Ellingtonian Depth and Purpose from Christian McBride
On one hand, to spend time on Christian McBride and Inside Straight’s new Mack Avenue album People Music here, when it’s already been out for two weeks and most everybody who wants it probably already has it, might not make a lot of sense. On the other hand, this is an important album for 2013. To call it Ellingtonian wouldn’t be off the mark. Deeply rooted in the blues, with strong hooks, gritty tunesmithing and a purposeful, workmanlike performance from an inspired cast of A-listers (slightly subsumed in the crisp digital production), it’s one of the best albums of the year. The concept of People Music is music for the people: tunes and a beat. Obviously, it’s not that simple. McBride’s mix of brisk, matter-of-fact swing and expansive balladry leans toward the dark side and mixes up the metrics: it’s a long way from being a pop record. Everybody’s on the same page: besides McBride, most of the album features Steve Wilson on alto and soprano sax, Carl Allen on drums, Peter Martin on piano and Warren Wolf on vibes, with Christian Sands and Ulysses Owens switching in on piano and drums on two tracks.
Sands’ steely-eyed lyricism drives the memorable opening track, the minor-key swing blues Listen to the Heroes Cry, handing off to an understatedly plaintive McBride bass solo. The bright, Brazilian-tinged Fair Hope Theme is a Wolf feature: it’s a dead ringer for a Behn Gillece tune, which is a compliment to both McBride’s writing and Wolf’s playing. The showstopper here is Gang Gang with its rolling, Indian-inflected rhythm, a biting piano vamp (Sands again) teaming with the vibraphone for a creepy carnivalesque crescendo, Allen’s deft cymbals peppering the rewarding final ascent.
Maya Angelou gets a ballad that portrays her with a nonchalant majesty, Wilson’s balmy soprano sax handing off to a tender Wolf spot that builds to an unexpected clave groove and then winds down again. The Movement has an agitated, flurrying Mingus bustle, the whole band’s no-nonsense, percussive attack making its way methodically to an edgy Wilson alto solo. His alto also serves as a fiery foil to the nonchalantly dancing, staccato pulse of Usual Suspects, while Dream Train works a fast tiptoeing swing groove, Wolf’s rapidfire ripples in a tug-of-war with Martin’s purposeful, tumbling attack. They reprise the New Hope theme at the end as slinky clave soul. Is it any wonder why McBride is so popular?
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