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The Process, Volume One by James McBride

Saxophonist James McBride is most widely known as an author. The memoir of his childhood, The Color of Water, won the 1997 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Literary Excellence, spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list and is required reading for many high schools and colleges throughout the United States. He is a former staff writer for The Washington Post, People Magazine and Boston Globe. As a musician his studies include work at The Oberlin Conservatory and New England Conservatory of Music. As a composer his songs and compositions have been performed by Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Gary Burton and Rebecca Paris. As a composer of musical theater he has won the 1993 American Music Festival's Stephen Sondheim Award and 1996 American Arts and Letters Richard Rogers Award, among others.

This impressive resume, however, does not mask the fact McBride's recording, The Process, Volume One, is a disjointed affair. The problem lies in its trying to be too many things with too wide a scope that doesn't do justice to the strengths McBride possesses. His real strength is the ability to compose jazz tunes which employ vocal leads. Four of the nine tunes fall into this category, with Lauren being the best. The melody of this piece is breezy, fun and light with just the right sense of vocal embellishment by vocalist Croft. Jason Jackson's horn background arrangement contains all of the rhythmically popping elements needed to add kick and creative drive and here McBride, as a performer, doesn't need to show chops during his solo, just soul, which he has in aces. It's unfortunate smooth jazz radio stations limit their vocal driven cuts to Norah Jones and old R&B because this tune deserves air play.

The other three vocal-driven tunes penned by McBride illustrate the problem with the recording. While they are all extremely clever, the style of each is totally different from the other. French Girls is a 1940s big band-styled swing piece, Lucindee is a Latin/Cuban-styled piece which would not sound out of place on a Manhattan Transfer recording, and What's Coming is a subtle swinger. With different lead singers and such a wide variety of styles covered there is no way the listener can ever be prepared for the big changes from one cut to the next. Even saxophonist Javon Jackson, who is known for the wide diversity of material on his early recordings as a leader, always found ways to unite the material by putting a personal stamp on each tune which clearly stated it was his record from beginning to end. McBride fails to do this. As a performer McBride only appears as a section member on the two of the above three pieces and has a forgettable solo on Lucindee.

While the instrumental numbers composed by McBride are pretty they aren't memorable and they, as well, cover too great a range of styles without a unique McBride signature to each. He doesn't perform on the seriously down-tempo Deserting The Boogeyman and the Tom Scott influenced If Not Now has too many short solos and not enough of the hook to grab the listener's attention. The exception is Goodbye which is a sweet and soulful composition where McBride gets to show off the strengths of his playing - extremely soulful lines which don't demand a display of improvisational flair. As a performer McBride has a solid expressive style and full-bodied tone, but his solos lack creative juice, tend to just sit within predictable rhythmic patterns and don't build. In fairness, McBride's self-penned liner notes state he's not the strongest performer on the recording, "This CD is part of a recorded documentary about 'normal, everyday' jazz musicians.... This is just the beginning of their story, which is reflective of the lives of thousands of jazz musicians far more talented than me." There is no doubt a great CD lies within the reach of McBride, this just isn't it.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: James McBride
  • CD Title: The Process, Volume One
  • Genre: Contemporary Jazz / Modern
  • Year Released: 2003
  • Record Label: Cuddy Sounds
  • Tracks: My Baby Just Cares For Me, Deserting The Boogeyman, Lauren, French Girls In New York, In Not Now When..., Lucindee, The Sound Of Water, Whats Coming To Ya and Goodbye To All That'
  • Musicians: James McBride (tenor saxophone), Carla Cook (vocals, background vocals), Dana Crowe (vocals), Carla Capretto (background vocals), Andrew Wright (background vocals), Bill Easley (clarinet), Laura Dryer (alto sax, flute), Lance Bryant (tenor sax), Burny Pelsmajer (baritone sax), Patrick "Face" Rickman (trumpet), Barbara Laronga (trumpet), Jon Arons (trombone), Jason Jackson (trombone), Sarah Jane Cion (piano and keyboards), Lafayette Harris (piano), Joseph Friedman (guitar), Keith Robinson (guitar), Monte Croft (vibes, harmonica, background vocals), Calvin "X" Jones (bass), Carey Potts (bass), Jeff Anderson (bass), Camon Due White (drums), Myra Casales (percussion), David Pleasant (percussion), Erin Duckett (baby sounds)
  • Rating: Two Stars
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