Christian McBride jazzes up the Lensic
the twenty-something bassist Christian McBride capitalized on his status as a young prodigy to play with true jazz legends — Milt Jackson, McCoy Tyner, and Hank Jones among them — even as he established a unique contemporary voice on his instrument in bands with saxophonist Joshua Redman, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, pianist Brad Mehldau, and others of his generation. The Philadelphia-born musician picked up the bass guitar at age nine and played funk and R&B gigs in high school. At the age of seventeen, he was snatched from his classical studies on upright bass at New York’s Juilliard School by saxophonist Bobby Watson. Suddenly, he seemed to be everywhere, recording with the likes of saxophonists Joe Lovano and Joe Henderson (he’s heard on Henderson’s 1992 Grammy Award-winning Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn), vocalist Diana Krall, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and pianist Chick Corea. His first recording, Gettin’ to It, released in 1995, featured a who’s who of his peers — including trumpeter Roy Hargove, saxophonist Redman, drummer Lewis Nash, and pianist Cyrus Chestnut. But it also featured two of McBride’s mentors, bassists Ray Brown and Milt Hinton, who joined him in a bass-only trio performance of “Splanky,” a tune popularized by the Count Basie Orchestra.
With hundreds of recorded appearances as a sideman and a dozen albums under his own name, McBride is now a mentor himself. In an email exchange as he was returning from a summer tour of Europe with his trio, comprising pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., McBride said that mentorship is only part of what he considers when putting a group together. “As a bandleader, you always want the best musicians you can find. But at some point, why should you continue just calling on your peers? It’s the natural order to start to call younger musicians. They have fresh ideas, fresh energy. In any endeavor, you eventually start reaching out to a younger generation of fresh blood. Musicians who don’t do that are musicians who tend to get artistically stale.”
That McBride takes his role as a mentor with seriousness and a lack of ego was apparent when he made a 2012 Santa Fe appearance as a sideman with Sands in a trio headlined by drummer Owens at one of the SFÉ Jazz club’s intimate gatherings. At that gig, McBride was content to let Sands and Owens, usually his young sidemen, take center stage while he contributed his usual rich, robust support and intriguing way with a solo improvisation.
As a leader, McBride has fronted various trios as well as straight-ahead combos, big bands, and electric ensembles (with McBride on bass guitar). He’s also been heard on recordings from Sting, Paul McCartney, and Queen Latifah. While much of this broad approach to style was influenced by his youthful enthusiasm for contemporary music of all sorts, some of those he calls mentors also contributed. McBride has frequently claimed funk and jazz fusion keyboardist George Duke as an influence — the bassist was heard on a handful of the late Duke’s recordings, including his last, 2013’s Dream-Weaver — as well as straight-ahead bassists Brown and John Clayton, both of whom were part of the Super-Bass trio that included McBride as its youngest member.
For his appearance at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Sunday as part of the New Mexico Jazz Festival, McBride will continue his exploration of sound and instrumentation, leading a multi-generational trio with guitarist Mark Whitfield and emerging pianist Emmet Cohen. “I’ve enjoyed playing in drumless trios on many occasions throughout my career,” he said. “I believe a drummerless trio is a true test of a bassist’s time and feel. You must be the bassist and the drummer. Mark Whitfield and I go way back. We played in many of the same bands in the early ’90s. I’m not sure that our six-year difference in age [Whitfield is older] is a generational contrast. We came on the scene at the same time and played with the exact same people. This is me reuniting with an old friend.”
Cohen, though, does make for something of a generational contrast. He was a finalist in the 2011 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition and has been heard accompanying vocalist Kurt Elling, among others. The pianist’s latest recording, Questioned Answer, is co-led by trumpeter Brian Lynch and features veteran drummer Billy Hart. As a budding young star, Cohen is in much the same position as McBride was in the early 1990s. “Emmet Cohen is a former student of the organization that my wife and I run in Montclair, New Jersey, Jazz House Kids,” McBride said. “Since he graduated from high school in 2009, I believe, he’s become an in-demand pianist around New York. We’re very proud of him.”
At forty-three, McBride is more than just a mentor and employer for a rotating crew of young talent. He’s truly a voice for jazz, hosting National Public Radio’s “Jazz Night in America” and providing artistic direction for the National Museum of Jazz in Harlem and other music organizations. “It has been humbling to be able to be in-demand in these nonplaying positions. It’s certainly not something that I set out to do early in my career. It just happened. It may have something to do with the fact that I’ve always wanted to give to younger musicians and fans and listeners the same enthusiasm that I experienced as a younger musician growing up in Philadelphia.”
▼ Christian McBride Trio (Fender Rhodes keyboardist Marc Cary’s Rhodes Ahead trio opens)
▼ 7:30 p.m. Sunday, July 19
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ $20-$50; 505-988-1234; www.ticketssantafe.org