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Conversation With Christian McBride

by Jake Kot –

Coming off a legendary Sonny Rollins gig, followed by preparing to go on tour with Pat Metheny, along with a discography of 250 CD’s and albums lets you know why Christian McBride is one of the most in demand and well respected players in the industry. Outspoken, yet reserved and respectful at the same time, sum up this world-class musician. From Sonny to Sting, he brings grace to the music, diplomacy and respect to the bandstand, and a sound that is unmistakably his own.

Jake: Let’s start off with your recent and very prestigious gig with Sonny Rollins.

Christian: It was absolutely incredible. It was certainly one of those few times in someone’s life where you can be in the middle of a performance and think to yourself, wow, something historic is going on here. After we finished playing our songs, I really did have a sense of realizing something special had just happened. Sonny Rollins has not played in a pianoless trio for some forty years, and to do it with Roy Haynes and myself, I just can’t tell you how deeply honored I was.

Jake: Could you articulate what it was like “musically” for you playing with two players like Sonny and Roy that have such a wealth of jazz history behind them?

Christian: I’ve played with Roy many times through the years so there was no surprise there; I knew what was coming. As far as Sonny goes, when I meet legends like him, and others like Hank Jones, Kenny Burrell, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, James Moody, I now realize that these particular musicians, Sonny definitely included, just want to have some fun and enjoy playing the tunes. They don’t have a secret code or anything like that, that makes you want to play different with them. They just want you to play how you play, to be the best you can be under your own terms.

One of the great things about the concert with Sonny was that he and I had never played together, so he called a rehearsal with just the two of us. He told me he just wanted to play with me in person and feel what I had to say musically up close. That was a big thrill because no one else was around, and it was very relaxed and loose, and we just played. I think so many times we make such mythic figures out of certain players, and we tend to think they are going to present some kind of ancient secret that’s going to make us play different with them, but I find that’s not the case at all. Once again, Sonny just wanted to have some fun playing the tunes, and has some good notes behind him. And I’ve discovered that with a lot of the older cats, instead of getting intimidated, I just make myself feel comfortable with them. These are great musicians that have been around for a long time, and I know when I’m playing with them I’m not going to play any better than someone like Ray Brown, or Ron Carter, or Bob Cranshaw. I just do what I do and hope they like it.

Jake: You know, Gerald Veasley had the same experience meeting Joe Zawinul. He, as you stated, felt he was going to meet this mythic figure, this, in his mind, very serious, very business like untouchable icon, and he stated, on the contrary, he was one of the nicest and most jovial human beings he had ever met.

Christian: That’s right. Most all these players are very cool people. There is one person that I do believe deserved every bit of “mystic aura” that surrounded him, and that was Miles Davis. I never got to meet Miles, but I did have a sense after the first time I got to be close to Miles, which was sitting in the front row at one of his concerts, that he was more or less kind of magical. I believe he was the kind of person that if you were around him, your limbs would probably go limp, and actually I kind of felt the same way about James Brown. When I finally did get to work with him, I found out that he actually wasn’t mean, contrary to the persona he seems to have. There are such legendary stories about him, like how hard he was on his band members with the fining system he had, or 9 or 10-hour rehearsals, or how he’d mess with your mind about how you sounded. I was actually kind of looking forward to experiencing all that, but I didn’t get it from him, which led me to be kind of disappointed in kind of a musical way.

Jake: I wonder if you could expound upon something I read by you, that being – what in your opinion is important to bring to a gig or session beyond your artistic skills to help create a more comfortable and creative musical environment?

Christian: I tend to talk about that a lot, particularly when I do workshops or colleges. There is something a little extra that you should have when you do a gig or session for someone else. I find that oft times you’ll meet musicians with tremendously fragile egos. They could be the leader or a sideman, and you’re not able to tell them what you’d like them to consider playing, or not. You’ll say to some of these guys, “Hey look man, can you play your fill a little different here, or give me some brushes there,” and you’ll run into dealing with an attitude. I’ve found that it’s happening more these days then before, and I’m not quite sure where that’s coming from now, where the musician is so sensitive, and you have to tell them things a little differently.

When you’re doing someone else’s gig, you’ve got to realize that it’s their show. They are hiring you to abide by their rules so to speak. They are not really hiring you to come and try to take over the leader position. Some musicians actually believe that they are. They kind of think that their stuff is so strong that they can go in there and bogart, and everything will be cool. Nine times out of ten, that might work for you for a hot second if your really killin’. But after a while guys get tired of that. So it’s always been my concept that no matter how much I disagree with someone’s concept, if I’ve said yes to the gig, then I have to do what they ask. If it’s really going to be a drag, I’ll pull the guy to the side and say this isn’t really sitting well with me.

I feel there is a certain diplomacy that’s been lost in communication with musicians these days. With that being said, I think I’ve been able to work a lot all these years because I’m fine with the fact that I can make almost anything work. If Metheny asks me to play something a little outrageous like, “Hey Christian, can you play this entire song on the G string?” which of course he would never ask. But if he did ask me that, I would say, “Ah, yeah, okay, I’ll try that.” In my brain of course I’m thinking, this is nuts, but, it’s not my band. If it is my own band I can make those decisions. But if it’s his band I’ll do it, and if it’s bugging me, I’d just grab Pat at the sound check and present that the idea is not really working for me, and fortunately Pat is the kind of guy who would say, “Okay, if it’s really not happening then don’t do it.” But that’s what I’m trying to present about being open and flexible, and being able to communicate with people. I think that’s almost as important, and maybe more important, than musicianship.

Jake: With a schedule like yours, are you able to set aside any personal practice time, and if so, what do you focus on?

Christian: Honestly, no. I don’t have personal practice time so to speak. Fortunately, I’ve always had the kind of schedule where something is going on. I’m always playing or preparing for something specific. In terms of being able to sit down and work out things like different fingerings, kind of like a ritual so to speak, I don’t have an opportunity to do that much anymore. Another thing I’m always telling younger students is while they are in school, and not raising family’s or worrying about mortgages, all that grown up stuff, to really take the time that they have and just shed, shed, shed all day long. I’m at that point now even when I have shed time, I know I should be doing something that has nothing to do with music. Fortunately, I manage to keep a fairly consistent schedule, almost daily doing something related to the bass, or writing, or arranging something. I kind of keep all my parts well oiled.

Jake: That kind of goes back to what I tried to present in our first issue, speaking to the fact that being a full-time player has become a very multifaceted quest.

Christian: It seems to be the way things are these days with a whole lot of people, stretching out and doing different things. Not just musically, but in the business as well. Lots of players are starting their own labels, and becoming very internet savvy, and personally, I think it’s great because now we’re not so dependent on the big, bad record company machine. The other thing I think will come out more is how to create more performance opportunities. I’m not sure quite how, but I believe that all things are cyclical, and there will come a time when instrumentalists will have an opportunity to work constantly, or at least consistently if not constantly, and be able to make a good living at it.

Jake: I know you’ve had a long time concern with exposing jazz to young people. With the music business in the state that it’s in these days, what would you like to see more of as far as addressing that concern?

Christian: I think you have to be creative, and talk about the way a lot of young people listen to music in the first place. I think that a lot of people feel younger people just don’t get jazz, that they hear it and think it’s uncool. Bottom line, I just think that they just don’t hear it. I’ve noticed that to a lot of high school kids, and younger, that the music is foreign to them. I feel that if you present it, and be loose and have fun with it, it doesn’t sound preachy to them. It becomes on the contrary fun for them to experience. I think sometimes we in the jazz community shoot ourselves in the foot by trying to make the music a little too important so to speak, and when you talk about getting younger people involved on that level, they don’t want to hear the music. They don’t want to hear why they need to hear the music, they just want to hear the music and make their own decisions, which I think is the most creative and successful way to present the music.

We should try to do it in that fashion at clinics and workshops. Try to talk to them off the record as much as you can and just be fun about it. I heard a guy the other night, and I won’t mention names, but he was trying to make a speech and he sounded like a politician with his hand raised up in the air. He was saying what these young people need to understand about this great music, and if we have to force feed them, they are going to learn about the music. I say if you force-feed anybody anything, usually they’ll throw up, so that tells me we shouldn’t force-feed them anything. Just hand it to them and let them make their own decisions. The more you hand it to them, the possibility opens up for them to say, this is kind of cool. So, as you can see, I’m all about the fun factor.

Jake: I think the camps that have sprung up like Gerald Veasleys and Victor Wootens seem to capture that element.

Christian: That’s right. I found Victor’s camp to be very interesting and very different from any other camp I’ve been a part of. It’s held in the woods, and it’s not only about the music. It also teaches you how to incorporate and appreciate nature. That’s a different concept.

Jake: Another subject I know you’ve addressed on a few occasions is the expanding role of the black artist in mainstream America. Do you see positive motion as time goes on in that respect?

Christian: Yes I do. What you’re referring to specifically was back in 1998 when former President Clinton put together a task force on the performing arts. It was a big town meeting in West Virginia and I spoke on a panel with about ten other people, one of whom was Dr. Zulu from Star Trek, George Takai. We basically all just sat there and kind of had a pow-wow about race relations in the performing arts, and we came up with some interesting things. We talked about racial tension, and sexism as well. A lot of things were discussed. I personally have always felt that at the end of the day, even back then, that the artists that are very true and sincere, and can feel, are able to keep any kind of outside barriers from getting in their way, or affecting them. I think being colorless, so to speak, is ultimately the way to see things, and that’s a lot harder said than done, because sometimes you can’t help stopping anger, or fear, or whatever it may be from getting in the way.

It’s kind of hard to get that in your music as well, for it to be all-inclusive. You ultimately want everybody to enjoy your music. When I think about guys like Wayne Shorter, I realize even with his background, that his music is colorless. You hear Wayne Shorter’s music and it makes you think about something that’s different, that has nothing to do with anything else but his thoughts—it’s almost like fantasy music. And I wonder how a man like that who comes from a deep, deep ghetto of New Jersey is able to write such cosmic music that’s appealing and very heavy to everyone. So that’s one of the examples that I like to keep in mind.

At the same time, James Brown’s music, which I always felt was unmistakably black, comes from nowhere else but the deep hardcore Black American community, no doubt. But somehow James Brown was able to expand his music to a greater audience without losing its roots. He was somehow able to package his performance and the music itself in a way that everybody enjoyed. I think it was incredible that he was able to keep his music so unmistakably black, but had it in a sense where it was entertaining as opposed to being angry. I think he was angry a lot of the time, but he was still able to be entertaining about it where everybody got it, and I think that’s something he probably consciously thought about, making sure everybody could enjoy the music. Sly and the Family Stone, the same way. I think that there are a number of artists who are going to be able to blur that color line and still keep the music real, so I do think some strides have been made.

Jake: With the respect that you’ve earned in the industry, along with a discography of close to 250 recordings, I’m sure many players would like to hear your thoughts on what they should focus on to attempt to gain the kind of success you’ve achieved and worked so hard for.

Christian: It’s kind of related to what I said earlier about what you find in session work these days, and about the communication to musicians I spoke of. My thing has always been having the utmost respect not only for the music itself, but also for the players who play it as well, even if I’m not a personal fan of their music. For example, there is a guy who called me for a gig whose music I kind of really didn’t know, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s no reason for me to take his music any less seriously than I would Sonny Rollins music. You have to give equal respect to each artist, and I think that has always helped me work a lot. I love playing music and I feel so very fortunate to be out here playing with so many different people. It’s all about the respect my man. If your cool, and make people feel comfortable, you will get that respect right back. If you make people feel as comfortable as they can, trust me, they’ll do the same for you. Learn to have the drive and passion to want to do that.

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