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Jazz

A bass supreme

How Christian McBride rose to the top

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Published 8/27/2008

On a recent evening at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café in Grosse Pointe, Philadelphia native bassist Christian McBride sat next to Terri Pontremoli, executive director of the Detroit International Jazz Festival. On the wall behind them hung a framed photograph of a youthful John Coltrane — Philly's ultimate jazz giant — hugging his tenor saxophone. McBride, 36, this year's jazz-fest artist-in-residence, was in town for a couple of days to stoke some pre-festival buzz. He played two sold-out shows at Baker's Keyboard Lounge, joined in a workshop at Wayne State University, and held forth with journalists. Pontremoli took McBride to the café to chill out, hear some good Detroit and chat up one more journalist (that'd be me) before returning to New York.

Before McBride settled in, pianist Cliff Monear — whose quartet headlined that evening — asked McBride to sit in. The bassist obliged, borrowing the band bassist's upright. On the first and second tunes, McBride was feeling the band out. By the third number, though, he had established a fraternal bond. On the standard "My One and Only Love," McBride was feeding the guys bits and pieces of melody, which they gobbled up like chocolate.

McBride returned to our table. He munched on the house salad Pontremoli ordered for him, while I asked him how Philadelphia's jazz musicians stacked up to Detroit jazz musicians. "The level of musicianship is pretty much the same," he said. "Philly may have the advantage as far as quantity of jazz musicians, but if you look at the bass players from Detroit, such as Paul Chambers and Ron Carter alone, they probably equal the talent of 15 different bass players from Philly."

McBride is a stockily built man and his head is shaved clean. He wears a diamond in his right earlobe and obviously has a big appetite. He ate a salad, two entrées and a hearty portion of chocolate soufflé and drank two Long Island ice teas.

In McBride's 20-plus years as a professional musician, he's accomplished a lot. An in-demand bandleader and sideman in the studio and on stages around the world, he's arguably the most successful of his generation of jazz musicians from Philly.

The bassist, in concert, is quite the showman, which he attributes to the influence of James Brown: "James Brown influenced everything I've done musically," he said. "When I first saw him perform live, it freaked me out. It's funny when I think about it because my wife told me the first time she saw me perform live, my band played this big fanfare, and I sashayed onto the stage. She said some people in the audience thought I was crazy."

On the other hand, Christian's mom, Rene, convinced him to stop clowning on stage and emulating Soul Brother No. 1's dance moves.

"I called her from the emergency room. I did a spin and twisted my ankle. She told me that my big behind needed to stop acting like James Brown because he was shorter than me, and when I fell to my knees I had a longer drop to the stage floor. I haven't done my James Brown impression since ... although I still get the urge!"

Playing bass is something that runs in his family. His father, Lee Smith, and an uncle are noted Philly bassists. At age 9, McBride started playing the electric bass. He spent hours locked up listening to his mom's Motown album collection. In middle school, he switched to the acoustic bass.

At 17, he enrolled at Juilliard with an ulterior motive: "I just wanted to be in New York. I knew if I wanted to play with the musicians I admired I'd have to move there."

Weeks after McBride's arrival, alto saxophonist Bobby Watson hired him. "He asked me if I was working this weekend. I said 'No.' He said: 'Well, you're working with me.' I was only 17. The experience was like being called up to the major league and not having spent enough time in the triple-A league. I was scared to death, and Bobby was hollering at me. I guess I did alright. Bobby didn't fire me."

Eventually, however, with a work schedule that often kept him out until 3 a.m., something had to give and he dropped out.

"I was working with pianist Benny Green, trumpeter Roy Hargrove and Bobby Watson. I knew school wasn't going to work out." McBride recalled.

"It took me two weeks finally to get the nerve to tell my mom. I called her from a payphone, and told her I wasn't going back to Juilliard the next semester because I was working a lot. I was doing what I really wanted to do. There was this long pause. Then she said: 'You're my son, and I trust you will always make the right decisions.'"

In 1994, McBride signed with Verve Records, for which he recorded five albums. A Warner Bros. deal followed, and then work with the small Ropeadope label. In 2001, he was part of a collaborative project, The Philadelphia Experiment; the core band was McBride, pianist Uri Caine and Roots drummer ?uestlove; the repertoire went from Philadelphian Sun Ra to Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom." In 2006, McBride's band and guests recorded the highly touted triple-CD Live at Tonic for the label.

Although McBride bounced from label to label, he never lacked work. As a sideman, he scored high-profile gigs with pianist Herbie Hancock, pop-rock icon Sting, jazz chanteuse Diana Krall and classical vocalist Kathleen Battle. He nabbed a 2004 Grammy for his work with former Philly cat McCoy Tyner on the Illuminations CD. His discography is in excess of 240 titles.

As Monear's quartet packed its instruments, the Dirty Dog's waitstaff cleared tables and McBride polished off his chocolate soufflé, Pontremoli explained that she couldn't have chosen a more sincere and accomplished jazz artist to be artist-in-residence, performing in five different settings, including a dream-set opening night: A tribute-re-creation of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On.

"I had pretty much given up on it," she said. "I told Christian about it, and he said we should do it. Christian is writing all the charts."

He'll have a big band pulled from the festival talent pool and rising R&B star vocalists Lalah (daughter of Donny) Hathaway, Rahsaan Patterson and José James. And given the iconic stature of Marvin Gaye's original, he'll face expectations as high as anything he's ever done in his career.

If he pulls it off, it'll be a great gift to Detroit from a brother in jazz from the City of Brotherly Love.

Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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