PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
November 6, 2007

In-Demand Bass Man

by Jim Newsom

The purpose of my phone call was to talk about the Pat Metheny Trio’s upcoming concert at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts. But I couldn’t help asking bassist extraordinaire Christian McBride about Camp Meeting, the recent recording he did with Bruce Hornsby.

“Bruce sucks!” he said in response. “I hated working with him and I hope he never calls me again. He had no business trying to play jazz; he should’ve stuck with what he knew!”

After the laughter subsided, he continued:

“No, man, Bruce is fabulous as you well know. We got to make the record, got to come down there and hang with him at his pad and really sink our teeth into the music. The album’s been all over the place—every time I pick up the paper I see it reviewed somewhere. Bruce is on the cover of JazzTimes this month, so he’s just doing it to death.”

McBride, who’ll be here Saturday night with Metheny and drummer Antonio Sanchez, is a lot like Hornsby in his eclectic musicality and wide ranging resume. Though he’s only 35, he’s already played with jazz greats like Freddie Hubbard, Chick Corea, George Benson and Frank Foster; hotshot younger peers like Diana Krall, Chris Botti and Roy Hargrove; and popstars Sting and Natalie Cole. He also leads his own band and has several discs out under his own name.

“These days,” he said, “guys gotta play as much as we can, with this fickle industry. If you’re not some little young hot blonde with a set of double D’s, its rough for you. It’s not good to have talent.”

Pat Metheny, though, has built a strong following based on talent, and this version of the Metheny trio has been playing together off and on for four years. But they have yet to release an album.

“We recorded a CD back at the end of 2004,” McBride explained, “and it’s been in the can for quite some time. It’s supposed to finally come out in February.

“Pat has always had a consistent type of sound, the ‘Metheny sound.’ All of the trio records he’s done with people like Dave Holland and Roy Haynes or Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, it’s kinda coming out of that same bag.”

A Philadelphia native, Christian McBride went into the family business at an early age.

“My dad and my great uncle are both bass players,” he said. “They both still play locally around the Philly area. That’s pretty much where I got it from—my dad got me interested in playing the bass but my great uncle got me interested in playing jazz bass. My dad was playing with all of the R&B guys and my great uncle was playing with the avant-garde dudes.”

His father, Lee Smith, worked with soul stars like the Delfonics and Billy Paul. His great uncle, Howard Cooper, played bass with the king of out-there music, Sun Ra. Because of this exposure to such a wide range of music, he felt at home when jazz came calling.

“I think because I heard it a lot,” he said, “by the time I got to junior high school and started to play the acoustic bass, jazz wasn’t foreign to me so I was able to embrace it. And I always knew that if I was going to play the acoustic bass and be cool, I probably would have to play jazz.

“I remember going to my uncle’s house and he’d play [records]. The album that really got to me was the famous Massey Hall concert with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie from 1953. That solidified it for me. They played with so much energy and passion and spirit. So for all the same reasons that kids my age liked Michael Jackson and Prince, that’s why I liked Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, because it was exciting, it was fun. I had always heard how jazz was this music that was supposed to be over everybody’s head, you need a Ph.D. to be able to decipher all of these hieroglyphic codes. I don’t feel that way at all; it’s just good vibes.”

Though he began on electric bass, he has made his mark on the acoustic instrument. He discovered it could be just as “cool.”

“Especially once I started being able to play certain pop gigs,” he pointed out, “like our friend Mr. Hornsby. The first time I worked with Bruce, which was in 1994, he was doing a gig at Radio City Music Hall and he called me up and said, ‘I want you to come up and play a couple of tunes with my band.’ At the time I thought, ‘Wow, on acoustic? I hope I’ll be able to be heard.’ But Bruce is such a fantastic musician that he made it work.”

With his multitude of playing experiences, I wondered what had been the most musically fulfilling thus far.

“That’s a hard one,” he replied. “I don’t really know. Being in Freddie Hubbard’s band when I was eighteen years old—that was the dream of a lifetime to get to play with the world’s greatest trumpet player. But even playing with Freddie had a couple of nights that weren’t always on.

“A lot of people are surprised by this, but the one band that I played in where I think it was pretty much on every night, and always a lot of fun, was when I was in the pianist Benny Green’s trio. I had a lot of fun playing in that group. He wrote a lot for the bass, he was always putting me on the spot, so I could never go on automatic pilot. If I screwed up one of those parts, it would be so blatantly obvious that it was my fault. I kinda liked that.”

Though he is probably the most in-demand jazz bassist of his generation, Christian McBride continues to be open to all types of music as both a listener and a player.

“I think you have to be,” he said. “It’s the smart way to be if you really want to truly understand what it means to be a good musician. You’ve got to be able to adjust.”

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.