Monday, January 30, 2012

Christian McBride: Conversations with Christian

Mack Avenue Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Conversations with Christian

Bassist Christian McBride is almost too young to be the icon he has become. Still in his 30s, he began to play electric bass at age 9, then switched to the acoustic model two years later. He had plenty of family support; his father and a great-uncle both played the instrument. While in high school, where studied classical music and became exposed to jazz, Christian received a partial scholarship to New York’s Juilliard school. But within two weeks, he joined Bobby Watson’s band; after finishing his first year of studies, McBride left school to tour with trumpeter Ray Hargrove.

As McBride put it, he “chose experience with as many musicians as possible, rather than school.”

He achieved that goal; it’s difficult to find an artist or band he hasn’t worked with, whether in jazz, classical or pop, as an instrumentalist or supporting a vocalist. And his discography is huge, with more than 300 albums to date.

McBride isn’t merely a musician. He composes and arranges; is an educator, producer and administrator; a curator; and a major spokesperson for the arts. Oh, yes; he’s also a multi-award winner.

Conversations with Christian presents McBride in a duet role with a baker’s dozen of his “closest musical friends and cohorts.” They include singers (Angelique Kidjo, Sting, Dede Bridgewater), pianists (George Duke, Chick Corea, Eddie Palmieri, Billy Taylor, Hank Jones), violinist Regina Carter, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, guitarist Russell Malone, tenor saxophonist Ron Blake and actress Gina Gershon.

The usual duet setting involves either a pianist or guitarist in a primary role as an instrumentalist or accompanist. I’ve never encountered an acoustic bassist who takes that lead responsibility ... well, meet Christian McBride. There he is, in the spotlight, for all to see and hear. And he doesn’t merely lay down and maintain a beat; his solo work is magnificent.

Four bars into “Afirika,” this album’s opening track, we know we’re witnessing an absolute master musician. He’s joined on this cut by Kidjo, the Grammy Award-winning vocalist dubbed by Time Magazine as “Africa’s prime diva.” When the track concludes, it’s obvious that, together, they own the song. It’ll never again be done that beautifully by anyone else.

Each selection in this album had that same impact on me. Carter’s violin is supported by both bowed and plucked bass, in pure classical and lightly swinging modes; Sting has never swung like this before; and so it goes, with each duo. Every guest artist performs brilliantly, but McBride clearly is key to each track’s overall excellence.

What a marvelous album!

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