Often found curling a Net Hentoff, McBride’s fingers that have pulled the strings for countless sessions with Sting, Tyner, Hancock, Corea, Hubbard, Metheny, Martino, Hargrove, Redman, Joe Henderson, Chaka Khan even playing onscreen for Robert Altman’s Kansas City. Christian McBride evokes a content and unlikely vision of a youthful James Earl Jones. An Eagles’ jersey, old-style striped Philly’s baseball cap and wire specs complete the look. With an easygoing manner and quickness to laughter, McBride tempers any tendency to stress even in challenging situations.
An old soul, young lion, prodigy, historian, mentor, storyteller, character, arranger, composer, bandleader and sideman, McBride was born just 100 days after fellow Philadelphian trumpet legend, Lee Morgan, died. Like the legacy of the music, a spirit of tradition is carried on as if destined for just that. But the fact remains that McBride, now 31, is the new tradition. He’s equally at home with funk, swing and classical. Every form of transition defines flexibility and McBride has made tsunami waves this last decade, having been the "word" at least as long.
Steeped in tradition by choice, McBride looks to his mentors Ray Brown, Milt Hinton and Wynton Marsalis for the cues that will keep jazz running on its original, founding principles. Philosophies of swing and the element of surprise, plus knowing the history to build on it, McBride makes his own mark. Though he visits on occasion, McBride doesn’t live in the museum swing built, but rather responds with quality, humor and balance in a world of extremes. He transcends style and period to create the message required at any given moment, in whatever situation he finds himself. He looks to the future from the considerable vantage point the lessons of the past have provided. He then passes that knowledge onto future generations through his association and residency with the University of Richmond, Aspen's Snowmass program, and the Henry Mancini and Dave Brubeck institutes and clinics.
Along with Philadephia Experiment band mate, pianist Uri Caine, and other Philly flashes including The Brecker Brothers, Clifford Brown, Philly Joe Jones, legendary guitarist Pat Martino (whom McBride accompanies on his latest) and a host of the great organ trios, McBride belongs to the latest talent harvest that emanates from Liberty city. He serves to continue the sonic legacy and original tenets of jazz itself.
JazzReview: So how’s everything going?
Christian McBride: Everything’s great.
JazzReview: You’ve been playing with Pat (Metheny) a lot lately.
Christian McBride: Yeah, we just completed the U.S. portion of our little run. We had a good time.
JazzReview: Yeah, I’ll bet. We got to see you in Lawrence.
Christian McBride: Oh, did you? Oh, cool.
JazzReview: Yeah, that was a great show. Yeah, the first show, anyway, with Pat’s family there and everything. You got to hang out after?
Christian McBride: No, no. We took an overnight bus ride somewhere; I can’t remember where we played the next night.
JazzReview: Is that how you’re traveling predominantly?
Christian McBride: Pretty much, yeah.
JazzReview: I guess in Melbourne the equipment didn’t arrive on time?
Christian McBride: Oh, (laughs) in Florida, yeah. A truck broke down and it was really surreal. The equipment truck broke down, then the tow truck came to tow it away and then the tow truck broke down. So we got our equipment like right at show time. So, you know, Pat’s setup is pretty complicated. It takes at least a half hour to 45 minutes to set up the stage. But people, they hung out. They were patient and we had a great show.
JazzReview: Can you talk about those gigs from the inside? Like what is he expecting from you? I mean I know he trusts you guys to do your thing.
Christian McBride: Yeah, you know Pat is very specific about what he likes and what he hears, and what he wants. He lets you do your thing in the framework of what he needs. Like for example, take somebody like Herbie Hancock or Bobby Hutchinson; they kind of want their sidemen to actually try and push them out of their element, ‘cause it’ll make them react a certain kind of way. Whereas Pat really is specific about what he hears and what he likes, which is great. It’s very apparent the way that Pat has created the Pat Metheny sound a very singular innovative sound.
JazzReview: He has a vision.
Christian McBride: Yeah. It’s kind of cool to be a part of someone’s sound and that’s one thing I’ve always noticed about Pat. He’s one of the few people of modern the last 20 to 25 years who you can hear one note and know right away its Pat Metheny.
JazzReview: Oh, absolutely. It’s unbelievable.
Christian McBride: He has a vision and its fun to be a part of that vision.
JazzReview: So does it feel at all constrictive or is it just different?
Christian McBride: No, no. It’s not constrictive at all. Not for me. I actually enjoy trying to help someone fulfill their vision. I mean that’s part of what
JazzReview: Support role.
Christian McBride: Exactly, you know. That’s a part of what bass players and drummers do.
JazzReview: Traditionally, but of course you’re also very interactive.
Christian McBride: Yeah. But, it was fun. I look forward to recording this trio, and get to do it real soon.
JazzReview: There’s a thing in Japan, right?
Christian McBride: Yeah. We’re going to Korea and we’re also going to Japan. So maybe after we get back from Japan or, I don’t know. We’ll see what happens (laughs).
JazzReview: Yeah. (laughs) Exactly. So then the tour is over after that?
Christian McBride: Yeah, then I think Pat’s just finished the group record.
JazzReview: Oh, it’s finished?
Christian McBride: I think it’s finished or close to being finished. Then we go back to our respective bands. But you know, I’m sure we’ll do something else, maybe next year, maybe next summer. I heard something like that, maybe.
JazzReview: Cool. I’ll be there. You guys first met on the Josh Redman gig, right?
Christian McBride: That’s right. Well, we actually met when I was with Freddie Hubbard’s band. I was 18 and I met Pat at the Regatta bar. So you know, I would run into him on the road and when Joshua put together his tour for that "Wish" record, that’s the first time I got to play with Pat. Then we toured pretty much that entire year, and we did a few gigs here and there after that some all-star things. We did a record with Roy Haynes and now this.
JazzReview: Kind of a long time apart. Did you feel a lot changed?
Christian McBride: Well, (laughs) if you ask Pat, its funny because our first rehearsal, Pat just looked at me and just started laughing. He said, "Man, have you changed in the last ten years or what? I remember those days when you would break out in a rash if anybody even remotely tried to bring an amp near you." That’s when I was in my really right wing, acoustic only phase, you know. And now, Pat was laughing because I got these double stack amps, my pedal board and all my weird effects going on. And he just looked at me and laughed for about a good ten minutes. Times have changed.
JazzReview: (laughs) Yeah, for real, right? What’s going on with your band?
Christian McBride: We start back up in January. We’re going on a short little run. We’re playing New York for 3 nights at Birdland. Then we’re going up to Boston to play Sculler's and the Iron Horse. We’re doing the New Orleans festival and Playboy, so we got a lot of gigs coming up. I’m going into the studio in February to record my next band CD. It should be a fun year.
JazzReview: What’s the status of the Philadelphia Experiment with Uri Caine?
Christian McBride: Well it lies in the hands of Questlove. The roots are so big and [I’m] so busy trying to nail Armir down for some gigs. It’s pretty close to impossible, but we’ll get ‘em.
JazzReview: You’ve really gotten big into passing on your knowledge, teaching, clinics and all that, and you studied with Ray Brown. And I guess, Wynton was kind of a mentor to you, too, right?
Christian McBride: Very much so.
JazzReview: What are you trying to impart to students and musicians coming up now? What do you really want to see them get from your time together?
Christian McBride: A couple of different things. Well, for starters it’s kind of bad because I caught the very tail end of the great ones. I feel lucky that I had a chance to play with people like Milt Jackson, Ray, Milt Hinton and Billy Higgins. So many people have passed away in the last couple of years. I feel bad sometimes that a lot of the younger cats coming on the scene now won’t get a chance to get that first hand knowledge that I got from those guys. So its my job, because I know what they would’ve learned and I know these young cats would’ve loved those guys that have passed away. It's my job to pass onto them what I learned from those cats.
JazzReview: Like what specifically, the way bands were led?
Christian McBride: The way bands were led, little anecdotes and stories and little bits and pieces of wisdom. It's really nothing specific.
JazzReview: But those things affect how
Christian McBride: They affect how you play, they affect how you live, and they affect your outlook on a whole lot of things.
JazzReview: So it’s your philosophy in a way
Christian McBride: Yeah. It’s a total philosophy and one thing I always want to keep. Another thing I want to pass on to the young musicians is to not pay homage to your masters by merely trying to imitate them or trying to somehow recreate their old vibe, because that’s impossible. The world changes, times change, things change, and energy changes. Too many times when you try to approach music from a historical standpoint, a lot of younger musicians have been made to think that if it doesn’t sound exactly like it used to then somehow its not authentic.
JazzReview: I know, I know. But how did it get that way in the first place? Somebody had to think creatively and originally.
Christian McBride: Somebody had to take a risk. And it’s all about taking an educated risk. If you listen to all those old records and you learn your theory and your harmony, you don’t have to wear your knowledge on your sleeve just for the sake of showing everybody you know your history. It’s all about taking that knowledge and making your own personal statement.
JazzReview: Absolutely. But that seems to get lost on so many players. It is like you say. If they’re just emulating or imitating and they want to get all the inflections just perfect, it’s like they’re losing sight of the point.
Christian McBride: Right. But on the other hand you don’t want to make yourself think that you’re doing something new (laughs).
JazzReview: Yeah, I know what you mean.
Christian McBride: That’s the other extreme. I’ve known some guys who have this very anti-tradition mentality - like you know we’re from the new school and we’re doing it this way. It’s like, well yeah, that’s cool, but that’s not necessarily new (laughs).
JazzReview: Right. Maybe they just haven’t heard something that sounds like it or something.
Christian McBride: Exactly. You just gotta be humble, man. That’s all it is. This art isn’t about us (laughs).
JazzReview: Oh yeah. It’s much bigger.
Christian McBride: That’s right.
JazzReview: You know what’s interesting is the fact that you have worked with both Wynton and Pat and in a way I kind of think philosophically they almost represent polar opposites.
Christian McBride: Twelve and six (laughs).
JazzReview: Yeah, Pat’s like looking off way into the future and Wynton’s trying to keep the museum happening.
Christian McBride: But you know we need both of those kinds of outlooks. We really do, because we have to have somebody to keep it rounded. As long as you have guys really trying to stretch things over the cliff and you have someone saying, "Ok, well look, you stretch it over the cliff. I’m gonna stand back here and make sure this thing doesn’t fall off." (laughs)
JazzReview: So it’s like a balance.
Christian McBride: It’s a balance.
JazzReview: Actually, I got to see Wynton for the first time in a real small club recently in San Antonio.
Christian McBride: Is that where I’m calling? San Antonio. Wow, I’ve been there once.
JazzReview: You know, with the Spurs? (laughs)
Christian McBride: (laughs) Right, right.
JazzReview: I had to rub that in, sorry. The 76er's gave the Spurs a run last year.
Christian McBride: The east used to be like the west, but things have reversed. Now, nobody’s running. I like San Antonio. They don’t get talked about because they’re the good guys.
JazzReview: They’re starting to now since the two championships the last five years.
Christian McBride: No, actually I was in San Antonio once in 1993. The IAJE conference was in San Antonio that year.
JazzReview: Yeah, I remember that. I remember I saw Rufus Reid there. We were doing a gig downtown and he came in.
Christian McBride: Hope I get down there again soon.
JazzReview: It’s a nice town. You might know a guy who lives down here now Gerry Gibbs?
Christian McBride: Is that where he lives now?
JazzReview: Yeah, that’s who Wynton was playing with. He’s got a club here and is always bringing in great people
Christian McBride: No kidding.
JazzReview: Yeah, he had Randy Brecker the other day, Abercrombie and Stern.
Christian McBride: Oh, well hopefully I’ll get to get down there.
JazzReview: Oh, you got to, man. That would be great. I was going to ask you about your time with Sting. Can you talk about that a little bit? Is that a continuing thing or what?
Christian McBride: Well, I don’t think anybody really knows. You know, Sting is very much like he likes to change. He likes to keep a black book full of his favorite musicians.
JazzReview: Big book.
Christian McBride: Very big book. And he likes to mix and match and use a lot of different cats, which is a really great thing to do for someone of his stature, popularity and artistry, first and foremost. But I started working with him a little over two years ago. His new CD just came out and I got a chance to play on. It was a fun project. I haven’t heard the CD all the way through, but I’m sure the whole CD sounds great.
JazzReview: Yeah, we won’t tell him that.
Christian McBride: Ahhhh! (laughs). No, it was fun working with him. I never thought, of all people I would get to work with, it would be him. I got a very surprising phone call one day, well, my manager did. And he called me up and said, "How’d you like to play on Sting’s next record?" And I said, "Yeah, how’s that gonna happen?" And he said, "Well, his manager just called me." As a matter of fact Sting’s manager used to be, she was a publicist, she did one of Pat’s tours. I think maybe the Secret Story tour. She was the publicist for it. You know, the music business is so small, so doggone small. So I flew to Italy to do the record - concert/live record and while I was there I was totally expecting to do just this one project, ‘cause that’s all they asked me to do. And I was fine with that, but once I was there, Sting and I got a chance to do a lot of one-on-one. He said, "Well look, I got a bunch of dates for the rest of the year. You want to do them?" (laughs) I said, "Yeah! I would love to." And then that turned into, "I got some more dates next year, can do you do those? And after that, I have some more dates. You’re gonna be there, right?" And I said, "Well Sting, actually I can’t make them all. I do have some other gigs I gotta do." "What do you mean?" (laughs)
JazzReview: Oh no. You pissed him off. (laughs)
Christian McBride: (laughs). But it was cute though, you know? He was like, "Aw man. You mean I gotta play bass now?" (laughs)
JazzReview: So you mean he didn’t have somebody? He was just fishing?
Christian McBride: Well, he played bass. I mean when I played, he only played bass on one song. He just concentrated on singing. And the gigs that I couldn’t do he just went back to playing bass fulltime, which I think he’s most comfortable with anyway because that’s what he’s been doing for God knows how long. You know, one of the most interesting things, which I kind of knew was the case, but it was really kind of interesting to hear it confirmed is: once he put the bass down and just started concentrating on singing, it threw him off a little bit. He started forgetting words and he said, "I’m so used to having the bass around my shoulders that that’s my comfort level. I don’t have my bass so I’m thrown off a little bit." I completely understood.
JazzReview: You don’t sing, or do you?
Christian McBride: Just for comedy’s sake.
JazzReview: (laughs). Hey, how was the new Martino project?
Christian McBride: Funny you should ask me about that.
JazzReview: He’s one of my favorite guitar players along with Metheny.
Christian McBride: Oh, Pat Martino, he’s one of the legends. And you know, it’s easy to hear where Pat (Metheny) got a lot of his stuff. Between Pat Martino and Jim Hall. I can hear all kinds of Pat Methenyisms there.
JazzReview: You know Metheny never says that, though. He never mentions Martino.
Christian McBride: Yeah, but if you listen to him you can hear it.
JazzReview: I know. I know.
Christian McBride: But Pat loves him dearly, you know. We talked a lot about Pat because the CD ("Think Tank", nominated for 2 Grammy awards) was released while we were on tour. So we talked a lot about the Pat Martino record. Pat totally admires and respects Pat Martino. I had a lot of fun working on the record and I was hoping I wouldn’t have to tell anybody this, but since you asked, I’ll tell you. The music was great. I absolutely adore Pat Martino and I love his concept from the record, but I really do think, hands down, out of the hundreds of records that I’ve been on, that’s the worst sounding record I’ve ever played on. I think the bass sounds atrocious.
JazzReview: How did that happen, just an engineering thing?
Christian McBride: Yeah, total engineering thing. It wasn’t the studio. It was the engineer. I won’t call any names, but you can just look on the back of the record and see who it was. (laughs)
JazzReview: Well, I won’t mention this stuff in the interview.
Christian McBride: Hey, don’t worry about it. It’s funny because when they sent us the, I guess the producer, he sent the entire band promo CD’s. And the next day I got a call from Lewis Nash and he said, "Christian, did you listen to the CD yet?" I said, "No." He said, "Put it on."
JazzReview: He was freakin’ out?
Christian McBride: He was freakin’ out! And I put it on and I thought, "Oh my God, you kidding me?" I said, "They must’ve accidentally sent us the roughs, right?" He said, "No, I think this is mixed." I said, "You can’t be telling me the truth." Then, it was funny. I called Joe Lovano the next day and Joe said, "Man, I was just about to call you in a few minutes." (laughs)
Christian McBride: So we had an entire network going. We couldn’t believe how this record sounded.
JazzReview: Have you heard back from Pat about it; what he thinks?
Christian McBride: I haven’t heard. I don’t keep in touch with Pat so but I was kind of shocked. I mean, the guitar sounds great (laughs).
JazzReview: Oh yeah. Well hell, it better!
Christian McBride: I mean, was it only the bass or was it some of the other players, too?
JazzReview: Well, everything other than the guitar, everybody was pretty unhappy with - at least the band members. Because in the studio, there really is no need to use all DI on an acoustic bass. When you’re in the studio you can just put a microphone in front of it, get a very big, broad, natural sound and that’s not the sound that you’re hearing on that CD.
JazzReview: Nice, warm pre-amps.
Christian McBride: Yeah, and drums. We thought: no front head, kind of, 1977 fusiony bass drum kind of sound. And that’s not how Lewis Nash’s drums sound in real life.
JazzReview: It wasn’t that kind of date, right?
Christian McBride: Not at all.
JazzReview: It wasn’t Joyous Lake.
Christian McBride: (laughs) No.
JazzReview: Which is a great record.
Christian McBride: Totally. But we just kind of freaked out. If you can somehow get past the sound, it’s a really cool record. Because, like I said, Pat’s playing is awesome. His writing was awesome and the vibe was awesome. It’s just that engineer was oh, man!
JazzReview: Oh wow. Man, that’s a drag.
Christian McBride: Yeah. So on my website, on my discography, I thought about putting a little asterisk.
JazzReview: Oh no, not the asterisk.
Christian McBride: (laughs) And I was gonna put a little message saying: I’m very sorry, but this bass sound is not my fault. (laughs)
JazzReview: I mean, all the other great stuff you’ve been on has got to make people realize, hey, its got to be another factor, right?
Christian McBride: I sure hope so! (laughs)
JazzReview: How do you go about composing, when you write your own stuff?
Christian McBride: I have to admit I don’t compose unless I have a reason to compose, which is not necessarily a good thing. I think if I wrote a little bit everyday, it probably wouldn’t be such a task. Sometimes when I compose I feel like I’m rushing myself. Not all the time, but a lot of times I feel like that. Most of the time I just sit on the piano and play around until I come up with something. I think one of the things that can happen if you compose a little bit everyday is you can somehow break down these little mental walls. I know that I have a lot of complexes when I’m trying to compose. I sit at the piano and start thinking, "Ok, I’m not going to write something that sounds like something I’ve already written. I have to write something that sounds like this. I want something in this mode." Instead, I should just sit down and not worry about it. I should probably do a little bit everyday and not even think about those kinds of things.
I think one of the best songs I’ve ever written I actually wrote under some time constraints. I didn’t have time to think about if it sounded like something I’d written before or what the cats are gonna think - is this gonna be a cool tune? I just sat down and wrote, you know. It turned out to be one of the songs that many people like a lot, called "Shades of Theatry," on my first CD. So if I get in that headspace more often, I think it wouldn’t be so much of a task. As far as arranging is concerned, I’m a huge big band historian. I’ve always liked to study the styles of different arrangers and orchestrators you know, Quincy, Thad Jones, Gil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer and people like Oliver Nelson and Bill Russo. I’m really getting into that; a lot of large ensemble arranging. Probably because I’ve been focusing on it a little more, it is not as much of a task as it is sitting down and writing a song. I can take a standard and try to arrange it for big band and I get a lot of fun out of doing that. Of course, who these days has a big band? I’m just sitting around with this big library of big band music waiting to be played.
JazzReview: That leads me to the Jaco big band that you were on, the "Word of Mouth Revisited" thing. Can you talk about that project a little bit?
Christian McBride: Yeah, I got a call from Peter Graves (bandleader Jaco used to work with) and once again, there’s a thread that again connects this whole thing together. Peter, of course, knew Pat and Jaco when they were both down in Florida, and Pat and I have the same manager. So Peter called David, the manager of Pat and I, and asked if I would like to play on the CD. I said, "Absolutely." So I flew down to Miami and did the whole thing in about an hour and a half (laughs). Of course, one of the biggest challenges for the one song I played on, "Forgotten Love," the original version had no bass. It was fun, but still a little scary. The anticipation of creating a bass part for the baddest bass player of all time was kind of like: uh oh, it’s all on me.
JazzReview: How did you feel about that?
Christian McBride: That’s one of those things where if I think too much about it, it will freak me out. So I try not to think about it too often. (laughs)
JazzReview: (laughs) That reminds me of a comment you made. You were talking about the trio when you were playing with Herbie and Jack. You were talking about what Herbie calls "controlled freedom."
Christian McBride: Well, it was like educated freedom. The more you know the more you know what to do, and what not to do. Right there on the edge, right there on the edge without falling over. And the thing about controlled freedom is that if you do fall over, you know what to do to make up for it. Let’s face it, there are going to be times when you’re on the bandstand and somebody’s gonna lose the form or somebody might hit a wrong note or a drummer might drop a stick. Things like that happen. That’s the beauty and the honesty and humanity of music.
JazzReview: Yeah, the truth.
Christian McBride: But one of the things about playing with Herbie that he learned from Miles is: Miles apparently used to say, "Its ok to play a wrong note because the note you play after the wrong note might make the wrong note right."
JazzReview: Right. It’s all context.
Christian McBride: It’s all context. So that’s controlled freedom as opposed to random abstract, which some jazz musicians tend to take a concept with. Well you know, "Its just ‘sheets of sound and the notes aren’t as important as the vibe and feeling." But you know, the notes do play a big part in it. (laughs)
Christian McBride: The thing about playing with Herbie - and it wasn’t so much Herbie as it was Herbie AND Jack Dejohnette because he’s a master of loose rhythm and he plays around the beat - he’s one of those kind of guys where he’s not gonna dictate where the beat is. He doesn’t need to. If you know that the beat is here: you know, 1-2-3-4. He can play that and just kind of play around it.
JazzReview: Right. You did some trip gigs in Japan with those guys. How did that go?
Christian McBride: I was really scared at first until we did a few gigs. Once we got to Sapporo I felt more secure. But I was taking a solo and at one point, Herbie plays this huge eleven-note chord and I was stunned. I stopped in my tracks it was so beautiful. I got lost - and it only lasted a split second - and I told Herbie after the gig I was sorry about that. He said he was lost the whole gig. (laughs)
Christian McBride: Herbie has this childlike honesty.
JazzReview: Curiosity, like Miles. What's up next for you?
Christian McBride: Well, I’ve got a project with McCoy Tyner coming up and have the live recording in Japan with Pat. Then I’m playing with Al Jarreau in January  and then my band in February .
Mike Brannon is guitarist/writer for the Synergy Group (www.cdbaby.com/synergy). Their latest release is "Later", w/ special guests, Bill Evans, Harvie Swartz, Paul Wertico and others TBA will be released in Spring '04 on the Nextep label. Their previous release, "Barcodes" w/ members of King Crimson and Grammy-winning Bela Fleck and the Flecktones is also available at CDbaby.