The Auspicious Studio Debut of the Christian McBride Big Band
If you think that kids only have an interest in stuff that’s on the web, talk to students in a jazz program, or just young people who’ve just found their jazz muse. The excitement is visceral – they’ve been waiting patiently for Christian McBride’s first album with his big band, titled The Good Feeling, just out on Mack Avenue. That excitement may be quaint, but it’s inspiring all the same. From the perspective of seeing McBride do some of these tunes live earlier this year, the cool kids are right (they always are) – the album was worth the wait.
Auspiciously, in a lot of places, this evokes nothing less than Mingus. Which makes sense – McBride is to the teens what Mingus was for a couple of decades, simply the most respected jazz bassist around. His approach characteristically balances excitement with gravitas, and occasionally a sly sense of humor. From the gleefully chugging baritone sax-and-bass intro to the opening swing number, Shake N Blake to the closing cut, In a Hurry, it’s a tuneful, meticulously arranged ride. The opening track sets the stage: a long expansive tenor solo cut off by big brass blasts, trumpeter Nicholas Payton being his good-natured self, trombonist Steve Davis taking it into apprehensively fluttering territory, and a cleverly tiptoeing solo by the bandleader himself that eventually starts stomping and brings the band back joyously.
The second track, Broadway, begins with Ron Blake’s understated soprano sax driving against the lush arrangement, with a long, deviously bluesy, literally unstoppable McBride solo. This version of the clave classic Brother Mister (which McBride also covered on his Kind of Brown album) gets a pillowy, staccato brass chart, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson sailing over the impatient rhythm section, with a bracing blast of brass setting off the second chorus as the whole band spins in a vortex. Live in concert in Manhattan earlier this summer, the song was every bit the casual showstopper it is here. The album’s centerpiece is a genuine classic, a titanic, practically twelve-minute version of Science Fiction (from McBride’s 2000 album Sci-Fi). It’s a noir suite straight out of Mingus: conspiratorial chatter over a clave beat; a blistering, fast swing shuffle with a bracing Todd Bashore alto sax solo; a chilling low-register bridge that goes straight to the murder scene, Xavier Davis’ piano fueling a riff that evokes Ennio Morricone’s Taxi Driver Theme.
The Shade of the Cedar Tree makes its way through to a clever false ending with Payton’s cool, bluesy vibe, Blake’s tenor interpolated judiciously against the towering ambience. Nat Cole’s I Should Care shifts from practically ethereal to surprisingly brooding, but Payton picks it up wryly and Blake keeps it going in that direction. They do A Taste of Honey as a jazz waltz – that one will resonate more with those who prefer the Herb Alpert version over the Beatles’. With its blazing crescendos and gingerly pointillistic bass/piano tradeoffs, Blues in Alphabet City vividly evokes the days when the Lower East Side New York neighborhood was interesting, before it turned into a wasteland of suburban conspicuous consumption. The album closes with the rapidfire swing of In a Hurry, Payton taking his time before he goes absolutely ballistic, McBride balancing intensity with a dark wit as he bows his solo, drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. bringing in a thinly disguised, jaunty second line rhythm
The rest of the orchestra deserves a shout-out as well: Todd Williams on tenor and flute; Loren Schoenberg (maestro of the Jazz Museum in Harlem) on tenor on two tunes; Carl Maraghi on baritone sax and bass clarinet; Frank Greene, Freddie Hendrix and Nabate Isles on trumpets; Michael Dease and James Burton on trombones; Douglas Purviance on bass trombone; and Melissa Walker on vocals. When uploading to your phone or your pod, you may want to omit the vocal tunes: it’s not that Walker doesn’t sing them well, it’s just that trying to squeeze substance out of material like When I Fall in Love is like getting getting blood from a stone.
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