Insanity is the only artistic quality bassist Christian McBride lacks. He can deal with the deficit; it doesn’t stop him from posing hairy questions like “What Is Jazz?,” as he’s titled the current tour featuring his quartet, Charlie Hunter’s trio, Bobby Previte and DJ Logic, which lands here this week. And McBride ain’t about to blow it by serving up simple answers.
McBride himself has provoked some questions. “Who the hell is that on bass?” is one that occurred to me around 1991 on first hearing him, still in his teens, on records by Roy Hargrove, Freddie Hubbard and especially Joe Henderson. I wasn’t trippin’: Around the same time, no less a four-string founder than Ray Brown was indexing McBride for his easy rhythm, his spatial manipulation and the way he made things move.
You know that legions of excellent musicians spend their time entertaining their cockroaches, but McBride is not one. He knows the first rule is to get your ass out there. So not only has he played with everybody-plus, he’s hit all the media, gotten himself named artistic director at festivals and colleges, and landed a co-directorship of the Jazz Museum in Harlem. Now he’s also creative chair for the L.A. Phil, taking over from Dianne Reeves. He’s 33.
As to What Jazz Is .?.?. though McBride came up in neotrad cabals, he was one of the first of his fellows to recognize that a dictionary wasn’t gonna help. He grooved, funked, electronicized, hipped & hopped freely and quite enjoyably, and therefore his pond has stayed scumless. Nevertheless, as a bandleader, he’s kept his demons on a choke chain; you never feel there’s something he’s gotta say or it’ll fucking kill him.
Take McBride’s upcoming Live at Tonic, a $17.98 triple CD designed to showcase his progressive side and draw coinless youth into the fold. Damn, it’s good, with his ace quartet (keyboardist Geoffrey Keezer, drummer Terreon Gully, saxist Ron Blake) getting way down in the company of perfectly chosen guests: guitar magician Hunter; Medeski, Martin & Wood cohort Logic; piano genius Jason Moran; violin texturalist Jenny Scheinman; beat boxer Scratch; Soulive guitar funkateer Eric Krasnoand trumpet puncher Rashaan Peterson. Damn, but not god damn. You’ll boogie, but you won’t go nuts, ’cause they don’t.
Which is why, at this point, McBride is a more valuable scout (and sideman) than blood & guts general. Still, the elements of his “What Is Jazz?” tour package are truly combustible. The CMcB quartet will be a great anchor. Hunter’s trio (with saxist John Ellis and drummer Derrek Phillips) is one of the groovinest alive. And drummer/electroman Previte and DJ Logic have shown they can explode all the way over the top with Hunter in the ad hoc ensemble Groundtruther, an obvious touchstone for this whole mess.