Recording of December 2017: Bringin' It

Christian McBride Big Band: Bringin' It
Mack Avenue Mac 1115 (CD). 2017. Gretchen Valade, exec prod.; Christian McBride, prod.; Todd Whitelock, assoc. prod., eng.; Timothy Marchiafava, asst. eng. ADD? TT: 68:59
Performance ****½
Sonics *****

As musical movements go, rock and jazz seem to be running out of new ideas, most of the stylistic pathways in both genres having been explored to their logical conclusions. In rock in particular, every stream of inspiration has been followed past its headwaters, every droplet of inspiration wrung from established forms.

Jazz, however, seems to be finding new energy in reinvigorating old forms, and none more prominent or promising than the big band. Groups such as John Hollenbeck's Large Ensemble and Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, each comprising 18 players, have brought exciting new dimensions to a musical form that, with few notable exceptions (eg, Woody Herman, Gil Evans, Charles Mingus), was left for dead with the emergence of bebop after World War II.

Seven years ago, Christian McBride—perhaps the most ridiculously productive artist in all of music today, let alone just jazz—released a big-band album, The Good Feeling, that won a Grammy Award. It's a happy occurrence that bassist McBride occasionally finds the time to turn his considerable energies toward big-band music. Brimming with confidence and packing a considerable ego, the dapper McBride's dance card is incredibly full. He leads a straight-ahead jazz quintet, Inside Straight; a more out, free-jazz–leaning quartet, New Jawn; a fusion ensemble, A Christian McBride Situation; and, finally, the Christian McBride Trio. He also finds time to be a radio host on SiriusXM and NPR, compose original music, teach jazz classes, serve as artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival, and revel in being one of the highest-profile cigar aficionados alive today.

His new big-band release, Bringin' It, does exactly what its title implies: following in the path of hard-charging historical outfits like Basie and Ellington, his Big Band is a new-century take on swing music.

Bringin' It opens with McBride's "Gettin' To It," a big, funky number featuring trumpeter Freddie Hendrix in a fast solo that stays in the instrument's showy high register, and is followed by a less ostentatious yet no less meaningful solo from tenor player Ron Miles. As in most of the record, everything here is underlaid by the leader's commanding sense of rhythm. His own bass solo is economical, and funky phat in the extreme.

The two other fine McBride compositions here are "Youthful Bliss" and another funky blues, "Used 'Ta Could," in which a party atmosphere, complete with tambourines and handclaps, alternates with solos by lead alto saxophonist Steve Coleman and lead trombonist Michael Dease. McBride has previously recorded all three tunes with one or another of his smaller ensembles.

While the originals have attitude, it's in the covers that this band and McBride's arrangements shine brightest. The elegant slow take of Johnny Mercer and Jimmy Van Heusen's standard "I Thought About You," for whose arrangement McBride credits the influence of the great Maria Schneider, is a highlight—as is a sweeping, sepia-toned arrangement of Bob Hilliard and David Mann's "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," in which McBride uses a bow and Dan Pratt turns in a tasteful, understated tenor sax solo.

Skittering bird- and animal-like noises from alto sax and piccolo player Todd Bashore open a take of McCoy Tyner's "Sahara" that features exuberant charts for the horn sections before pianist Xavier Davis ranges up and down the keyboard, playing heavy, Tyner-like chords.

If there's one iffy element, it's McBride's wife, singer Melissa Walker, whose take on country singer Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles" is odd for a jazz album, and not entirely successful. Her fairly pedestrian performance doesn't stretch the music or her voice in any meaningful ways.

Recording a big band can be as tricky as the music's complex arrangements. This album was recorded at the now-defunct Avatar Studios, the best room in New York City, and the sound is as big and brash as the music: beautifully defined, with admirable depth and clarity.

The one side of McBride's many-faceted talent that Bringin' It showcases more than any other is his skills as an arranger for big band—not an easy feat in any age. Perhaps being the rhythmic foundation of any group he plays in has given him insight into how sections should ebb and flow, who leads and who follows, and what he wants the overall sound picture to say and resemble. For the final number, "Optimism," he gives up the arranger's chair to its composer, Steve Davis, who plays trombone in McBride's Big Band and is McBride's connection to one of his chief influences.

"I saw that last Jazz Messengers band that Steve was in," McBride says in the press materials for this release. "Blakey was a huge influence on me, and because of that, Steve and I share the same compositional and arranging DNA. You see, even though I've been influenced by every great big band and every great arranger I've ever heard, three of my greatest influences—not just as composers but also as improvisers—are Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, and Cedar Walton. I mean before, after, and during the period when they were with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers."

He's that rare jazz bassist who's a genuine leader. The success of Bringin' It begs the question: What can't Christian McBride do?—Robert Baird

Allen Fant's picture

Thanks! for sharing- RB.
while I am not a big band guy, anything with Christian McBride, count me in!