An Interview with Christian McBride
A Moment With
by Mark Ruffin
Christian McBride’s new album is a departure from the reputation the young bassist has developed as one of the most in-demand session players, but the contemporary leanings on the record are just the direction the young bassist wants to head in. This month, he talks with JazzUSA’s Senior Editor, Mark Ruffin about the difficulties and the joy he had in making “Sci-Fi.”
JazzUSA: Last time we talked was right after your Herbie Hancock tribute record and a little before the “Family Affair,” album, and you were itching to do the funk and adding more music from the 70’s and 80’s, since that time, does it seem to you that the jazz lexicon has stretched enough accept tunes that you’re featuring on your new album like “Walking On The Moon,”
CM: My honest answer is no. You won’t believe the kind of convincing I had to do with the record company. I’d say, this is the kind of sound I want from my cd, this is the direction I want to go, these are the songs I want to do. And it’s kind of like, well, Christian, most people know you as a traditional jazz player. You need to do a traditional jazz record.’ Well, that’s not what I want to do. I don’t want to do a traditional jazz record, because I’m not really a traditional jazz guy. Even though music is what I love and is what I do, I also know that music is a profession. In the past, anytime someone called me to play on their gig, say Benny Golson or Barry Harris or Tommy Flanagan, a living jazz legend calls me to play on the gig with them, I’m not going to the gig trying to play like Bootsy Collins or Jaco Pastorius. I’m going to play the style that they ask me to play, which is in the traditional style. So people see me do that and they say, oh that must be what he does. So, when I started making my own records, I thought that would be an opportunity for me to do what I wanted to do musically.
This is the day and age of what I like to call the box, everything has it’s own little box, and no one’s allowed to just make music anymore, and I think it’s really bad in jazz. I don’t think the problem is with the music. I don’t think the problem is the musicians. I think there’s really this gargantuan generation gap between the people who are in charge of the jazz industry and the people who play jazz. There are so many young cats out there playing jazz and a lot of people in the jazz industry are a lot older. They still have very old school ways of thinking about how to market the music, how to present the music…
JazzUSA: Plus Chris, a lot of those cats still have a bad taste in their mouth from the fusion era…
CM: They never got over it.
JazzUSA: Right, so today, anything electronic is automatically associated with the smooth jazz shit, and forget about what Marcus Miller or Vital Information are trying to do, or what Tribal Tech,
CM: or Victor Wooten and those guys…
JazzUSA: Right, so if you’re child of the 70’s, I like to say 70’s, but you’ re so young, let’s say child of the 80’s,….
CM: (laughs) Yeah, but I caught the tail end of that. I caught the last third of the fusion movement..
JazzUSA:: Exactly, plus you had the advantage of being raised in Philadelphia, so your absorption… CM…was very quick.
JazzUSA: Right, so I do understand you box theory, but I’m kind of surprised that you get it from Verve.
CM: Oh yeah, big time.
JazzUSA: From Tommy LiPuma?
CM: Well Tommy…. I like Tommy… Think about something, all of the records that Tommy has produced are very produced records, Diana Krall, George Benson, all of the records he does have a very…
JazzUSA: slick sheen.
CM: Exactly, totally. And that’s really not where I want to go…
JazzUSA: Well, I wasn’t talking about production style, at least he seems to be open to ideas about music being varied, that’s his thing.
CM: For certain artists. See, when the whole corporate takeover happened a couple of years ago and Verve and GRP became one label, they technically are, but they’re still pretty much ran by different people, so I don’t deal too much with Tommy for my own projects. I mean, I see him all the time. He’s a real good buddy of mine and obviously working on Diana’s record and George Benson’s record….
JazzUSA: I hear what you’re saying. There are other corporate concerns for Tommy…
CM: Yes, exactly.
JazzUSA: Well your record seems to be partly a tribute to some of the great bass players…
CM: It’s a tribute in the since that I love their playing and I love the music that their wrote. But this cd isn’t about a tribute, or a tip of the cap to anyone as much as it is a direction that I want to go in, as far the sound of the album is concerned. It’s funny, because, when I was going into the studio to make this record, the record label suggested that I do a Christian McBride salute the bassists record. I really think the concept of concept records includes something very artificial and not very likable to me. I really don’t think, in the long run, anyone’s going to buy a record because of it’s concept. They’re going to buy a record because they like the music that they hear. Yeah, the concept might catch their eye, so they can buy the record. But if they buy the record and they don’t like the music, who cares about the concept.
So I knew that me doing a record and doing all music by Mingus and Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Ron Carter, that’s not where I want to go at all. I feel like I’ve already garnered this reputation of being like this old school traditionalist kind of guy. I feel like a lot of people think of me like this 70 year-old man in a 28 year-old body, and I do take that as a compliment, but at the same time, I’m really very much into current music. Every time I mention I want to do that, a lot of people behind the corporate fence are like oh no, you can’t ruin your reputation,’ I’m like man please.
JazzUSA: But didn’t you make that perfectly clear with the “Family Affair,” album?
CM: I thought I did. If there wasn’t a more blatant attempt, (laughs) You see the problem was “Family Affair,” didn’t sell very well. They didn’t push the record.
JazzUSA: And that’s really a shame because there was something there for both black radio and smooth jazz radio. But let’s not even talk about the sad state of radio..
CM: No, let’s not (laughs) We’d be on the phone all day.
JazzUSA: Yeah, I thought you made it perfectly clear on “Family Affair.”
CM: Not to put it all on the record company, because the timing was very bad. That record came out three weeks before Universal bought Verve. So like everybody who was working that record got laid off a few weeks after the record came out. So it was just a bad time. But they used the lack of sales as a way to try to convince me that I need to do a quote, unquote, jazz record. But I’m saying that I really don’t think that’s going to do me any better sales wise…
JazzUSA: Right, what’s the saying, jazz is only three percent of the market and one percent of that is Kenny G.
CM: Yeah, right.(laughs)
JazzUSA: So last night I went to the Jazz Showcase, here in Chicago, which I noticed is on your itinerary. Do you know the reputation of the owner, Joe Segal?
CM: Oh, God, yes.
JazzUSA: So, last night I went to see Danilo Perez, and Danilo did some rap and some hip-hop,,,
CM: (laughs) Uh-oh. Did Joe Segal have a fit?
JazzUSA: Well the situation I was in is what was classic. I was sitting in the back of the room with (Blue Note Records Grammy nominated singer) Kurt Elling, and in front of us, was Howard Reich, the Chicago Tribune critic…
JazzUSA: But he had walked out already right before Danilo did the tune. So in the middle of the piece, I looked at Kurt and said how nice it was that Howard had left already. The piece was wonderful. It went into this Brazilian thing that’s off his new album. Then, right when it was over, Lloyd Sachs, the Sun-Times critic stood up in front of us, and the pressure that Kurt and I felt was thick and undeniable. We talked about it after he left. It’s like they’re the fucking police. CM; Yeah, right, see, that kind of shit has got to stop. I can’t remember who told me, but they said fuck critics, ain’t no city ever put up a statue of a critic.
JazzUSA: Okay, with that, what was your mindset when you went in to make “Sci-Fi?”
CM: My mindset was look, I’ve got to do the music that’s in my heart. The reason I can’t really let the corporate end of the business direct what kind of music I do is because my biggest fear is that, say for example a producer says, Chris we want you to do Chris McBride plays the Beatles.’ Knowing in my heart that that is nowhere near the kind of music that I’d want to do. My biggest fear is that that record would become a big hit and that I would have to do Beatles music for the rest of my life.
JazzUSA: Sounds like a bad Rod Serling “Twilight Zone” script. CM Yeah. I can imagine someone saying, yeah, I’m going to give into the record company. I’ll just chalk this one up, and then the record becomes a hit and they’re miserable for the rest of their life, because the one project that they didn’t want to do turns out to be a hit and now they have to play that. Plus another thing is that it’s very rare for an artist to stay on one label for a long time anyway. If I ever get dropped from my record label, I much rather get dropped for doing music that I wanted to do rather than doing what they tell me to do and end up getting dropped anyway.
JazzUSA: Explain to me the line on the album describing the title track that says you’re Laurence Fishburne and we’re Keanu Reeves, what does that mean?
CM: Remember the scene in the movie (“The Matrix.”) where they pulled Keanu Reeves out of the street and pulled him into that limo, and then they pull him down into the underworld and there is Fishburne waiting for him, that’s what it is. The melody is kind of like when Keanu Reeves is walking around checking out the scene, and then the saxophone solo is where it abruptly changes and we yank him into the other world.
JazzUSA: Okay. The record is great and I feel like it’s kind of a continuation of “Family Affair,..”
CM: Well “Family Affair,” was more of an experimental record than anything else because it was my first time trying to make a real serious attempt at trying to bridge the gap…
JazzUSA: Which is what you always wanted to do…
CM: Right, but I think with the new cd, sonically, like with the flow of the album, I think I finally got it. It’s still a jazz record, but it’s not traditional. It’s not fusion. It’s not funk. It’s not pop. It’s a little bit of everything. I think I finally got it.
JazzUSA: What did you learn from George Duke producing your last record?
CM: That it’s okay to experiment. George was more or less like a dream weaver. Most jazz musicians don’t need producers because jazz musicians know what kind of sound they want for their records, and working with George Duke, I told him what I wanted to do, and George was like, well man, it sounds like to me that you already know what you want. It sounds to me like you don’t necessarily need a producer but I will help you get what you’re looking for. I’ll help you get there.” And he certainly did that. He was like my sail in the boat. He’s someone who exemplifies diversity. He’s played with Cannonball Adderley, Frank Zappa, Burt Backharach, Anita Baker. He knows about touching all the bases.
JazzUSA: In the contemporary jazz world right now, who’s doing other stuff that you like. Who has that vision of bridging the future with the past?
CM: Lots of people. I like what Danilo is doing. I really like what Brian Blade is doing. James Carter has always been a favorite of mine. He’s so wild. Actually, my new pianist, who is an old friend, Geoff Keezer, I like his ideas too.