There were concerts by big bands at the start and finish of the spring programme of this year’s Jazzfest Brno. And both were supreme musical experiences. The Christian McBride Big Band as one of the three concluding concerts for their European tour for the first time performed in Brno’s Sono Centre. And it was great: crossover, entertaining and light playing, at the same time full of virtuosity and inventive and creative playing. “When we play together it is one big party,” stated the double bass player and bandleader Christian McBride at the start – and both he and his colleagues certainly confirmed that.
As the organisers also mentioned in the (wonderfully written, readable and informative) festival publication Jazzman, we could expect virtuoso performances from all the members of the group. However it was clear that the bandleader was not going to let anyone steal the show. And so it was: each of the fifteen members of the band (four trumpeters, four trombonists, five saxophonists, including one woman, a percussionist and a pianist) had a chance in the programme to show as soloists how technically capable and original they were in playing their instruments. The leader never let his instrument out of his sight at the centre of the stage and held the reins of the concert firmly in hand.
Christian McBride, a much sought after soloist and sideman on the double bass and bass guitar, six times Grammy award winner, is at the age of forty-five clearly at the height of his powers: this native of the Mecca of soul, Philadelphia, comes from a musical family (his father Lee Smith also played brilliantly on the double bass) and aside from six solo albums (for example Getting’ to It, A Family Affair, SciFi and Out Here) has recorded as leader another six and in the position of sideman participated in some three hundred more. Already as a teenager and a student at the Julliard School he was chosen for a gig, or rather for a concert tour, by the saxophonist Bobby Watson; in 1996 he was invited by his idol Ray Brown to join the SuperBass project.
Since 2000 his own Christian McBride Band has been running, which he has formed in his own crossover, precise and seemingly lightweight style; this was followed in 2009 by the still functioning quintet Inside Straight and also a trio with the young rising jazz stars, the pianist Christian Sands and the drummer Ulysses Owens. As a multi-genre bass player he alternates between traditional jazz (he has played with among others Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, Joshua Redman, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny and Herbie Hancock) R&B and soul (Chaka Khan, Nathalie Cole, Queen Latifah and mainly James Brown), bebop (Roy Hargrove), rock and pop (Sting, Paul McCartney and Bruce Hornsby), hip-hop (The Roots) and even classical (Kathleen Battle and the Sonus Quartet). Czech lovers of bluegrass will be entertained and delighted that at this year’s Telluride Sessions festival in Colorado on July 24 he will be also be playing the bluegrass (!) repertoire.
A double bass player, even if phenomenal, is not usually the leader of a big band – Christian McBride is however a true frontman: he transforms from major star whose arrival on stage announces the orchestra into an entertaining presenter of the programme, then plays a brilliant solo with incredible cadences with the fingers of his right hand and then accompanies a trombone solo hiding his “walking bass” beneath the solo instrument - and everything is remarkably subtle and controlled from the beginning to the very last note. Even the orchestra does not play constantly in full, and frequently changes: the song is played by the backbone of the band, the trio of piano-bass-drums, then the reins are handed over to one off the soloists; sometimes the whole assembly is added, sometimes not. Everything is according to McBride’s motto “every big band is exactly as good as its rhythm section”.
It is the pianist and the drummer who are among the stars of the orchestra: McBride’s contemporary, the pianist Xavier Davis (*1971) has played with Ron Blake and Betty Carter, has his own Xavier Davis Trio and has also recorded two albums as a soloist (Dance of Life and The Innocence of Youth); the much sought after bebop drummer Quincy Phillips plays among others with Roy Hargrove in RH 5eT. Another true jazz giant sits in the ChMBBB on the seat of the first trombone: Steve Davis (*1967) called “Stevie-D” is a favourite studio and club player in NYC. He has played with Art Blakey and Chick Corea, has his own group Outlook Quintet and has recorded several solo albums (among others Images, Getting’ It Done or most recently Think Ahead). But McBride’s big band does not have a weak link in any position – there is a good reason why the band has won Grammies in the category Best Large Ensemble Jazz Album for both of the albums they have released to date (The Good Feeling from 2012 and last year’s Bringin’ It).
The concert programme was carefully composed both from makeovers of jazz standards (the guest singer, McBride’s wife Melissa Walker jokingly noted that the band’s arrangements provide a “facelift of these old jazz standards” – for example Ellington’s Mr. Bojangles), and of works recorded on the two albums (Shake’n Blake and I Should Care from the first album The Good Feeling and Thermo, Upside Down, I Thought About You and to conclude Getting’ to It from last year’s Bringin’ It). Many of the pieces had concrete tales that had inspired them; Christian McBride also reminisced about his stellar fellow player, “the godfather of soul” James Brown, calling his musical favourite “brother mister”. The composition Brother Mister first shone on the debut album Kind of Brown by McBride’s group Inside Straight, and today in its original form is part of the concert programme of his big band.
A parade of great instrumental solos for trumpet, trombone, saxophone, piano and percussion were nicely counterbalanced by the two blocks for Melissa Walker; her dark voice and mature natural singing excelled in the trio of songs Mr. Bojangles, A Taste of Honey and The More I See You. Then the band members, both as soloists and as a compact harmonious whole took over again.
It is clear that McBride chooses personalities who besides their playing skills perceive, feel and present jazz in a similar way. From Christian McBride and his Big Band the listener perceives, besides virtuosity and mutual understanding, also peace, joy and obvious charisma. An experience which is certainly worth repeating. I'm probably not the only one who cannot wait for the autumn and another dose of top jazz in all varieties - the spring JazzFest, among other things dedicated to the bass in all possible forms, was an exceptional success.