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Versatility: A Conversation with Christian McBride

Christian McBrideAs the jazz standard goes: “Things ain’t what they used to be.” The music industry as a whole is changing, but even so, truly remarkable artists will always shine through. Christian McBride is one of those artists.

Raised in Philadelphia, McBride moved to New York City at the age of 17 to step up his music career. Through hard work, and the mentorship of bass legend Ray Brown, McBride quickly became an in-demand player in the jazz scene.

Not one to be tied down with labels, his credits include work with Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Joshua Redman, Freddie Hubbard, Sting, Isaac Hayes, Billy Joel, The Roots, Carly Simon, James Brown… So many artists, in fact, that it’s probably easier to list who he hasn’t worked with. He’s been a sideman on over 300 recordings, not to mention his nine albums as a band leader.

2011 has proven to be a big year for McBride. In addition to touring, the bassist has released his first big band album, The Good Feeling, (just nominated for a Grammy) as well as an album of duets, Conversations with Christian. He also co-directs the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.

We caught up with the intrepid bassist to get his ideas on the state of jazz, learning music, and his views on electric bass versus double bass.

First off, congratulations on your Grammy nomination for The Good Feeling. You’ve won two other Grammys, but this is your first personal Grammy nomination. Is it more rewarding than the others?

Thank you. I wouldn’t say it’s more rewarding, because the other two I got were collaborations with McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea. So, that’s cool, too [laughs].

You also just released your duets CD, Conversations with Christian, only a couple months after The Good Feeling. Was there special planning to release two albums back to back, since they’re such different albums, or is that just the way it worked out?

Christian McBride: Conversations with ChristianThat’s just the way it worked out. Fortunately [my] record label, Mack Avenue is really supportive, and any time I come up with any sort of idea for a recording, they pretty much support it. They say, “Tell us what you need and we’ll make it happen.”

I knew that I probably wouldn’t be able to tour by going on the road and doing duets, so we figured releasing the duets CD right behind the big band CD just might be a cool thing to do.

One of the most touching tracks on “Conversations” is your performance of “Spiritual,” with Dr. Billy Taylor, who passed away last year. What kind of a relationship did you have with him?

I think all of us who knew Dr. Taylor knew that he was such an incredibly sophisticated and elegant man. I think he goes completely unsung as one of the greatest ambassadors of the music, just because he wasn’t part of the rebellious ’60s generation. He was one of the few musicians from any era who really was able to touch all facets of the music. He was a true ambassador. He had his television slot on CBS for many, many years, he was a DJ, he was involved in city politics. Not on an official level, but I think any mayor or city official who needed some sort of cultural lead, you know they’d always turn to Dr. Taylor. He was such a wonderful, wonderful man.

I first met him when I was 13 years old, [when] he came to Philadelphia to give a workshop. We were able to work together quite a number of times once I finally got to New York City, so I miss him dearly.

There’s been a lot of talk lately between people saying that ‘jazz is dead,’ and those saying it’s on the rebound. What’s your take on the state of the genre right now?

Well surely I think no artist, no matter what genre they’re in, could use less distinctions and labels and would love to just create music. But the fact of the matter is, a label is a fact of life. It’s our job as artists to just create the most truthful and honest music that we can possibly make, and if one doesn’t know what to call it, I think that’s their problem.

A lot of so-called jazz artists, as we all know, go all kinds of different ways. I mean, look at somebody like Herbie Hancock. He has made plenty of records that can’t really fit in any category, but he still gets called by default a “jazz musician”. Personally, I don’t think Herbie has a problem with that. If you stop called him a jazz musician and just called him a musician, he would love that much more. But if you called him a “jazz pianist”, he’s not going to rip your head off.

Surely I think labels are things that [were started by] people who don’t create. Everyone has some sort of label somewhere. They have labels inside of labels – soul jazz, avant-garde jazz, fusion jazz, post-bop jazz, and of course the classic “smooth jazz” [laughs]. I mean all this stuff gets confusing after a while. So there are all these labels within the labels.

Now, if you go to a funk musician and say, “Do you have a problem being called a funk musician?”, they wear that with a badge of honor. I’m not sure how classical musicians would feel about it, but I don’t think that musicians really sit around worrying about that too much. And I happen to be one of them.

So of course you play with people from all over the spectrum of music. Do you see versatility as being a key to success for up-and-comers?

Yes. I think everybody is versatile now. I think the majority of young musicians coming up in the scene realize the artistic fulfillment of learning how to play different styles, particularly rhythm section players. I’ve always felt that the more styles you learn, not only are you fulfilled that much more artistically, but you can work more. If you play more than one style well, that means there’s more than one type of artist who will call you for work. I find that a lot of musicians coming up on the scene now have figured that out.

What’s your process for learning new vocabulary? Are you a religious transcriber or do you just listen to tunes and try to cop the feel?

To me, that is transcribing. I think a lot of people sort of misconstrue what transcribing means. If you sit down and you’re listening to one of your favorite recordings, or if there’s a solo you’re trying to learn, a lot of people think transcribing means you sit down and listen to it and figure out the notes and then you study it. But for me, transcribing means internalizing it, which means you cop the feel as well. I’ve always been one to learn it by ear and get it into your heart first and then analyze it later. Learn as much as you can by ear while really trying to cop the feel, and if there’s something really specific that you want to see like some notes, then you write it down. But to me, transcribing and analyzing, that’s always consisted of trying to memorize and cop the exact feel of whatever it is I’m trying to feel.

So do you still do that now?

I can’t say that I consciously say, “Okay, today I’m going to learn this Ray Brown solo.” I don’t really do that much any more, but if there’s something that I’m trying to learn for a specific reason – like a gig or something like that – yeah, I’ll sit down and try to figure it out.

These days, when I’m really practicing hard on something, it’s just to keep my chops up. I’m trying to shed a lot on my writing now, and my orchestrating and things like that. That’s mainly what my focus is these days when I’m consciously shedding on something.

Is there a specific player that you think influenced your soloing the most?

Well in the early days, I listened to a lot of Paul Chambers and a lot of Ron Carter. But I would say Ray Brown was possibly my most significant influence, not just in terms of soloing, but what it meant to swing hard and really kind of drive the band. Of course, getting to be around Ray Brown so much and working with him in the group Superbass, I got to feel that unmistakable feel up close. That’s a feeling I’ll always keep with me.

What kind of a man was Ray Brown?

I think all those guys from that generation… well, they were hard. They came from that era of hard living. Now, Ray Brown of course in many ways was sort of like Dr. Taylor in that sense that he was very sweet and very elegant and very sophisticated, just like Hank Jones and Oscar Peterson. But Ray Brown was a no-nonsense kind of guy who was sort of like everybody’s father. He had so much wisdom. He never found things that difficult. You could go to him about different problems you were having musically or just in life, revolving around life or relationships, and Ray always had these real short one-sentence answers that seemed to crack the code. You’d look at him like, “Of course, yeah! It’s not that difficult is it?” And that’s because the man lived so long and understood so much. Like I said, that generation… I think most of those guys were like that.

Do you see that carrying over to today’s generation?

Certainly, I don’t believe that people in general are that hard-nosed or that gruff anymore, because they’ve made it so we don’t have to be that way anymore. I mean, their hardness and their gruffness was a result of their circumstances. We don’t have those circumstances anymore. We can’t be like that. We have to be our own way, whatever that is. Geoff Keezer made a great observation one time. He said he remembered Ray Brown, Milt Hinton and me at some hotel, somewhere in Europe, and he said “You know this is just an example of the generations.” We got to this hotel, which I thought was kind of crappy for somebody like Ray Brown and Milt Hinton to be staying at. I said, “They should be staying in a 5-star hotel!” I didn’t mind it so much, but I said, “Man, why did they put Ray and Milt in this hotel? This is not cool.”

So Ray Brown said something like, “Well you know we don’t mind it. You should see the hotels we stayed at when we were your age. This is way better than that.”

And Milt Hinton replies, “Well at least you guys had hotels! We didn’t even have hotels.”

So this is three generations of different realities. It’s a different thing. I’m not quite sure what our generation’s lasting legacy will be, but I do know that my generation was the last generation that had full access to all of the legends. You know, the Art Blakey’s and the Miles Davis’s and the Oscar Peterson’s and the Dizzy Gillespie’s. All of the legendary bebop musicians. Betty Carter, people like that. I think my generation was the last generation that was able to be up close and personal with those titans.

What are the differences you see between electric bass and double bass and how they differ in jazz?

Christian McBride - electric bassThe music determines what instrument you use. First of all there aren’t that many doublers. I mean, people who really, really thoroughly understand the nuances of each instrument, because they are two completely different animals. They serve the same function, but physically they’re completely different animals. You need a whole different way of thinking when you’re playing each instrument.

I think about people like John Patitucci, or James Genus, but there’s probably not a really long list of people who have figured that out. In terms of the music itself and where it belongs, I think the music makes it very obvious which instrument you need to use. The electric bass’s place in jazz…. I just never thought the electric bass worked well with other acoustic instruments. I mean, if you’re playing with a 7′ acoustic piano and you have a small drum set with an 18″ bass drum relatively high-pitched, wonderful resonant cymbals, saxophone, brass and woodwind instruments… I just never felt the electric bass worked well. You can hear it better, but it doesn’t have that organic, earthy feel. That’s what the acoustic bass is for.

I’ve found that in other styles like rock or funk, certainly the acoustic bass could work in that too, but you can’t hear it as well. It gets buried in all those elements, so that’s where you may need to go to the electric.

But again, the music determines what instrument needs to be played and it’s up to the individual player to learn how to play each instrument well.

How do you define groove?

See, that’s another one of those questions where most people who know how to groove, they would never even bother asking. I mean, I really believe if you go to the funkiest – and I don’t mean funky as in R&B and soul bass players, but like bass players who really know how sit in the pocket and make people tap their feet – they just do it. I don’t think they really sat around and asked that question. I think they just know how to do it.

I could say something like “You just gotta learn how to relax and fall into it”, but some people do that and then they start falling behind the beat [laughs]. Relaxation could be misconstrued as an instruction, but I don’t know. You just know it when you feel it. When you’re grooving, you know it. It’s one of those feel things, it’s a spiritual thing.

What was the last album you bought?

I think the last CD I bought… it’s funny. I went and bought the greatest hits of Jermaine Jackson [laughs].

Nice! What inspired that?

You know, I wondered for many many years if Jermaine could actually play bass, because I’d see him holding a bass on those old Jackson 5 shows and videos, but I knew he never played on any of the albums. So I said, “Man, I wonder if Jermaine has really got any skills?”

There’s an album called My Name is Jermaine… I think it’s from 1975 or 1976, and yeah, Jermaine is playing some real good bass on that recording. Plus there’s a lot of singles of his from the ‘70s and ‘80s that I really liked. So yeah, I was having a Jermaine Jackson moment a couple of months back, and I think that’s the last CD I’ve bought, other than some comedy CDs.

What other albums have been most influential on you?

Let’s see… Miles Davis’ Someday My Prince Will Come, with Paul Chambers on bass. It’s going to be hard to pick a Ron Carter album, because there are so many of them… maybe Miles Davis’ My Funny Valientine.

Weather Report’s Black Market. Actually it’s somewhere between Black Market and Heavy Weather. Those are my two favorite Weather Report albums. I might lean toward Black Market because it has Alphonso [Johnson] and Jaco [Pastorius] on that recording. James Brown’s Live in Paris, the Love, Power and Peace album with Bootsy playing bass. And pretty much any Motown recording with James Jamerson on it.

That’s like a must for bass players, isn’t it?

Yeah, and I would have to say the same thing for Ron Carter. Like I said, anything he played on. And the same with Ray Brown. They were so prolific in their recording careers, so you’ve got thousands of choices. Between Ron, Paul Chambers and Ray Brown, that’s about 20 years of listening, just among those guys alone. For Ray Brown, I might pick an Oscar Peterson album that’s just called The Trio.

Special thanks to our Facebook friends who contributed questions for this interview: Martin Hodgson, Sam Dingle, Dimitar Masho Yotov, Cedric Israel, and Seth Fromal.