Christian McBride: Tackling Two Sides Of Jazz At Once

Originally published on December 11, 2011 11:20 am

In jazz, to be a bassist usually means playing in someone else's band. The bassist-as-bandleader is a fairly rare thing, with the torch being passed over the years from Charles Mingus to Ron Carter ... and now to Philadelphia-born Christian McBride.

Not yet 40, McBride has become one of the most prolific performers in jazz. He's just released two new albums, each representing completely different takes on the form. For those who prefer that intimate, smoke-filled-club sound, there's the spare Conversations with Christian, which features duets with the likes of Chick Corea, Sting and the late Dr. Billy Taylor. For those who like big-band swing, there's the splashier The Good Feeling.

McBride had an abrupt introduction to writing and arranging for big bands in 1995, when Wynton Marsalis commissioned an orchestral piece for a Jazz at Lincoln Center performance. Before then, he'd never written for any group larger than a sextet.

"I was always curious, but I was always scared to stick my foot in the water," McBride says. "Wynton didn't give me any direction. He just said, 'Write something about New York. It can be whatever you want it to be — swinging, or a ballad, or whatever you want — just make sure it's about New York."

McBride speaks with weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz about that encounter and others with Marsalis, and explains how he decided to put out two wildly different albums.

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Time now for music. And in jazz, to be a bassist usually means playing in someone else's band. The bassist as band leader is a fairly rare thing with the torch being passed over the years from Charles Mingus to Ron Carter and now to Philadelphia-born Christian McBride.


RAZ: Not yet 40 years old, McBride has become one of the most prolific performers in jazz. And he's just released two new albums both completely different takes and form. One for those who prefer that intimate smoke-filled club sound...


RAZ: That one's called "Conversations with Christian," and the other one, for those who like big band swing.


RAZ: This record's called "The Good Feeling." Christian McBride had an abrupt introduction to writing and arranging for big bands back in 1995 when Wynton Marsalis commissioned a piece for a Jazz at Lincoln Center performance.

CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE: Well, that's what forced me. I was always curious, but I was always scared to, you know, stick my foot in the water, so to speak. I was then forced to get in the water. I've always been fascinated by big band arrangements and, you know, musicians who can take that many musicians and make music out of it.

RAZ: The piece that Wynton commissioned was called "Blues in an Alphabet City" on this record.


RAZ: Let's hear some of that piece.


RAZ: I was reading in the liner notes about how you began to work on this piece. You had no idea what you were doing, right?

MCBRIDE: I mean, you know, I only had written for three horns. I mean, I think a sextet was the biggest group I had written for. So Wynton, you know, he didn't give me any direction. He just said: Just write something about New York. It could be whatever you want it to be, you know, swinging or a ballad or whatever you want. Just make sure it's about New York.

RAZ: Alphabet City, of course, is a part of New York where the streets are lettered.

MCBRIDE: Right. And that was his only instruction.

RAZ: He is a pretty important, I guess a seminal figure in your career. You met Wynton Marsalis...

MCBRIDE: Absolutely.

RAZ: ...when you were 14 years old. Tell me about that encounter and what that did for you.

MCBRIDE: Well, this was in 1986 when I first met Wynton. So if you remember, his star was just rising incredibly. He was quickly becoming a household name. I'd seen him on "The Tonight Show." He had a big feature on "60 Minutes." So, you know, a young man in a suit playing acoustic jazz, you know, we had to latch on to that. So all of my friends who were listening to jazz, you know, Wynton was one of our biggest heroes, you know? So when he came to Philly to give a workshop, I got a chance to talk to him briefly and tell him how much I loved his music. And about eight months later, Wynton came back to Philly to give another workshop. I went up to him. I said, Mr. Marsalis, I met you a few months ago at Overbrook. And he says, oh yeah, what do you play? I said bass. He said, where's your instrument? I said, it's upstairs. He said, go get it. I went, uh-oh, here's my opportunity.


MCBRIDE: And we just played some blues. He played piano. And a few nights later, he played with his band. I see Bob Hurst putting his bass down, and I went, oh no. And Wynton gets on the microphone and says, ladies and gentlemen, I met this 14-year-old kid. You're going to hear a lot from this young man. I want you to hear him. Let's invite him out to the stage, Christian McBride. And I was so shocked. I have never been that nervous in my entire life.

RAZ: How did you play? You must have been terrified.

MCBRIDE: You know, I'm shaking like a leaf. So anyway, it was just a memorable, memorable night. And then after that incident, word just kind of started to spread.

RAZ: What an incredible story. My guest is the jazz bassist and composer Christian McBride. He's got two new records out. One's called "The Good Feeling," which is a big band album; the second one's called "Conversations with Christian," which is an album of duets. I want to ask you about your album of duets, "Conversations with Christian," because there's incredible people that you brought on to collaborate with. I mean, you've got Angelique Kidjo and Eddie Palmieri and Roy Hargrove, Sting. And I want to play one of those conversations, if you will. It's your duet with Dee Dee Bridgewater...


RAZ: ...and she's singing a cover of the Isley Brothers' song "It's Your Thing."


DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER: (Singing) Mm, oh, can you slap it one more time, baby?

MCBRIDE: (Singing) Get down.

BRIDGEWATER: Aw. I felt that one. Hit me, hit me, hit me. Ooh, lord. It's your thing, do what you wanna do. I can't tell you who to sock it to...

RAZ: That's just so great, and it's so much fun. And it really is a conversation. I mean, she's talking to you, she's talking to your bass, you're talking back to her. You really like - it's going back and forth, right?

MCBRIDE: Well, I mean, you know, Dee Dee is a walking party.


RAZ: Is that how you sort of wanted to approach the music with each performer? Is it really about that kind of interaction?

MCBRIDE: You know, every musician has their own personality, and, you know, I wanted my personality to kind of blend with theirs. So whatever happens happens.


BRIDGEWATER: (Singing) Do what you wanna do. Oh, I can't tell you...

MCBRIDE: (Singing) Get down.

BRIDGEWATER: (Singing) ...who to sock it to.

RAZ: It just sounds like you guys were having so much fun in the studio when you were putting that together.

MCBRIDE: Oh, she's the best. At least once a year we do a big tribute to Ray Brown at the Blue Note in New York. When we're on stage together, I'll never forget someone said to my wife, says, well, I'm not sure if you want to go see Dee Dee and Christian on stage 'cause it can get a little racy.


MCBRIDE: And my wife said, don't worry. I already - I've already seen Dee Dee. I know what's going to happen.


RAZ: There obviously are amazing people on this record. And I want to ask you about somebody very near and dear to the hearts of lots of public radio listeners, and that, of course, is Dr. Billy Taylor. He hosted...


RAZ: ...jazz programs for us for many, many years, and he died almost a year ago. Now...


RAZ: ...tell me about your relationship with him and what this recording means to you.

MCBRIDE: I first met Dr. Taylor, I think I was 12. He came to Philadelphia to give a workshop. And, of course, you know, what an elegant, sophisticated man, you know? Then I got a really wonderful call - it must have been around 1993. He was doing a recording for GRP, and he asked me to participate. And so I was around him quite a bit, so I got a chance to get some wonderful insight from him on things away from the music and things directly and indirectly related to the overall culture of black America and jazz and just a whole lot of - I mean, the man was just a walking fountain of wisdom, you know?

And when we did the duet, he seemed very thrilled that I wanted him to play on this CD, but he was a little worried because he was under the impression that he had lost his chops. He says, well, man, I can't play like I used to. I said, Dr. Taylor, you - no, you sound better than ever. He said, no, you're being nice. And he says, well, I'll tell you what. I have a song that I wrote that I've never recorded because no one can play it right. I wrote it specifically for bass. I have a feeling the first person has finally come along that's going to play this piece the right way, and that person is you.


MCBRIDE: He brought in the song "Spiritual." And how honored am I that I got to record that with him.

RAZ: And I believe this is the last record that Billy Taylor ever appeared on.

MCBRIDE: I believe it is. I believe it is.

RAZ: That's Christian McBride. He's a jazz bassist. He has two new albums out now. One is called "Conversations with Christian." It's a collection of duets. And the other is "The Good Feeling." It's a big band album. You can hear tracks from each of those records at our website, nprmusic.org. Christian, thank you so much, and congratulations on these records.

MCBRIDE: Thanks so much, Guy.


RAZ: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Remember, you can hear the best of this program on our podcast, Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Subscribe or listen at npr.org/weekendatc. We post a new episode every Sunday night. And for audio outtakes and previews of what's coming up, you can follow me on Twitter. That's @nprguyraz, spelled G-U-Y R-A-Z. We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.