Bass Musician Magazine: Dec/Jan 2009-2010 Issue Featuring Christian McBride
Jake: I know you’ve been writing some music for some big band projects coming up. Could you tell me a bit about your compositional process, and the complexities of writing for a big band, as well as a quintet?
Christian: They are definitely two different animals—I shouldn’t say two different animals, but the big band animal is obviously one that has more limbs. Instead of writing for an animal with just four arms, you have to write for an animal that has sixteen arms. For me, I was actually forced to write for a big band context, and in retrospect, I’m really glad that I was forced to do that. In the mid 90’s I got a commission from the Lincoln Center jazz orchestra to write a piece for their big band, and I remember thinking, I don’t write for a big band, why are they making me write a piece for a big band, I don’t want to do that. I didn’t know much about orchestration, putting different harmonies together, and counterpoint, all those things that big band writers knew…I didn’t know any of that. And basically, Winton Marsalis said, you better start learning, because you’re going to write for this big band whether you like it or not. Since then, I’ve been on this quest to really learn about writing for big band. It’s a lot of work—it’s very stressful, it’s very time consuming, not to mention that it seems that the history of big band writers all seem to have some kind of health aliment—high blood pressure, heart attack, and I thought why would anybody want to do this. It’s so unimaginable to think that you can write for that many instruments, and get to hear it played back, especially when it’s what you had in mind. It’s like, “Oh my god, listen to that.” So my process is to sit at the piano and let it rip. My biggest problem is getting over those mental blocks that I think a lot of composers have when they’re not as prolific as someone like Wayne Shorter, or Chick Corea, or Pat Metheny. These guys can turn out music like it’s nothing. Chick Corea can write you a full four-movement symphony in an hour; just lock him up in a room with a piano and he’ll let it rip. One of my problems is that I sit at the piano and I start thinking, OK, let me make sure that I write something that I haven’t already written, or, let me make sure that I write something that the musicians are going to like. I start putting all these rules in my head and it prohibits me from really letting it fly. I “am” at point were I am getting better at that, just to let the music go and forget about all that extraneous stuff.
Jake: Did you use a sequencer at all to help with the writing?
Christian: In the beginning I did it that way, but eventually I became a Sibellius junkie. Ever since the beginning of the decade I’ve been pretty much writing most of my music on Sibellius. At this point, I think I have a general sense of what to write. Particularly, when I write for big band, I’m not as dependent upon Sibellius as I once was—but it’s still nice to have it. I will say this, after writing for a big band, or arranging for a big band, when it comes to writing for a smaller group it just seems to be so much easier. I have that sense of wow, this is a breeze.
Jake: Speaking of Chick Corea, could you tell me a little about your experience with the 5 Piece band with Chick and John McLaughlin?
Christian: Man, probably one of the greatest bands that I’ll ever be in, for many reasons. The combination of doing Inside Straight at the Vanguard and recording Kind of Brown, and touring with the 5 Piece Band was amazing. It made me feel like I didn’t really need to go back to the CMB band now because the kind of thing we were doing with CMB, that all inclusive part straight ahead, part fusion, part world, etc, was done on such a high level in the 5 Piece Band with two of the pioneers that made that kind of language popular, I felt I needed to step away from my own band and soak this in for a while. Chick is such a great musician, and not only a great musician, but a great guy. He’s one of those types of people that make everything easy. When you talk about artistic aesthetics, which Chick represents at the highest level, to him, it’s not a big deal. He’d just go yeah let’s play some straight ahead, yeah let’s play some fusion; we can play these things on electric instruments. It’s just not a big thing for him. He doesn’t spend a lot of time analyzing; should we do it like this or should we do it like that. Chick just says, let’s just try it, and if it feels good we’ll keep it, and if it doesn’t we won’t, whereas John is pretty much a rehearsaholic. He’s very meticulous.
The combination of him and Chick together was very interesting, and we all learned something from it. John would like to rehearse one song four or five times in a row, until we nailed it. And Chick was just the opposite. He would say, hey, I trust you guys, let’s just make sure we’ve got the head down, and whatever happens after the head, we’ll deal with it. It was really interesting to see those guys worked together, but at the end of the day, it ended on a very high level on all fronts. It was certainly one of the only bands, other than my own, that I got to play as much electric as acoustic. It was a lot of fun getting an equal work out on both instruments every night. I just can’t begin to tell you how much fun that was.