Friday, May 20, 2011

Bassist talks about being Christian McBride and getting along with James Brown

Originally published at on Thursday, May 20, 2011

Christian McBride by Chi Modu
There are bass players, and then there's Christian McBride. Just 38 years old, he's been called the greatest bassist of his generation. He's certainly the most recorded, with nine albums as leader and nearly 300 as sideman.

It's easier to name whom McBride has played with than to guess whom he hasn't. Sonny Rollins? Check. Herbie Hancock? Check. Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis? Check, check, check. Ray Brown, James Brown, Roy Haynes, Isaac Hayes, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Billy Joel, Queen Latifah, Kathleen Battle, Sting? Check, ad infinitum. Note that he's not stuck in a particular genre.

In addition to playing and recording, McBride co-directs the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. From 2005-09, he was Creative Chair for Jazz of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. He composes, arranges and teaches. He leads three bands: Inside Straight, the Christian McBride Situation, and his big band. He hosts a radio show on SIRIUS XM's Real Jazz channel.

Chick Corea once said, "Christian embodies the whole history of jazz. He's got everything going."

McBride comes to Orchestra Hall this Sunday with his Situation, sharing a double bill with saxophonist (and former James Brown sideman) Maceo Parker. The concert is called "Foundations of Funk," and it may shake the cubes off the ceiling and walls.

I caught McBride by phone at home in New York late last month, the day before he left on a two-week whirlwind European tour with Inside Straight.

Pamela Espeland: How did you get to be the bassist everyone wants to play with? What would you tell young musicians today about building a career?

Christian McBride: When I came to New York [in 1989, at 17], I had a wish list of about 20 people I wanted to play with. I knew their repertoire. I had to — in case I got that call, I would be ready. Learning the music of those 20 people, I ended up learning the music of the people who played with those people. Young musicians ask, "How did you learn all that music?" I wanted it so bad. I say, "If you want it bad enough, you know what to do."

When I meet young musicians today, they all pretty much have the same goal. They all want gigs. I say, "It's easy to get gigs. You can get one playing in a hotel lobby or a cruise ship. What gig do you want?" Sometimes you say what you want and you get what you want and that's not what you want. I say, "Make a list of all the people you want to play with. Then learn their music." 

PLE: Tell us about the Christian McBride Situation.

CM: We have DJ Logic and DJ Jahi Sundance, both spinning turntables. Patrice Rushen on keyboards, Ron Blake on saxophone, and vocalist Alyson Williams. She's one of the pioneer artists who helped put Def Jam records on the map in the '80s.

PLE: What will the deejays do?

CM: It's the same as having two drummers. One guy supplies the beat, the other supplies the scratching and ornamentation.

PLE: What will you play at Orchestra Hall?

CM: I'll have everybody bring in something. I like to keep it as experimental as possible. But we'll have a framework so we're not completely flying by the seat of our pants. And it's going to be funky. We want to make sure to respect the tight funk of Maceo [Parker] that's going to make everybody dance.

PLE: Both you and Maceo worked with James Brown. [McBride performed with him at the Hollywood Bowl in 2006, a few months before Brown died.] Do you have a James Brown story to tell?

CM: I can't be comfortable with you saying that I worked with James Brown. Maceo really played with him. But anybody who was around James Brown for more than five minutes has a story.

I actually got to hang with James Brown more than I got to play with him. I met him right before my first CD came out, in 1995 ["Gettin' To It" on Verve]. The more we started hanging, the more my career started to progress. He didn't mentor me, but he was conscious of what I was doing.

One thing about James Brown you have probably heard: You had to constantly feed his ego. It was a 24-hour job. For him, to hear anyone in his circle talk about another artist was a big no-no. He saw it all as competition. His drummer, Mousey Thompson, once told me that Mr. Brown went on a 10-minute tirade about me, saying things like, "You all think McBride is bad, but he don't know anything. He's not as great as me." He'd start rehearsal, stop, and say, "You're not going to learn that playing with McBride." I was flattered to hear that.

Then one day I called Mr. Brown on the phone — Rule #1, you had to call him Mr. Brown, even people who had been playing with him for 30 years — and he was not in a very good mood. "Mr. McBride, you ain't got no talent," he said. "Everybody tells you how great you are, but you ain't nothing. Matter of fact, I should sue you."

The title track to my first CD, was inspired by a James Brown tune called "Getting Together." He thought "Gettin' To It" sounded too much like that.

"Mr. Brown," I said, "I gave you credit in the liner notes. Did you look at those?"

"In that case," he said, "I still love you."

[McBride is writing a book about his long friendship with Mr. Brown. Working title: "I Didn't Even Get to Say Goodbye."]

PLE: What's the latest new thing you learned about music or playing?

CM: I'm always amazed at the lack of fun I see a lot of musicians play with. If you're playing music you enjoy, if you're doing what you love for a living, have fun! When people see me play, one comment I always hear is, "Christian, you smile so much." Why is that so unusual? I choose to show it. I can't help it.

I have so much fun learning new things, playing with new people. For me, it's like being at an amusement park. I get to jump on different rides. I'm not saying all musicians need to be so outward and obvious about having fun, but it really does make the job a lot easier when you're enjoying it.

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