightly-wrapped gig bag, not big at all, and still have problems.
[See videos of the Chadwick Folding Bass going up and coming down, and one of McBride singing its praises.]
You advise young musicians to make a wish list of the people they want to play with someday. That’s what you did. Have you played with everyone on your list?
Your band the Christian McBride Situation has had a changing lineup over the years.
I believe this Situation will stay a permanent situation.
[The Christian McBride Situation is Patrice Rushen on keyboards, Ron Blake on saxophone, vocalist Alyson Williams, McBride on bass, and two deejays, DJ Logic and DJ Jahi Sundance, on turntables.]
But this gig [at Orchestra Hall] will be much different than the first gig I did with this group at the Hollywood Bowl [in August 2008]. The theory of this band was, let’s see what happens if we improvise completely. Just as an experiment. Let’s not even talk about music. Instead, I’ll look at one of the deejays and say, “Let’s start a beat.” With all these musical minds up there, let’s just see what happens.
A few of the guys were saying, “Are you sure you want to do something like that at the Bowl? If we did this at a club, it might work better.” They thought maybe we should at least talk about a melody or a set of chord changes or something. “Yes, I’m sure,” I lied. To make the pressure even greater, Jamie Cullum and the Basie Band were opening. So the crowd that night was not interested in hearing an experimental DJ group.
The following morning, I had emails: “Mr. McBride, this was one of the worst groups I’ve ever heard you play in.” “Meandering.” “Aimless.” There was one from a young kid, “Kudos to you for being such a daredevil.” I’m glad one person liked it.
People call you and ask you to play. Do you ever call other people and say, “Let’s play”?
Sure. I did it with this group. Patrice Rushen—there are a lot of people in the jazz world who don’t know who she is. [In the ’80s], she wrote a hit R&B song called “Forget Me Nots.” Because of that song and all of her commercial success in the ’80s, she didn’t play much jazz. She always had a kind of secret life around L.A. playing jazz with a whole lot of people. That’s really where her genius lies. She had that huge hit, toured, and did that George Duke/Joe Sample funk thing she does so well, but she can also sit down and play like Bill Evans, Chick Corea, and McCoy Tyner. As her career progressed, she started doing more jazz gigs, playing with Buster Williams, Wallace Roney.
Didn’t I see you play with Patrice in Monterey? I remember that you were wearing a gigantic peace symbol on a chain around your neck.
[This was at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2005, when McBride and Rushen played with Blake and DJ Logic.]
That was the Situation’s first gig! It’s why that band started. Originally, that gig was supposed to be with the old band—Ron, Geoff Keezer, Terreon Gulley. But Terreon and Keezer could not play that show. When my tour manager found that out, he said, “It sounds like we have a Christian McBride situation.” I said, “Can I use that?”
[I knew that Jaleel Shaw would be traveling to Europe with McBride as part of Inside Straight. I thought it would be fun to ask Shaw if there were any questions he’d like to ask McBride.]
I have a question for you from Jaleel Shaw.
From Jaleel? Did you FaceBook him?
I did. He wants to know—what are you checking out now, and who are some of the younger up-and-coming cats that you like?
I am very hot on this young man named Christian Sands. I want you to keep a serious eye out on him. Dare I say that he could be the next major musician on the scene? Dr. Billy Taylor was his mentor.
Even within the last ten years, I find it rare that young musicians really try to seek out mentorships and [reach out to] the older cats. There aren’t that many left. Seeking them out, asking, “May I spend some time with you?” usually turns into doing some playing.
What happened was, Marianne McPartland called and asked me to sit in for her for an episode of Piano Jazz. I asked, “Who’s your subject?” She said it was a young man studying with Dr. Billy Taylor named Christian Sands. As I heard him warm up [the day of the show], I thought, “Okay, if McPartland likes him enough to have him on the show, he must have some skills.”
We started playing, and he called something way upstairs—one of those Oscar Peterson kind of tempos that no one plays anymore, that make you sweat. He nailed it. He had the technique, all the notes were crystal-clear, and he was swinging hard. I thought, “Uh-oh, we’ve got a live one here.”
When I was talking to him, he seemed to have his head together. It was all about the music. He told me he was going to Manhattan School of Music and studying with Jason Moran. If he’s studying with Jason, he’s getting that thing, and he also got the classic stuff from Dr. Taylor.
Christian is working with Inside Straight when Peter [Martin] can’t do it. I’m going on a trio tour with him and [drummer] Ulysses Owens Jr. in June.
So many good cats are coming on the scene. Christian’s one. Ulysses is one. Justin Brown, a drummer from Oakland, worked with Kenny Garrett a little bit. Ben Williams, a wonderful bassist from DC. Joe Sanders, another young bassist on the scene I’m digging a lot, from Milwaukee.
Who else do I like? Tim Green, another saxophone player who works with Inside Straight when Jaleel or Steve [Wilson] can’t make it. There’s another young man who’s going to be very special. Julian Lee. He lives here in Montclair, New Jersey. His father is Mike Lee, the saxophone player. Julian is now 15. He plays alto saxophone. Keep an eye out for him. He’s going to be serious. There’s fresh blood.
It’s so important for younger musicians to have an opportunity. There’s always some crusty contingent of the jazz world saying, “Young people aren’t playing.” Instead of complaining, help them play something.
To find an older musician doesn’t mean you have to find someone in their 70s and 80s. Just find someone who’s older than you. Someone who’s better than you.
[McBride also had kind words to say about Shaw.]
I love Jaleel so much. I first met him when he was 9 or 10. I was in high school. His mother used to bring him around to all of our band rehearsals. The alto looked like a baritone on him, he was so little. He had just started playing, but I knew he was serious. His mother is just such a wonderful woman.
Later on, I knew that he had been accepted to Berklee. But I hadn’t heard him play since he was a kid. I think it was in 2002 or 03, I was in Monterey, walking behind one of the stages. I knew that Berklee had a band performing at the festival that year. I heard somebody playing the mess out of the alto saxophone. I thought, “Holy Christ! Who is that?” I went out into the audience, saw it was Jaleel, and almost dropped my food. I almost had a Fred Sanford heart attack. I sat there with my mouth on the ground, thinking “That’s what he sounds like now?” He destroyed me. After it was over, I had to find him and get on my knees and bow to him.
How long has Jaleel been with Inside Straight?
My manager and I always laugh. I have a rotation, a pitching rotation. Jaleel is my [Phillies pitcher] Chris Lee.
[This was as close as McBride and I ever got to talking about sports. He is a huge sports fan, and very knowledgeable; he has written about the Philadelphia Eagles for BleacherReport.com. I had to make it clear in the first second of our talk that I know nothing about sports and would only be stupid if he went that way. So he didn’t—until the end.]
Conversations with Christian McBride podcasts on iTunes (subscribe free)